The missing secret of failed campaigns.

It’s true. Remove the BIG IDEA behind the world’s highest grossing marketing campaigns, and then ask yourself this question…

What remains?

Bum fluff.

A little harsh, but if a sales letter’s body copy could speak – his testimonial would read…

“Big Ideas changed my life forever – never been busier. All sorts of eyeballs now reach and read me below the fold. I was right. It was never my fault people left in boredom – life is good now”

Ask Bill Bonner from Agora about Big Ideas, and he’ll agree. In fact, Bill could probably tell us the date he mailed Agora’s first BIG IDEA promotion by checking the apparent anomaly on his bank statement.

A billion has nine zeros. Agora is worth $1 billion today. Thanks to their modern twist on BIG IDEAS. But forget modern for now, let’s go back in time, to meet…

The Most Wanted Professor of The Big Idea.

David Ogilvy.

In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, father of the BIG IDEA said he had no more than 20 big ideas in his career.

How many flash in your memory before reading on?

If none, get excited, because your approach to writing copy is about to change forever. But you’re likely a seasoned pro – so fist punch in honour of the legend, Ogilvy…

… First let loose on the “Guinness Guide to Oysters” campaign.

Then Schweppes agreed to break from the norm with Ogilvy’s “Commander Whitehead” campaign, pouring profits for the next 18 years.

And for car thieves trying to go straight, this ad got them another seven years in the slammer:

“At 60 Miles An Hour The Loudest Noise In This New Rolls-Royce Comes From The Electric Clock”


Not forgetting Ogilvy’s…

The Man In The Hathaway Shirt

Interestingly, Mr. Hathway was almost flung out of Ogilvy’s office for offering a measly $30,000 to become an Ogilvy client, yet this ad ran solid for 25 years, fuelled on “story appeal” of its BIG IDEA.

What was its BIG IDEA? Look at the ad again then read on to analyse its genius.

“Shiver me timbers!” I confess my sins to these ads when alone in the doghouse – it soon feels better.

What makes you feel better?

Selling more than ever before?

It’s easy to stunt growth by overlooking the mundane matter in your business, when master writers use it to power-up imagination.

So, does your business have a big idea you don’t know about yet? What BIG IDEA would Ogilvy discover in your business today?

In fact, if Ogilvy knocked on your door, demanding to slave on your next campaign for a percentage of profits, would you ask him to take a seat? (If not, it’s probably not worth you reading on)

Boom, that’s the spirit!

But before you say “I already have a Big Idea!” allow me to ask…

Would Ogilvy arrive at the same big idea as you? Chew on this wisdom:

“I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea” – David Ogilvy

What exactly is a BIG IDEA?

“You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.” – David Ogilvy

Simple, hugh!?

To start, Ogilvy’s ‘BIG IDEA’ (with a twist) involves digging in the dirt of your product until discovering something (small yet big) that instantly appeals to your target audience, convincing them to buy before they even know it – even before reading the remaining copy.

And as you know, Ogilvy’s BIG IDEA for The Man in the Hathway Shirt was actually this beast:

man in the hathway shirt
(Notice the difference in the two versions? Which would win an A/B split test?)

It ran for 25 years, fuelled on the “story appeal” of a 50 cent eye patch. Arousing curiosity. As people wondered, how did such an aristocrat lose his eye? A truly magnetic visual, supported by copy competing shirt makers instantly despised. Here’s the first sentence on one version of the ad…

“American men are beginning to realize that it is ridiculous to buy good suits and then spoil the effect by wearing an ordinary, mass-produced shirt.” – Ogilvy Mather

Did you nod in agreement? So did a gazillion of our parents.

We don’t need to read anymore of the copy to see how the BIG IDEA achieved its purpose of selling early.

An ad spring loaded with enough curiosity to send people who didn’t need a new shirt to the order page (even if it was on the moon)

The little known 116 year old shirt maker Hathaway went viral. Men treating themselves. Women buying for their men. And Hathaway becoming the #1 selling dress shirt in the world – THE BIG IDEA.

Hands up if your business could do with a (50 cent) BIG IDEA?

I’ll bet $1 you have a BIG IDEA lurking beneath the surface of your products greatness.

So allow Mark Ford (Early to Rise) to describe the BIG IDEA, Agora style…

“Let’s start with a definition that borrows from Ogilvy: A big idea is an idea that is instantly comprehended as important, exciting, and beneficial. It also leads to an inevitable conclusion, a conclusion that makes it easy to sell your product. Furthermore, it is an idea that will continue to be important and exciting for a long time.

A big idea is important – By important, I mean important to the customer – not the copywriter – and relevant to the product being sold.

A big idea is exciting – You are not going to excite your customer by repeating the predictions or promises that the rest of the media is publishing. They have already been exposed to those ideas. To provoke real excitement, you need to go beyond the conventional. You need to find some new angle that makes your customer sit up and pay attention

A big idea is beneficial – The excitement created must benefit the customer. Put differently, it should make the customer want to buy the product being sold.

A big idea leads to an inevitable conclusion – The big idea must contain some internal logic that is fundamentally simple. It must be easy to grasp and easy to see how the product you are selling solves a particular problem or delivers on a stated promise. The best big ideas tie into something that makes the product unique. As soon as the customer hears the idea, he begins to feel the need for the product, even before it is mentioned in the copy.

The best big ideas do all of that work with a very few words. The sale is half-made in the headline or by the end of the first paragraph. “

Did you get cold shivers of excitement reading that? (If not, check your copywriting pulse quickly)

The Big Idea baton back in my right hand, I’ll add this…

A big idea could be risky – taking the product owner out of their comfort zone (if they’ll allow you) It’s unique, unorthodox, and gets under the skin of the target audience. Get it right, and it could create enough controversy to sell even more stock.

A big idea is like Jesus’s description of Armageddon – it will “come as a thief in the night” When people least expect it. In fact, many will be caught without their pj’s – naked. Similarly, although clearly an ad, big ideas enter the prospects mind (through the front door) without triggering their “I’m about to get pitched alarm.”

A big idea is believable, credible – in the strenuous quest to discover a big idea, you could easily veer too far off the path of reality, undermining the promotion and eroding trust. Instead, readers should have an AHA moment, “that’s true!” “I always knew it!” “I better tell John about this.” It should be credible enough to become their own BIG IDEA.

A big idea is ..m..y – we’ll discuss this later. Review two examples below to discover the missing element. Find it, because without it, your big is humpty dumpty. (Share your answer in the comments below)

This big idea excited Mark Ford enough to analyse it:

how the french live longer

“This headline offers to answer a riddle that has puzzled the reader for many years: why the French – who eat cheese, meat, and rich sauces – stay so thin. And another riddle the reader just discovered: why the French – who smoke like chimneys – outlive everyone else too!

Implicit, here, is a promise that will appeal to almost anyone: You can eat like the French eat … and lose weight … and live longer.” – Mark Ford (Early to Rise)

And one of my all time favourite BIG IDEA ads promotes the last thing you’d expect…

Written in 1945 for Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. It does a great job of illustrating how big ideas first need to move “hearts.” It didn’t sell a product. Instead, it almost caused a riot. And as you’re about to see, small business owners ignoring this weapon, relinquish market share. Strap on your seat belt…

In one fell swoop, the copywriter tapped into the power of…


(I wonder what this ad did to pork sales that month)

You expect taxpayers to change trains while Mr. Swine lounges undisturbed? Yeah, right! It got under the target audience’s skin. A war cry. Mobilized, and ready to take their railway rage to the streets.

And in three short weeks of ad exposure the pressure on rail road executives was too much to bear – power of the BIG IDEA.

“… It hit railroad executives and newspaper men with staggering impact.” –The 100 Greatest Advertisements

The railroad industry took immediate action upgrading passengers to
“Hog Class,” no longer having to change trains like a human.

My wife had to hold me back from getting this ad tattooed on my back. Anyway…

If you see how the three BIG IDEA examples meet the following criteria, you’ll know exactly what Ogilvy, The Most Wanted Professor of the Big Idea asked himself when crafting ads:

1.) Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
2.) Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
3.) Is it unique?
4.) Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
5.) Could it be used for 30 years?


If a BIG IDEA is (really) responsible for attracting buyer’s attention, how many sales are lost without one?
If smashing a control was Ogilvy’s goal, how much time did he spend developing a BIG IDEA? Did Pareto’s 80/20 principle come into play?

Did you answer Ogilvy’s five questions above, before approving your most successful promotion? (imagine if you did)

Stakes were high for Mr. Hathway’s small business. Imagine how he felt bursting into Ogilvy’s office with his desperate offer? Today, many small businesses fold, because they struggle to stand out from the crowd. Mr. Hathway realised this in good time. In fact, I know of a small business acquired bankrupt, yet saved by one BIG IDEA promotion, which went on to sell untold millions.

And if the $8 million Agora became a $1 billion empire with BIG IDEA promotions, here’s a question for you…

What should small business owners include in a brief to their marketing agency? (answers on a postcard)

But the three BIG IDEA ads analysed are dead and buried museum pieces. Surely, with Facebook, Twitter and now Vine, things must be different. No need to capture attention with big ideas.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below. Or…

Before deciding, dial in for our next article. It analyses a modern masterpiece “disrupting” a billion dollar industry with one BIG IDEA marinated in nine words – burying the competition asleep on duty…

… Indeed, you know the competition too. Those brave enough to underestimate the power of a BIG IDEA.


Alvin Sillitoe clocked a decade in London’s capital markets… helping listed firms raise millions. His speciality? Sifting through financial reports for hidden value. Hooked on discovering big ideas, he broke corporate shackles to write direct response copy in the financial niche.

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