One of my treasured advertising books is a dog-eared volume called “Practical Advertising” from 1909. This title was published each year in London by our British antecedent, Mather & Crowther. It was this Mather that’s now part of our name, and it was there that David Ogilvy went to work for his brother, Francis, in the 1930s.
One of the house ads shows a client with a plump, well-fed face, in a winged collar, polka-dot tie and pince-nez, scrutinizing a newspaper. The headline reads, “Looking Twice.” And the body copy starts with these questions: “How often do you have to look twice before finding your advertisement? How many casual readers do you suppose will be equally diligent?”
How many indeed? And that, I suppose, is a neat way of explaining why we need ideas. It’s the ideas that make us notice things.
But have you ever been asked to define an idea? Please give yourself just 30 seconds—and pause without reading on.
Try it now—right now.
So what is an idea?
Well, it’s not that easy, is it? And, strangely, not many advertising folk have ever defined it very convincingly. Or, if they have, they have not gone to print with it.
So we need to go to a philosopher to find the definition—not a blue-chip philosopher, but a rambunctious, philandering, drunken and provocative wannabe philosopher at that: Arthur Koestler.
He was a brilliant novelist, too: Darkness at Noon is a book everyone should read and one of the best arguments against totalitarianism ever written.
In his book on creativity, The Act of Creation, Koestler defines an idea as “a bi-sociation of two previously unconnected thought matrices.” It may not be great philosophy, but it’s a great definition—perhaps for the very reason that he was a creative writer himself.
Let’s paraphrase it as “an unexpected combination of two previously unconnected things.”
I’ve always found that it helps to understand and bear in mind this definition of an idea when looking at work. Quite simply, it helps one pick out the stronger ideas from the weaker.
The ideas which have gotten into this book all combine the previously uncombined: when an image of female genital mutilation shockingly combines with a national flag, when British landmarks combine with Chinese names, or when gay identity combines with the inside of a Whopper. And so on.
The more original, subtle, involving and intriguing the combination is, the more likely we are to notice it. Ideas are precious things. They always were, and in the digital world it is clear that strong ideas alone will defeat the noise, the fragmentation and the clutter.
So you shouldn’t have to look twice.
< Back to Best of Ogilvy Volume 7