Agency Vet John Butler Asks, 'What's the Big Idea?'

Insights from 30 years in the ad game

BSSP, the company I founded with Greg Stern and Mike Shine, turned 30 this year. That's 30 years of blood, sweat and tears riding the EBITDA roller-coaster of the independent agency game.

We've never borrowed a dime to keep the lights on. Some years have been great, some not so great. But at the end of the day, it's all ours; we make the decisions, not someone in NYC, London or Paris. That's been more a way of life for us than a business decision.

But I'd like to spend the following few hundred words discussing something else. And it's probably not something you might expect from a creative guy who grew up in the shadow of Jay, Lee, Rich, Jeff, Dan and Dave. (No, I won't bother with their surnames, you know who they are.)

I don't spend much time doing industry functions these days. But in much of what I read and hear, there is a recurring theme that the age of the "Big Idea" has passed. The criticism is that everything is transactional today, and that big brand thinking has gone the way of the Tasmanian tiger. The operative word is "vanished."

I'm here to tell you that the person walking down the hall (well, maybe they're on Zoom) and espousing this diatribe is tilting at windmills. Big ideas are all around us. They just don't necessarily take the form of fodder for commercial breaks. And that's OK.

In the last decade, quite a bit of marketing has affected me deeply. Such ideas transcended one-note gags, clever alliteration and films that were just cleverly disguised nothing burgers.

I feel a bluff being called, so I'll go out on a limb. Here are a few big ideas that moved me that weren't necessarily done in 30 seconds or less over the past 10 years or so:

Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign; Amazon's customer-centric use of personalized recommendations (a big idea, invasive as it is); and Patagonia's "Don't buy this Jacket," which encouraged customers to make more sustainable choices.

"The Lost Class" for gun control. The Women in Games gender-swap idea to combat hyper-sexualization. How about Nike's "Dream Crazy" with Kaepernick, who I didn't particularly care for, not because of his activism, which I thought was awesome, but because I'm a Raiders fan. (Yeah, yeah, I know.) But the Kaepernick piece was just the beginning. How they extended the concept to include other athletes was an undertaking that went far beyond that film.

How about Coke printing individual consumer names on their cans? Or that cool Cheetos campaign where they made an art exhibition out of the shapes from the bag? How about influencer marketing? Much of it stinks, sure. But one gem was the collaboration between Fenty Beauty and Jackie Aina to create a foundation line catering to diverse skin tones. 

What about "The Election Edition" from Lebanon, where they donated the paper and ink it would have taken to print their election-day newspapers to produce ballots instead? 

I could go on and on. I find things every day that fit the "big idea" categorization.

I can look back at stuff that got me into the business, like Apple's "1984," Lou Reed's Honda spot and GSP's first Mill Valley Film Festival campaign. These were brilliant ideas. But today, we're seeing stuff that transcends a beautiful piece of film or a quick guffaw. We're seeing canpaigns that genuinely impact culture.

A few of my favorites from BSSP were the "Hear Me" campaign for Blue Shield of California to address gender bias in the healthcare industry; the Lego Boulder for LucasArts that Mythbusters debunked on TV (a fun ruse); and Mini's "Do Not Drive Day," which was great until the dealers refused to play along. 

My point: the big idea hasn't disappeared, it's evolved to incorporate more significant ideas. I pay special attention when the emphasis is on engagement and a genuine attempt at righting wrongs. We're still here 30 years later because we've adapted to the changing landscape of the business world. We're well into the proliferation of something dynamic and essential to marketing, and it’s exciting.

I look forward to the future of our business because we have some big problems to solve on this planet. And the solution is not going to come from a procurement department. It's going to come from those entering our business. They’ve been trained to think this way for years. Make a positive impact and some cash along the way. Maybe Capitalism ain't all that bad, eh?

So here's to the next 30. Now, to quote one of my partners who has said this to me so many times over three decades: "Quit complaining and get to work."

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John Butler
John Butler is the co-chairman and a founding partner at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners.

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