Do you know what an idea is?
Not so long ago I was invited to Shanghai for ‘A Big Idea’ conference with a large global client. I’d agreed to sing for my supper and had chosen to speak last, hoping no one would have covered what I wanted to discuss. There was a procession of Powerpoint presentations from research companies, design groups, agencies and media organisations all with an angle on big ideas.
No one asked the question I thought was most important, ‘what is an idea?’ Really, I ventured, ‘how would you define what an idea is so you can tell if the one you have is small, medium or large?’ Crickets.
After a whole day flirting with the notion of big ideas, not one heckle or suggestion. My guess is this happens a lot in our industry. We get hoarse banging on about ideas as if we all know what we’re talking about when we’re actually pretty fuzzy.
Wouldn’t it be good to start 2011 with some clarity? Imagine how much more productive we’d be if we actually had a handle on our own currency.
The most useful book I know on the subject was written by James Webb Young back in 1944. ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ takes less time to read than a Marvel comic, and a lifetime to put into practice. Young writes, “an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”.
So, when Radical Media combine film making with Google Maps and Streetview via Chrome for Canadian indie band, Arcade Fire, you get ‘Wilderness Downtown’, an interactive triumph for the band and Google. Three million people went to the trouble of downloading Chrome so they could enjoy the experience.
When you combine Facebook and Twitter links with publishing technology on an iPad you get Flipboard (#35 on Time magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2010).
Combine coupons and yield management and you get Groupon.
Digital+photography, social+media, Wiki+leaks…. makes sense doesn’t it?
We have more possibilities to invent and create than at any other time in human history. Now that we’re clear on what an idea is, we might just crack a big one.
This post was first written for Campaign magazine in December 2010.
Photo: James Webb Young.