A book without an idea is just a dictionary.

Written by

Andrew Millar


November 21, 2007

The local creative professionals club are debating ‘Idea v. Execution’ for a bit of fun.

My worry is that it could come across as a bit of a home movie for those of us who argue this every day with clients.

It seems to them, on occasions the idea takes up too much room in the ad. That room could sell, sell, sell! is always the argument.

There is no debate really. Ideas in advertising are fundamentally necessary to help customers, read, absorb and most importantly, remember our marketing message. Without an idea you’ve got a shopping list. (And the reason you need to write them down is you can’t remember them!)

I casually dropped the line ‘A book without an idea is just a dictionary’ to one of the debaters arguing for ideas. It was a throwaway, but it’s true.

When was the last time you curled up in bed with a good Webster Standard Edition?

When was the Little Collins ever on the top of the New York Times Best Seller’s List?

And whoever engaged in debate over red wine, long into the wee small hours of the morning, over the significance of the positioning of ‘bore – to be dull and uninteresting’ between ‘bordure – a broad boarder used in heraldry’ and ‘boreal – of the Northern regions adjacent to the Arctic’ by the authors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. (I think the author was really trying to explore an issue beyond the narritave of the general text. What do you think?…).

Sure the Dictionary is meant to use the technique of alphabetical listing as an idea.
But can you imagine if that technique was applied to other influential books of history?

The Bible would still roughly start with Adam. But the underlying context of the rest of the text and its message for mankind would be rather lost.

What about Mein Kampf? Sure the world would have been a better place if this was just a list of definitions. But it is rather funny to imagine the little guy ranting to empty seats instead of a stadium full of burning torches… “”A is for Achtung! Vy? Bekouse I am not getting any!!!!”” Imagine him turning to Goebbels and smacking him over the head with the script “”Ve are goin to loose heaps on das katering.”” (I apologise for that very Spike Milligan moment.)

And what about the Bard of Avon? If he’d have alphabetically ordered Henry VI Part One, his fame would have been forgotten long before the end of Act 1. Sure, students around the world would be happier, but we would not be able to quote him to make ourselves look intelligent. And think of all the ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ jokes we’d have lost….

I think I better stop. I’m beginning to argue against myself….

Yes I know, a dictionary is a reference book. We use them but not for entertainment, not since we looked up ‘fart’ in Second Grade. We read books by Wolfe and Hemingway for that. And they do use execution as part of their fabric. For example Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of The Vanities (good book, bad, bad film…) wrote each chapter in a different style as each chapter was written from the viewpoint of a different character. And Hemingway who rejected the idea of pages of needless description to set a scene. In The Old Man and The Sea, we learn about the main character by how he interacts with his surroundings. He used words economically and rarely used adjectives.

Both these writers have harnessed the power of ideas to make themselves famous. And, yeah, sure there was a spell checker in the background. But I’ll bet you won’t find its name in the dedication.