the idea is king (if sometimes Charles I)


Smart people in small shops believe the best ideas come from smart people in small shops.

Today, evidence that this could be true.  Wieden + Kennedy is a smallish shop situated in Portland.  Recently, they landed accounts from the Coca-Cola Company and P&G.  Small may or may not be beautiful.  It certainly is flourishing.

Certainly, W+K is not tiny, nor is it obscure.  (The work for Nike precedes them everywhere.)  But they are not a conglomerate.  That TCCC and P&G should be prepared to trust them with a large account is telling. 

What it’s telling me: that the boutique (or boutique-ish) agency may finally triumph.  This appeared to be happening a few years ago.  Very small agencies were winning business away from giant advertising firms.  (One of them was called Taxi, apparently on the grounds that they never wanted to get larger than.) 

But then along came the global brand, and suddenly everyone said, "No, we can only do business with firms that have representation everywhere."  Good bye, boutiques. 

Now, plainly, big agencies should be as creative as small ones.  There is no technical reason why not.  But in point of fact, bigness in agencies is sometimes as destructive of the innovative instinct as it is elsewhere in the corporate world.  (And if an ad agency is not innovative, really, what’s the point?  It should be grounds for immediate cessation…whereas a more conventional corporation without ideas is good for, well, they could last another 3 or 4 years, easily.)

Here’s what Dan Wieden had to say when pressed by the Wall Street Journal.  (And, frankly, it kind of made me want to weep with gratitude.)

WSJ: For years marketers ballyhooed about the virtues of having a global ad firm that had offices in hundreds of markets around the world. Is that sentiment changing? And if so why?

Mr. Wieden: Yes. Obviously I sense change. You can see it with who we are going to bed with these days. When all this consolidation went on there was many voices that said ‘scale is king’ and it turns out — thank God — that the idea is king. At the end of the day, one individual with one good idea can trump an entire network of thousands who don’t have an idea.

Why should this illumination, that the idea is king, be so hard for the corporate world to fix upon?  There can’t be any question.  We’ve all sat in those committee meetings that take forever, turn the problem into mush, the problem solvers into morons, and, finally, give advantage to the time servers and the knuckle heads.  (This surely the scary part.  The knuckleheads feed on large committee meetings like ghouls staggering around in a Buffy graveyard.) 

Surely, we will someday grasp that the corporation is a holligan, a veritable regicide, who, unless watched constantly and scaled back with enthusiasm, will destroy the very thing, the precious resource, on which the body politic (aka competitive success) depends. 

Increasingly, it seems to me that innovation, the true spirit of creativity in the marketplace, belongs to those who are prepared work small and fast.  The longer it takes, the more people it requires, the less likely it is to happen.  Let’s call this "Wieden’s law." 


McCracken, Grant. 2005.  The Malamud effect: ideas and the corporation.  This Blog Sits At… here.

Vranica, Suzanne.  2005.  Small Firm, Big Ideas: Coke and P&G Sign On.  Wall Street Journal.  November 9, 2005, page B3E and here  (subscription required).

9 thoughts on “the idea is king (if sometimes Charles I)

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  2. aj

    Hmm. I recommend Randall Rothenburg’s book “Where The Suckers Moon” for a fascinating insight into a rare moment of failure at W+K, namely, coming up with an ad campaign for Subaru of America. I’d be interested to know what W+K learned from that failure, and how they apply those lessons to their current practice.

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  4. Matt

    “Why should this illumination, that the idea is king, be so hard for the corporate world to fix upon? There can’t be any question. We’ve all sat in those committee meetings that take forever, turn the problem into mush, the problem solvers into morons, and, finally, give advantage to the time servers and the knuckle heads.”

    The corporate world is dominated by folks who exist in, of, and by the meeting culture. What the meeting culture produces is what the corporate world will naturally respect, whether it’s good or not.


  5. Graham Hill


    As a sort of neutral marketing consultant who often sits in rooms full of agency people and client marketing people, I find your notion that the “idea is king” is not enough. What is required in addition to a great idea is even better execution. And I mean execution throughout all parts of the client where the idea is impacted, particularly those parts where the idea touches customers.

    Research suggests that as much as 80% of the public do not believe that the advertising messages they receive will be what they actually experience when consuming the product. And 80% will still be disapointed as a result. In other words, the vast majority of ideas are not being executed properly.

    One of the things I try to do is to establish collaborative groups that represent the ad agencies, other consultants and all parts of the client, so that the client gets ideas that can really be made to work. And more importantly still, that really deliver measurable business results. And you can only measure these results if all parts of the client are involved.

    I have noticed a similar move away from the major ad agencies towards more innovative outfits. Outfits that are more client oriented, are more hungry to deliver and that are generallly more creative. But I also see more non-ad consultants involved to organise the different aspects of execution. And of course client functions other than marketing are increasingly involved too. This sometimes takes more coordination than dealing with a one-stop shop, but not always. And in my experience the results, whether measured in a winning idea, client engagement or business results are significantly better.

    Great ideas are important, but they just lead to disapointment if even better execution is missing.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Marketing Consultant

  6. CarolGee

    Organizational theory posits that a system will organize itself into more and more complexity until it reaches entropy. Therefore small is beautiful.
    I remember also, from my working days, that all employees in the organization have to justify their jobs, whether the task advances the mission or not. HR people have to make more rules, managers have to manage even the best self-starters and comptrollers have to cut expenditures.
    Green eyeshade people keep their eyes down; visionaries act starry-eyed. In a small organization there’s a chance for a balance of influence.

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  8. Tom Guarriello

    I find the appetite to listen to small, micro-boutique firms like our own to be on the rise. Enlightened leaders (of course I’d think them so!) realize that the ideas that keep small firms afloat are critical to our survival…we don’t have lists of legacy (annuity) accounts on whom to depend…we’ve got to create (and, to Graham’s point, execute) early and often to stay in business. I think our hunger, and commitment to what we believe, is palpable. Some even find it refreshing. I’ve seen the large firms in our business (management consulting) chase the next big billing vein, and fret when the ore starts running lean. No thanks. Give me a few folks who want to play with the same kinds of ideas we do and we’ll do just fine, thank you.

  9. Tom Asacker

    Indeed “the idea” is king. The issue at hand is that most big ideas require a slashing of the Gordain Knot of corporate systems and ideology. When execution equals untieing the knot, the end is near. It’s simply a matter of time.

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