A Method for Discovering Big Ideas

Four simple steps that get results

Big Ideas.

They have been the bedrock of countless marketing campaigns. Ever since Mad Men-types like David Ogilvy created the concept of big ideas in the 1950s. Launching a campaign without the strong foundation of a big idea can lead to certain death.

Yet half a century later and the best method for developing and pitching big ideas is still elusive. How can such an important element of the industry still feel like a mystery?

After years of trying (and learning from great mentors), I began to rethink how to approach the big idea.

Rethinking the Big Idea

The greatest challenge is developing the right context for your idea to succeed. An idea without a larger context can be killed before it even had a chance.

Thankfully we already have a great method for creating context around critical information — the compliment sandwich. The compliments create context around the criticism, helping others understand what you’re saying. An idea needs a similar multi-pronged approach to ensure its clarity.

So when a big idea isn’t enough, I started making an idea sandwich instead.

The Four Ingredients of the Idea Sandwich

My go-to method for creating larger context, the idea sandwich has four necessary “ingredients.” Each ingredient in the sandwich builds on the previous. This helps create a narrative around the intent and purpose of the idea.

Note: I have included some admittedly bad examples of each ingredient for the fictitious Generic Soda Company. Give us a holler if you want to create some actually great ideas together.

The Task

The task is the true business problem behind the client’s request. Clients often come with requests such as, “We need to create an ad campaign for Generic Soda Company.” The task recites the problem with more specificity after learning more through research. For example, the task could read:

Create an ad campaign during the busy summer months to raise brand awareness amongst millennials for Generic Soda Company.

The Insight

The insight is a statement of truth about culture. It can be a piece of universally understood common knowledge. Or it can be discovered through exhaustive research. The example below includes both common knowledge and research. The Generic Soda Co.’s insight is:

Cracking open a cold soda while in the great outdoors is one of the most refreshing and rewarding joys in life. Research also shows our target audience of millennials are the largest growing demographic for outdoor lifestyle brands. These two observations create a unique opportunity for the soda market.

The Idea

This is the “big idea.” It is your campaign’s guiding light. It is the distillation of the combined task and insight. It does not include any details on executions or mediums. Think of it as the pure, untouched, unsullied mantra for your idea sandwich.

Given the task and insight, the idea for Generic Soda Co. could be:

Generic Soda Company: Fresh Air in Liquid Form.

The Execution

The execution is the physical, digital or experiential deliverable the client will sign the checks for. It should include a high-level description of the execution (website, installation, etc.) and details connecting it to the previous ingredients. It also doesn’t hurt to give each execution a clever title.

For example, one (very goofy) execution could be:

Title: Fresh-Air Fountains
What is it?
A multi-location outdoor installation.
Description: Fresh Air Fountains are standard water drinking fountains filled with Generic Soda. Fountains are installed at the end of hiking trails near popular action-sports oriented cities, such as Salt Lake City, UT and Boulder, CO. After a long trail, the tired and weary hikers will be invited to “have a sip of fresh air.”

The execution is flexible enough to add more detail, such as: mockups, marketing strategies, timelines, etc. A good idea has the potential for an endless number of executions, so include as many as you see fit.

Why the Idea Sandwich Works

The idea sandwich is a simple structure, but it gets results. It helps flesh out an idea and test if it is appropriate for the business problem. And it guides a client through the logic behind an idea. Most importantly, your ideas will become more thoughtful and better at solving business problems.

So the next time you need a big idea, try making an idea sandwich instead.