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Advertising, traditionally, has been an industry obsessed with the ‘big audacious idea’. Joono Simon, founder and CCO at Bengaluru-based independent agency Brave New World points out that the post-pandemic world needs several ‘small’ creative ideas that can help solve real problems of the people. 

Anyone who has spent a few years in advertising would find this one thing in some corner of their wardrobe. A wrinkled, mothballed T-shirt that has a big light bulb screen printed right at the centre of it. Often accompanied with a line - Big hairy audacious whatever.

Leave that there. The big idea is our thing.

The ‘big idea’ obsession

Regardless of the discipline of advertising, you are part of, there is no running away from it. It’ll hunt you down no matter where you hide.

And if you are on one of your unlucky streaks, you will have multiple encounters with it. On the same day.

You may be freezing your ba**s off in a seemingly endless boardroom discussion, taking a smoke break on that crammed balcony, or in one of those mind-numbing review meetings before a pitch. No matter where you are, it is always there. More often than not, it comes home with you too. Many a time keeping you awake at night.

The big idea is our drug. Our existential opium. What keeps us alive.

Life without it is just unthinkable. If there is no order placed for a big idea, we would not know what to do. Plunge into a deathly paralysis, perhaps.

Ad industry's pursuit of finding relevance, in a post-pandemic world

When the pandemic of the century hit us in 2020, the world went into a tailspin. There were more questions than answers (except for the family WhatsApp groups). Every day was a day of new challenges. Our routines changed and behaviours augmented, rather forcibly. Nothing we did before, none of our skills, methods, or fixes mattered. We realised that the future was going to be un-templated. We needed to adapt and move on.

Thus began our fight to survive.

Doctors, medical staff, home delivery boys, and the nearby grocery store guy who delivers supplies home became integral to our existence. They added enormous value to society, fighting the good fight from the frontlines. For the first time, the world recognised them for who they are: essential.

The rest of us, regardless of our passionate vocations or the decorated positions we held, were reduced to mere demographic details on the Aarogya Setu app. (the Government of India’s Covid-19 contact tracing and self-assessment app)

Battle of big versus small

This was a particularly introspective time for the agency folks. The celebrated ‘ideas people’. The quick-witted ‘storytellers’. The ‘Thinker of the Year’ strategy wonks. The eternal hustlers. Everyone went quiet suddenly. Like a bunch of stage magicians who lost their bookings overnight.

Why? Here are some rhetorical arguments to look at.

As Covid-19 spiked, it flattened the much-venerated Maslow’s pyramid. The agency folks who are frequent visitors to the top floors of the pyramid suddenly realised those top floors did not exist anymore. For the common folk, the actualisation of the basic necessities had become more important than any self-actualisation.

Is it the lack of empathy? All we talk day in and day out is about the dreams and aspirations of people. This is a ‘people’s business', we say. Although this could be attributed to our sense of illusory superiority, some of us pride ourselves in being a fine amalgam of sociologists, anthropologists and expert psychologists. So, no, we are certainly not unempathetic. Even our worst critics would admit that most of us are at least above the median on that count.

So why did the agency folk freeze then? Why didn’t this become a ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ kind of moment for the advertising industry?

Did the obsession with the big idea cause the industry to freeze?

An industry that has built its existential purpose around big ideas suddenly discovered that they have no big silver bullet idea that can kill this beast. Even if you think up something, the world is too distracted to pay any attention to you. It is too busy solving some real problems. When the house is on fire, the need of the hour is faster legs and intuitive, agile brains that can come up with ready solutions.

So, is that all we are? Just big idea peddlers? No matter what the ask is, is our prescriptive panacea for all problems just ‘big ideas’? Like the Chinese philosopher said, perfect is the enemy of the good then.

Now the real question. Why all or nothing? Why not small ideas? Feel free to call them mini revolutions, if you want, to satisfy our craving for hyperbole. Smaller thoughts and ideas can make some difference in our apartment complex, our lane, our neighbourhood clinic, and so on. 

Time for launching many small ideas that can change lives

Let’s swap big for the small. At a time when we are facing an existential crisis, big ideas are the unmovable elephant in the room nobody wants to spend time with. At least for a while. Difficult to get off the ground and distracting us from finding a different solution. The only way to deal with this giant elephant is as the saying goes: one small bite at a time. This is a pandemic with a long tail, and we need all the hands and legs, and mind you, minds as well, to come out of it.

This isn’t the time to be stuck looking for ‘big hairy audacious ideas’, or big stage acts. The world can be happy with many small ideas. Small acts that can make a difference, big or small, around us. With all the talent, the skills we possess, and the industry clout we enjoy, if we can change at least one person’s life, it’s worth doing it.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes by Robert Anson Heinlein that I’ve always enjoyed citing: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” 

In the age of radical course corrections, this pivot may be the need of the hour. Again, think small and act quick. Remember the Tesco tagline - ‘Every little helps.’

Walking the talk

On our part, Brave New World has been doing work in the neighbourhood public hospitals. A lot of underprivileged caretakers of Covid-19 patients struggle to survive on the streets, without food or shelter for weeks. We have been providing all of them with a nutritious lunch for a month now. These are handed over personally to them, every day. Our goal is to provide…it doesn’t matter. Numbers don’t count, really.

The author is the founder and CCO of Bengaluru-based independent agency Brave New World.