BOBT review: Coming up with big ideas is difficult, but isn’t that our job?


I tweeted like an idiot yesterday at Battle of Big Thinking, the APG event. I was trying to record the ideas that had salience as they were delivered. There’s a great collection of people’s opinions on twitter here. Looking back there were nice nuggets. But what do I remember from the event the day after, without needing my memory jogged? What can I take away and use, mull-over, critique?
Sadly, surprisingly little.

I was disappointed by the lack of insight in the 25 presentations. Only a handful were based on an idea with substantiated evidence or a truly new way of looking at things. Most were the same regurgitated en-vogue arguments. Few featured lateral thought, or smart new combinations of seemingly unrelated insight. Few amazed. So I guess few were ‘big’?

My takeout? Most planners are reading the same stuff and thinking the same stuff. And it’s boring.

Age seemed to matter. The most insightful thoughts came from the older guys and the youngest guys. In between (apart from Peter Sells of BBH talking about mobile), there seemed to be a lot of repetition and recycled subjective beige.

I will take away the following ideas:

Guy Murphy won overall with some thinking based on research into brand perceptions amongst the populations of about 15 countries worldwide. What JWT have concluded is that as markets mature, consumer’s interest (measured by ‘time’ spent with or thinking about a brand) declines.

He then compared the creative approach of brands across the world and concluded that a lack of playfulness in mature markets was hampering the efficacy of communications. His Brand Toys application helps companies visualise and explore their potentially playful identity.

This was insight rich thinking which made the audience re-appraise first, their cynicism to emerging markets in terms of creativity, and second, their own strategies for the tired old brands in the West. It also made you want to work overseas. Solid work from a pro!

Justin Basini introduced a proper big thought – that business and therefore marketing must move away from the consumption based economics that is driving us into a resources-battering Matrix-style nightmare, and instead focus on ‘conservation economics’.

A handful of changes to our practice was recommended:

1. Encourage punters to value what they have, rather than value what they don’t have. Demand for services/products can be based on building on what people do/own/use already rather than promoting a disposable culture.

2. We should move from mass marketing to mass interactions as the Cluetrain Manifesto was right and conversations will guide consumer behaviour.

3. We should seek to extend the life of products with additional services. For example, the App store and Nike+ provide added value with few resources being used up.

4. Corporations who are ‘too big to fail’ must now appreciate their role in society beyond making profit. A new obligation to create on social good should be introduced. Marketing can play a critical role in this.

Peter Sells from BBH used his experience as a cognitive psychologist to align mobile technology with human needs. He talked about the core needs we’re driven by:

1. Resolution

2. Connection

3. Contentment

4. Control

5. Information

Satisfying these needs leads to a sense of happiness. Happiness as seen through ‘flow‘, or a frictionless ‘optimal experience’, can become a worthy goal of any service a company might deliver to customers. As a fundamental requirement for the most timely, proximal channel currently existing, happiness is a neat aim for mobile activity.

He pointed out that there is a massive market for happiness. So alongside Guy’s playfulness and another speaker’s reference to VW Fun Theory, a trend to use smart behavioural planning to create contentment and happy people emerged from the day.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Patrick Cairns from Plum Baby made the simple and refreshing point that, contrary to most large companies, those organisations with innovation naturally at their heart are driven by a vision and by a leader’s instinct. Instinct rules when it come to innovation it seems. Innovation is about opinion (which is future orientated vs past orientated fact). Patrick told us to ’embrace outsiders’ in order to find new ways forward, ‘fail quickly’ and make an idea ‘personal but solidly managed’. And it should be quick otherwise everyone loses. See Nonsense’s 24 start-up idea as an example. In 24hrs they’ve created Dr Hue. And it works!

So while I was disappointed by the lack of new thinking led by research or real insight during the day, Patrick’s opinion was a powerful one. He suggested we find ways to help people who express a fresh new vision (as opposed to a recycled one). We should support and explore their instinctive belief, unfettered by committees and what Malcolm White called ‘Premature Evaluation’ (Number 3 of 15 ideas in 15 minutes).

The most fun part of the day was from the new ‘Open Mic’ section – 5 young planners from places like Fallon, Naked, Grey and Carlson fought it out for 3 mins each. Considering the quality of the content, 3 mins seemed an unfairly short amount of time. Indeed more came from their punchy ideas in 15mins than from almost the entire morning.

The winner was James Mitchell who dared suggest that BOBT’s promise that it would offer ‘a year’s worth of ideas in one day’ might be a bad thing, and that information overload was our biggest threat. It was simple, entertaining and heartfelt. Like Jon Alexander’s sustainability themed talk, James’ vision was Utopian and therefore extremely compelling. The audience was lifted and post-lunch blues dissipated. I think the success of this section pointed the way to the evolution of the BOBT concept.

Robin Wight used the podium to launch an impassioned demand that we must Save Advertising. He argues that market research has failed to evolve since the 60’s when Account Planning was born. A wrong assumption about the way the brain works has led us to rationalising, Link-testing madness.

He argues that brain science has helped us understand that the primal instinctive brain makes most of our purchasing decisions (we don’t like to work hard thinking about less important things as it uses up too much of the body’s energy), while the rational mind justifies it.

We are truly in two minds with tricky decisions (such as moral issues), but for most consumption needs, we think very little.  So asking us why we made a choice is a complete waste of time, as we don’t know (at least we can’t tell you accurately).  Robin used new norms from brain science to discount the use of norms from Link tests and other rationalising research methods.

The danger inherent in this approach is that brain scans and the assumptions being made around them are a) new and b) themselves little understood.

So while Robin will receive much support from planners weary of models that claim to uncover truths that often go against our creative instincts, he has yet to propose a new methodology to replace the old model. I hope a new agreed upon research model emerges from science and psychology soon. ‘Till then, we have what we have. But good on Robin for getting the debate started.

So what should we do next year?

As an APG committee member, I could propose a few tweaks to the format. So ideas are welcome!

Katy from Naked, John from PHD and I thought perhaps a ‘Planning’s Got Talent’ format could work for an entertaining day! A speaker has to make their point and is allowed to continue only if the audience is suitably impressed. Audience voting during the speech however can force the speaker offstage.

A less aggressive version could simply see the BOBT format condensed and the battle elements increased. I do think shorter speeches are needed. But if people like the idea, perhaps longer versions of the ideas could be prepared for further debate later in the day.

Either way, quality control should be excersized and speaker briefings must be thorough. To avoid articles like this one from Matthew Taylor of the RSA.

I have been to good events. I’ve even hosted them — times when the speakers have been well briefed, the event has a clear purpose, the questions addressed have been relevant and engaging. But to be honest they are the exception.

Links to blogs and presentations from the day are being uploaded here. Well done to everyone who took part. It has certainly generated plenty of positive buzz, despite my cynicism.

Here’s a list of the presentations (thanks to @yodanny for compiling)
Guy Murphy – “Brand Play”

James Mitchell – “Too Much Information: a big thought in three short minutes”

John V Willshire – “ Social Production”

Peter Sells of BBH, Scott Seaborn of Ogilvy, Todd Tran from Joule – “Mobile”

Mike Barlett from Skype, Patrick O’Luanaigh from N’Dreams, Claus Moseholm from GoViral – “Free”

Justin Bassini (ex-Capital One) spoke about brand responsibility. Here are a couple of his follow-up projects:


7 Responses to “BOBT review: Coming up with big ideas is difficult, but isn’t that our job?”

  1. “But what do I remember from the event the day after, without needing my memory jogged? What can I take away and use, mull-over, critique?
    Sadly, surprisingly little”

    Well, yeah! The sad thing is that in isolation, many ideas were amazing – and many single presentations has several great things within them. But I found myself writing like a gazelle (a literate gazelle) just to capture the important stuff. And looking back on the scribbles in my book, it’s hard to get enthused by them in the way I was. What might improve the stickiness a bit would be a way for the audience to reply, even explore the ideas.

    Or set the upper age limit at 25 😉

    (My stuff was a blur – so I stuck the full text of it up here:

  2. Hi Martin,

    Looks like this year’s battle was another great event. I was bummed not to be there this year, and I appreciate your wrap-up and thoughts on how to improve it. I’d love to get together and talk through a bunch of ways to make it more approachable, social, productive … and fun. Maybe you could get other APG committee members together for a few drinks and a chat. 🙂

    Here’s some food for thought, in the meantime: It isn’t about big thinking. It is about little thinking. Lots of little beats the big idea. Every time. Or, as Helge Tennø puts it, “The only big idea is not to forget the little ones along the way.”

    Maybe the the reason you found it a bit boring and uninspiring is that the event is looking to answer a question doesn’t inspire new ways of thinking … Maybe it should simply be called the Battle of Great Thinking.


  3. I’m an inbetweener – I’ll take that working in a place where the average age appears to be gap year.

    Thanks for the write up Dan.


  4. Hi Martin

    Ta – this is a great summary for those who, like me, couldn’t make it.

    I was really disappointed that Justin didn’t make it into the final. But completely support the direction he’s heading in. It’s a tough choice for this particular audience. Find ways to ‘reinvent’ (or preserve?) advertising and it’s role in business. Or look ahead, and use the ideas and insight the wider industry has to find new, sustainable ways to help society evolve beyond pure consumerism.

    For me at least, the choice is easy. I find it difficult to see the answers in neuroscience for example. But love the idea of playfulness and fun as a way to help make new behaviours more rewarding.

    We also had a little idea on the day/format

    Check it out and let us know what you think. We’re getting some interest and support and would love to turn the big thinking into some big doing!

    Cheers, Tom

    • 5 martin bailie

      This is a great idea. The debate on the problem alone could keep us going all year!

  5. Hi Martin,

    That was my first BOBT and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The format forces the speakers to try to raise the bar and introduces just the right level of competition between them.

    By definition I suppose big thinking = new thinking and therefore one of the challenges for the event is to ensure that the speakers are each given an opportunity to stimulate us with something new.

    As you say these days “most planners are reading the same stuff and thinking the same stuff”. Well, maybe a greater diversity of speakers might help us to get more out of the event. Think how TED does it and how ‘Interesting’ works. We all know that planners should seek stimulation from anywhere and everywhere so shouldn’t our conference reflect that thinking? At the very least we need invite people beyond our immediate circle of influence.

    I was particularly aware during the social media section, for example, of how the topic would have been greatly enriched by even inviting a speaker from a PR agency.

  1. 1 #BOBT one of the better events I haven’t been too… «

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