John Webster’s first job, straight out of art school, was at Ogilvy.
He worked in a creative group run by Stanhope Shelly.
Apparently, they had a major creative presentation for Shell coming up.
So Stanhope called everyone in and briefed them.
He said they already had the basis of a new campaign, a song:
“I’m going well,
I’m going Shell,
I’m going well on Shell, Shell, Shell.
I’m going well,
I’m going Shell,
You can be sure of Shell.”
(It was written by Johnny Johnson who did most of the ad jingles in the 50s and 60s.)
What they needed was a big idea to go with the song.
John Webster wasn’t sure what a ‘big’ idea was, how it differed from an ordinary idea.
But he didn’t want to ask and reveal his ignorance.
So he worked hard on it, mainly doing cartoon storyboards.
Then everyone met round a big table and presented their ideas.
After seeing them all, Stanhope seemed a bit disappointed.
He said there were lots of ideas, but there wasn’t a ‘big’ idea.
Then the agency TV producer, Dougal Rankin, spoke up.
He said “I might have something – I was flying to New York and I was sitting next to Bing Crosby (awfully nice chap). I asked him if he’d sing our song and he said he would, if we bought him an antique chair he’d seen in London, and had it shipped to America.”
There was silence for a moment, then Stanhope Shelly said “Now that is what I mean, THAT is a big idea”.
Remember, this was the 1950s, TV was in black and white and there was only one channel showing ads.
America seemed impossibly glamorous, and Bing Crosby was the biggest star there.
And this producer had got him to agree to sing the song on British TV, something no one thought they could afford, all for the price of a chair.
That’s when John said it hit him, he understood what a big idea was.
A big idea was something you couldn’t see before you had it, it was something you didn’t arrive at logically.
A big idea just whacked you round the head, took your breath away, and left you thinking “No, we couldn’t possibly do that – but what if we could?”
And after that, John said he began to chase the big idea.
To find a big idea, you had to be free to talk any old rubbish with someone you trusted.
So you weren’t worried about making a fool of yourself in front of them.
John said that’s how he came up with the Unigate Milk campaign.
He and Graham Collis got drunk one night and sat around saying the most ridiculous things and laughing and writing them down.
Next morning, he looked at what he’d written down and decided it was actually different, it took them somewhere they wouldn’t have got to logically.
At GGT, we used to call that a “fuck me” idea.
The sort of idea where you look at it and go “Fuck me, where did that come from?”
A big idea is like that.
It hits you on the back of the head like a brick.
You know you probably couldn’t do it anyway.
You know everyone else is going to hate it, and you’ll get in trouble.
But actually that’s not true, that’s just your mind resisting thinking outside what’s safe and conventional, and expected.
It’s a bit frightening, but it should be – that’s why it’s a big idea.