What is a concept, really?

When we interviewed job applicants last spring, one of the questions I asked them was: what is a concept? I have since let go of the question because it doesn’t really help in separating the wheat from the chaff. But the large variety of answers left me puzzled. How can it be that such a central term can be understood in so many different ways?

The term ‘concept’ is one of the most misunderstood words in marketing. It’s no wonder that people don’t seem to be able to agree on its meaning, since it is very human to use a vague expression instead of an exact one when you’re not sure what it means. “If you can’t convince, confuse,” a wise man once said.

The ambiguity derives from one of the age-old issues in marketing communications: the commercialization of creative design. How can you make money from thinking, which is immaterial? You can’t. Hopefully no one pays for thinking alone, but for the end result of the thinking process. After all, there are smart people sitting around in agencies thinking about how to solve their client’s problems, and the actually billable work, such as layout design or writing, only makes up a small part of their working time.

Therefore, the concept.

Traditional agencies use beautiful model templates and precise processes for creating concepts. These templates have their pros and cons. They help structure designing and make it easier to present and sell the concept. The client understands that, okay, this presentation was the concept part of the cost estimate. On the other hand, they often give rise to cut-to-size concepts that just happen to check all the boxes on the appropriate form.

Let me tell you a secret: more often than not, a concept isn’t even necessary.

To put things simply, you can say that very often concept planning is added to the cost estimate so that the time spent on designing, thinking and researching can at least somehow be billed. It is bought because you never know exactly what you want. Oftentimes you should first create a strategy that defines more comprehensively what you want to achieve and how.

As a side note, I’d like to mention that I believe that the concept is partly to blame for the fact that IT service providers (especially in Finland) are a great deal bigger than ad agencies, even though the latter have been around for a much longer time. By taking action in time (decades ago), ad agencies could have even seized the construction of their clients’ more robust digital services, because developing a comprehensive brand experience (which definitely includes services) should be part of their core knowledge. However, advertising agencies believe that, in the future too, concept planning – that is, brainwork – is more lucrative than creating concrete results.

A concept alone doesn’t take you very far

A concept normally tries to inject feeling into the normally more rational reasons why people buy things. It’s a smart goal. But in the year 2016 we have other ways of getting our clients’ attention and making products easier to buy than to broadly outline beautiful ideas about them.

In the world of startups, people have long been saying that the idea makes no difference. Instead, it is the finishing of the product, the growth strategy, the client acquisition plan that matter. I believe that the same way of thinking applies to marketing communications as well.

More than concepts, we desperately need polished content that speaks to the audience and easy-to-use services that make their lives easier.

When do you need concept planning?

Does creating content and services take something away from concept planning? Yes and no. The world is not black and white. As a former ad designer I still appreciate great ideas and good concept planning. At its best, a powerful concept actually enables great content creation by discovering something new about people and responding aptly to that realization.

A bad concept – no matter how insightful – is too specific, or on the other hand, too general. A concept that is too specific is hard to grasp as a part of the whole process and only works in certain implementations. A concept that is too general remains bland, it is something under which you can sell ice cream or paper machines.

I feel that the deeper and more long-term the collaboration between the client and the agency becomes, the less there is need for talk about concepts and concept planning. It isn’t necessary to create a new concept every year to achieve that year’s marketing goals, instead, you can focus on polishing up the chosen plan and executing it even in the smallest details. New ideas can be naturally brought into the mix when there is a mutually recognized need for them.

Finally, my own definition of ‘concept’ – and you are free to challenge this.

A concept is the clarification of the necessary measures needed to carry out a chosen strategy. A concept is thus dependent on the strategy, where you should already discover something relevant about the target demographic and the product or service that’s being marketed. The purpose of a concept is to elegantly describe what the idea behind those measures is.