James Thompson
Mar 23, 2016

‘Big ideas’ can block true experimentation

I used to ask my agencies for big ideas, but in some ways big ideas are the enemy of much-needed agility, writes Diageo's James Thompson.

James Thompson
James Thompson

I used to ask agencies to bring me big ideas. Now I’m not sure I was right. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not having a sudden attack of conservatism or trying to put great people or agencies off working with me or my teams.

Think this way: the average ‘lifespan’ of a CMO, according to a recent study by Spencer Stuart, is a mere 45 months. Though significantly longer than a comparable study from 2006 (23 months!), it’s still pretty short compared to other C-suite officers. The key pressures on CMOs are to understand and exploit the ‘new marketing environment’ and deliver increasingly strong returns on investment. Simple, huh?

Under standard ways of working and lead times, 45 months don’t give you many throws of the dice. Idea, research, refine, produce, execute, research again, give it another chance, research again with different methods … the cycle is long and depressingly familiar. ‘Big ideas’ make this worse: everything is integrated so it’s more difficult to unpick what might work, to overlook the hidden gem in an otherwise moribund campaign, to stop the whole thing in its track because a whole system’s been built around it. Fast-changing markets require successful firms to be agile, and it sometimes seems ‘big ideas’ are the enemy of agility.

Last month I wrote about how big firms can learn from entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs rarely ‘bet the farm’. They try things out and see if they work. Experiment is the name of the game. What clients should ask for is not the mighty oak tree of ‘big ideas’ but the acorns of experimentation. Perhaps we should ask for lots of acorns we can try quickly and fail small with — the one criterion always in our head being, “Can I see a way for this to become big one day?” 

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio). Follow or tweet him @JamesThompson1


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