Do Big Ideas Work for Media Businesses?

Writing on MAD, Tom Morton looks at the Big Idea. After the Big Idea went to ridiculous heights in the 1990s (ice cream companies with their own foreign policy), successful brands became known for connecting with consumers, not communicating an agenda. Yet Morton still believes we need big ideas.

Most importantly, brand owners need big ideas.  Not just to hold their campaigns together, but to hold their businesses together.

The biggest big idea in businesses is the strategy: how the business organizes its efforts to create value, where it over-delivers, what it sacrifices. As businesses become more sprawling, running them becomes more about steering through complexity.  Here the big idea plays a profound role:  it’s the strategy articulated in a catchy form. 

But when it comes to media, Morton says that “Media itself doesn’t suit Big Ideas.” To prove this point he says that “It’s instructive that Channel 4 and Google don’t have strap lines, and amusing that the most famous attempt at Big Idea marketing in television, ‘Fox News: Fair And Balanced’, is balls.”

Well, I don’t know about Channel 4, but isn’t Google’s well known big idea and guiding light “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?” If this isn’t a big idea, what is? As for Fox, I would argue that its big idea has created its success. It’s “Fair and Balanced” mantra gives the organization a mission and defines the network so well that it has legions of both haters and lovers and is the most watched news network. Its genius is taking an idea that should apply to all media organizations and, by implying that its competition is biased, makes it its own.

Another example of a successful media company is CNN, which grew with the help of a galvanizing mission: “to connect audiences with the world wherever and whenever they want it.” When it launched, this was a big idea and it gave the brand a clear identity and gave the company a clear mission.

Newspapers though, are a different story. When journalism became a science, roughly marked by the American Society of Newspaper Editors Canons of Journalism in 1923, big idea branding ended in the industry. Now every newspaper had the same mission – reporting news “free from opinion or bias of any kind.” Even today, the industry tends to think of brand only in the sense of the brand of newspapers as a whole, not as individual products. There is much talk of brand equity, but it is assumed to be essentially the same for a newspaper in Pennsylvania as for one in California. William Randolph Hearst would have had no trouble with big ideas for his newspapers, but today’s journalists have been taught to denigrate that era of muckraking and Yellow Journalism. Yet the Founding Fathers’ view of the press was as partisan organizations, organizations with big ideas. Network news, which has been living through intense competition longer than newspapers, is now moving back to that model – conservative Fox, liberal MSNBC, and moderately liberal CNN. Only the broadcast networks, which are rapidly losing audience, cling to this idea of being without a mission.  In other words, they have no point of differentiation among themselves, other than trivialities such as the first woman anchor or splashier (i.e. more distracting) graphics.

There is, however, one newspaper brand that does have a mission, a mission to “become the world’s leading liberal voice.” This brand is the Guardian. Clearly the Guardian works to fulfill that mission, yet it is generally not perceived to be “biased” in the sense of distorting facts. It’s readers feel confident that the facts are correct and feel equally confident that they understand the viewpoint of the writer conveying those facts. It’s the confidence that comes with transparency.

But back to Tom Morton. Since he does believe in big ideas, although perhaps not for media companies, he lists five guidelines for adapting them for the “new media landscape.”

  1. It’s More Important To Have A Point Of View Than A Line. “…the most useful Big Idea is a point of view than can inspire activities.”

  2. A Big Idea Cannot Depend On A Line. “Translation, whether into different channels or different languages, is the priority.”
  3. One Big Idea Doesn’t Mean One Big Execution. “The best way to manifest a Big Idea today is through a whole bunch of activity.”
  4. Align Your Big Idea To Your Business. “A truly robust Big Idea should be rooted in how the business generates value, where the business is going, or in the culture of the brand.”
  5. Match Your Brand Behaviour With Audience Behaviour. “Now brand strategists need to understand their audiences as consumers of media.”

So big ideas still have relevance, but need to be thought about differently in today’s media environment. I think there’s value in a big idea for media organizations, but ultimately it’s about staying true to that idea in everything you do across all of your channels. And galvanizing Big Ideas are in short supply right now.