Management POV: Cultivate a Big Ideas Culture and Reward Success

Mike McDougall
Taking some time for reflection, I thought that maybe it was just me. Was I being too critical of a profession that I love? Perhaps I had read too many business books lately that promised the world but were disconnected from the day-to-day grind.

But then others in the industry started sharing the same thoughts as me. They began as whispers, but have turned into more groans, growls and even eulogies.

The culprit? The death of the big idea.

A couple years into my career, I worked with an agency creative director who preached the concept of the big idea—no matter how small the project. Without a killer concept, he reasoned, everything else was just a commodity.

Nearly two decades later, that thinking has become even more relevant, especially as communications channels have proliferated. Since when has throwing tactics at the wall, hoping at least some of them stick, become a substitute for a differentiated strategy?

Who’s to blame? We could point toward the rise of social media, which has the tendency to make PR pros and audiences alike have the attention spans of squirrels. Or how about the pressure to do more in less time with less budget, the new normal for business?

Throw away the excuses. The accountability for this change in behavior lies squarely with our senior practitioners who have allowed brute force— ramrodding messages into the public consciousness—to supplant one-of-a-kind insights.

“But Mike,” you say. “This isn’t an epidemic at all levels of the profession. You’ve just come across a few bad apples.” Au contraire.

I’ve have the pleasure to regularly judge some of the industry’s largest awards competitions. What my fellow judges and I have seen over the past two years has caused us to literally throw our hands in the air. When preparing their campaigns, the majority of teams are rushing past the ideation phase, diving straight into a restaurant menu approach of communications programming (I’ll take a #35, a #2, a #57, and a #29… steamed, not fried).

What about those who choose the path less followed and develop a knock-it-out-of-the-park idea? They’re winning—not just the awards, but meaningful results for their organizations.

So what’s a leader to do? Start leading. Here’s how:

â–¶ Create a culture that celebrates the big idea. This isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. In many cases, that brute-force boiler room approach is all that many junior practitioners know —a style that feeds on itself as those team members climb the ladder and begin serving as mentors themselves.

â–¶ Model the behavior you want to see. When a plan comes across your screen with a tried-and-true approach, looking for cursory approval, it’s all too easy to hit reply with a quick “OK.” You’ve got better things to do, right? Wrong. Explain what you’re looking for, give some direction and then let your team go back to the drawing board.

â–¶ Demand sacrifice. Instead of nodding when a colleague explains how the 12 tactics they’ve laid out will surround the target audience, ask them to narrow the list to three. Quality over quantity still has its place, and it’s up to us to be its champion.

â–¶ Encourage tenacity. But what about when that big idea falls flat? Prodigious home run hitters are also notorious for striking out, because they’re swinging for the fences more often. When your slugger steps to the plate, she or he will absolutely strike out now and then. That’s OK, because you’re also peppering the lineup with players who consistently hit singles and doubles, helping you win in their own way.

â–¶ Reward success. And when the big idea pays off? Shout from the rooftops, lead the team in a conga line, and make sure those who thought of it—and those who executed it—get meaningful recognition. Reward what matters, and you’ll see others follow suit.

In Chasing the Monster Idea, author Stefan Mumaw (@stefanmumaw) attempts to put some color around this type of environment, stating, “The monster idea is fluidly passed from person to person, barely requiring any force beyond initiation. It swells and grows on its own, carried by an ever-expanding group of evangelists that latch on to its side like remoras alongside sharks, taking it wherever the idea wishes to go.”

Inspiring, right? So make a pledge to bring PR back to its ideas-centric roots, cultivating a new respect for thinking big, swinging hard and actually adding to the industry’s body of knowledge versus simply sampling from what already exists.


Mike McDougall, APR, is managing partner of McDougall Travers Collins ( him at [email protected] or via Twitter (@McDougallTC).