Advertising Concepts – what’s the big idea?

Advertising concepts

What’s the big idea?

How to create great marketing and advertising concepts

It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product,” wrote David Ogilvy. “Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.”

What is an advertising concept?

A creative concept can be thought of as the framework around which memorable, attention-grabbing campaigns are built. Unlike ‘on-off’ items of marketing collateral, a great concept is often said to ‘have legs’ – it’s campaignable.

The concept acts like a creative, strategic umbrella, under which all the tactical applications sit. Whether they are press ads, videos, social media content, radio, tv, posters… all can draw upon and contribute to the ‘big idea’.

Key features of a great concept.

The best advertising concepts work at an emotional level. They touch all those human buttons that can make us smile, laugh, cry, fear or anger. They can stimulate our need to share, to wish to identify or belong. Bringing us to a heightened emotional state attracts our attention. 

All of those emotional stimuli help build memorability. That’s why people vividly remember and recall great advertising concepts of previous decades. And memorability is a valuable commodity in building brands.

Ideas we loved

Marketing Week recently carried out a survey of the British public’s favourite campaigns of recent decades.

From the 70’s the winner was the Hovis ‘bike’ campaign (incidentally produced by Sir Ridley Scott). Followed by the Smash ‘martians’ and Cinzano’s campaign with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins.

The 80’s winner brought us Yellow pages ‘J.R.Hartley’ campaign and Levi’s ‘laundrette ad.

The Guinness ‘Surfers’ took the lead in 90’s, followed by the orange storm of ‘You’ve been Tangoed’ and Wonderbra’s ‘Hello Boys’.

The new millennium brought us Cadbury’s ‘drumming gorilla’, beating Comparethemarket’s ‘Meerkats’ and ‘You should have gone to Specsavers’ – the latter two still running today.

Aldi topped the list in the 2010’s with their ‘Like Brands, only cheaper’ campaign taking the vote, followed by Channel4’s ‘Superhumans’ and the John Lewis Christmas ad, ‘The Long Wait’

A surprisingly wide range of products and services but one thing all the campaigns shared in common is their emotional appeal. A few cases of nostalgia, but also a strong theme of humour from the wry tongue-in-cheek of Wonderbra and Levi’s, sophisticated comedy of Cinzano and Specsavers, and unashamed humour of Tango and Smash martians. Remember the the three E’s of engage, entertain and educate (where educate means pass information about your product or service)

What is campaignability?

If we consider some of the most exciting and successful concepts, it’s clear that they are rarely simply a single ad, but a campaign

The 80s Cinzano campaign was a series of beautifully crafted ads, each was a gem in itself, but the concept was built around a story of the interaction between Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. It juxtaposed sophistication with near slapstick. Every new ad reinforced the story for an audience who anticipated what was coming next.

More recently, the concept behind the Specsavers campaign was based around the humorous outcomes of what could happen if you didn’t visit that particular opticians. 

Again, not based around one ad, but a creative concept. It’s been so successful that the sign-off line has entered into our cultural vocabulary.

One of the strengths about campaign concepts lies in repetition. An important process by which humans learn is repetition. It strengthens the encoding of messages. 

However, it’s not just about repeating the same ad over and over again. With a campaign you can deliver the same message, but with new and fresh interpretations. If we take the Specsavers example, each ad is a small entertaining episode in itself – yet it’s still part of the same big story.

The creative concepts and brands

Conceptual ideas are strongly linked to the function of brands. An organisation’s offer is often very complex, combining products, services, history, values, vision, operations, emotional context, people, and more. That’s a lot to process, to understand what the organisation is, and what it stands for. A brand can be seen as a shorthand representation of all those components  – a way for our brains to avoid having to handle and interpret all that data. 

In a similar way, a creative concept reaches far wider than a single ad can do on its own. 

Where an ad is a tactical tool with a fairly focused objective, the concept is not so constrained. It’s much more of a marketing framework and its application can touch all manner of communications, all media and brand activities.

The process

Developing advertising concepts is a process. There are many ways to approach it, but traditionally there has been a common route in advertising agencies. This would start with the account planners. Their task would be to collate all the background data and research about the product or service, its benefits, strengths and weaknesses, the audiences, the competition, and more. It’s their job to distil all these data down to a creative brief – a single page.

Usually, the account planners will also produce the media brief, so creative and media are aligned.

Outside formal agency structures, the basic process usually remains the foundation. Creative consultants, even single-person operations tend to progress the same way with varying degrees of formality. Research > assemble data > create a ‘brief’ (even just mentally) > produce candidate solutions > selection > evaluation > application.

Glass box and black box

Sometimes the process has been described as glass box and black box. The gathering of data, production of the brief and the early stages of the creative process are pragmatic and transparent.

To the outside observer it’s as though it’s all happening in a glass box. The process is easy to observe and analyse. At some point though, it appears to go into a ‘black box’. Sometimes this has been referred to as the ‘creative leap’. It’s where the magic happens.

In truth the process cannot be compartmentalised in this way. The mind is constantly working, so while it’s working on the pragmatic activities, the processes that can generate great ideas are already underway. They will still continue while breaks are taken, or while conscious thought seems dedicated to other activities.

A point worth considering, is that the majority of ideas never make it into the black box. They never evolve into the ‘great big idea’. But so long as the process is sound, they should be good, workable solutions – they just won’t make it into Ogylvy’s Big Idea.

Tools and strategies

There are tools and formal techniques that can be applied. These may be useful for those new to creative applications, or for evaluation and analysis, or as a resource of approaches when fresh solutions are needed.

Some people develop their own workflows structured using these techniques. Others apply no formal strategies, yet if we analyse their work it’s easy to see the underlying devices.

Metaphor and metonymy

Metaphor is a common and powerful tool. It means where one thing is substituted for another. Metonymy is similar, but rather than being about substitution, it’s where something is named for something else. We won’t get into the finer points of linguistics, but we commonly see these tools as part of the discourse used both in words and visuals.

An example may be framing situations as combat or ‘battles’ where anything from germs to dandruff can be seen as the ‘enemy’. We use ‘weapons’ against them and ‘shields’ to protect against them.

Sports metaphors are common. ‘Marathons’ and ‘sprints’ are easily understood. ‘Finishing lines’ must be crossed and products will ‘join your team’.

Iron and rock can be metaphors for strength – arrows and rockets for speed, ice and water for freshness – the catalogue is endless.

In the early stages of a project, writers will often sit down and make a list of possible metaphors to stimulate thinking.

Metaphors don’t need to be limited to linguistic devices. Visual concepts can be powerful devices to encompass multiple ideas in a single image. Mountains, castle walls, lions and cheetahs, chequered flags, chains, infernos, storms – are just a few examples of visual metaphors around which concepts can be constructed.


If you have strong enough or sufficient data, whole advertising concepts can be built around them – if they directly relate to benefits. However, numbers need to be simple and in context to make a point. For decades, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk used the message, ‘A glass and a half of milk in every bar’. So simple it was even communicated graphically in all the advertising. Milk has a connotation with wholesomeness, so numbers can touch emotional sensitivities too.

Numerical claims can have their dangers however. They need to be factual and provable. If they are just the basis for competitive one-upmanship, customers see through them, and worse, they are likely to be challenged. Brand credibility can be seriously damaged.


Comparing situations can be as overt or as subtle as needed. A classic example can be found in the before-&-after concepts. That simple approach has been used since the earliest days of advertising, but it also appears in more sophisticated guise. Heineken’s, ‘Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’ was perhaps one of the most famous campaigns of the 20th century. It was a comparison concept yet it was full of visual gags from contemporary culture.

The long-running and highly successful ‘Should have gone to specsavers’, was a clever development of a comparison. The humorous downside of not choosing the brand was shown, while the positive upside was implied.

Making comparisons with competitors should be used with extreme care care. When generalised, comparing a product’s benefits with all the rest of the market can be a useful approach – but knocking direct competitors usually has negative results.

Created characters

Inventing persons or developing anthropomorphic brand characters can be a platform for original approaches. You can imbue them with individual characteristics that reflect brand strengths. They can even have superhuman powers. Well-crafted they can become brand assets in their own right.

Examples have been employed since the earliest days of advertising, They can be live personas, cartoons, or animated avatars. Notable characters include Captain Birdseye, Tony the Tiger, Churchill the bulldog, the Homepride Flour Graders, the Duracell bunny, the Dulux dog, the Smash martians, and Alexander the Meerkat.

They have the advantage of being completely under your control, and will not blot their copybook like a real person might.

Created places

As well as inventing people you can create whole locations for campaigns to inhabit. Examples include Marlboro country and The Planet Zanussi.

Expert witnesses

Employing the evidence of experts can provide a strong platform. “Nine out of ten (doctors, dentists, hairdressers etc) use…” These claims can be supported with data, video or graphics.

A single, universally recognised expert can give added trust to a claim. They can also become a brand asset. Two important factors in the success of this approach are relevance and context.


Semiotics is concerned with symbols. For example, the stars and stripes is a symbol which stands for the United States. It is not the US, but what we call a ‘signifier’ and the US is the ‘signified’,  what the symbol stands for. We talked earlier about metaphors. In the same way symbols or signifiers can be metaphors for businesses, qualities, properties or activities.

A campaign typically employs multiple symbols to convey meaning. Semiotic analysis of products and services, and their context in the world can be a powerful technique for identifying market gaps and competitive concepts.


People love stories. A good concept can tell a complex story succinctly in a short film or a single ad.. People become engaged, they want to see how the story turns out. They can identify with the protagonist, or see how a ‘villain’ can be thwarted.

The story can be contained in a single ad, but when we consider campaigns, the narrative can persist over time or perhaps a number of locations. Viewers will follow the characters – the ‘soap opera effect’. As well as the emotional engagement multiple layers can be added to strengthen the message and recall.

Medium and visualisation

Some gifted creative people are able to think in terms of visuals and words in one operation. For mere mortals, the traditional model was that of the creative team – art director and copywriter working together to develop the concept – it’s still often the case today. Though I’ve worked with teams where more often than not, the art director has generated a great concept line, or the writer has had the visual solution.

Whether the solution is print advertising, digital, video, sound or any combination, the basic starting point is usually pen or marker, and paper… lots of it. 

Strong visual concepts can make words unnecessary. If the brand owns strong visual assets and the objective is building awareness, consider building campaigns around the asset.


Sometimes a simple idea can be raised to the level of a brilliant concept just by the use of context. I remember seeing a billboard for bottled water, right at the top of a mountain, as you stepped from the ski lift, which simply said; “Evian – welcome to our factory”.


While we can all make our own judgements about great ads and memorable campaigns, there is only one meaningful evaluation. Does it fulfil the objective of the creative brief. Although there is a lot of art and craft in creation of advertising concepts, they are the products of a commercial process.

So let’s end on another quote from David Ogilvy

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Ian West
dangerous ideas

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