Maya Lin received a B+ for her Vietnam War Memorial concept while an undergraduate at Yale University. Her unconventional design stood in stark contrast to the other 1,400 entries in the competition. But controversy surrounded her until the monument’s completion in 1982.
The prevailing attitude at the time was that monuments should rise heroically above the landscape like the Iwo Jima Memorial sculpture and the Jefferson Memorial, which is based on the Pantheon in Rome. The formula for monument design dictated that any typography on memorials should be a minimum of three inches in height. Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall violated these conventions. It was carved into the earth and the typography was a half-inch tall because she wanted to draw people in to experience the memorial intimately.
The organizers of the competition used a blind entry system numbering each entry to avoid its association with a school or design firm. When some veterans groups and politicians discovered the winner was from a student of Asian descent, even more controversy besieged her. Congress called on her to defend the design.
“All I wanted to do, was to open a space in the landscape which would open a space within us,” said Lin.
Maya Lin had a strong and pure idea that didn’t follow a formula and resulted in the creation of one of the most treasured and beloved monuments in our nation’s history.
In 1965, at a point in his career when Bob Dylan was seriously thinking about quitting music, he wrote a song that would change music forever. Exhausted after an especially grueling tour of England, and disenchanted with his role in the music world, Dylan sat down and wrote 10 pages of something he didn’t categorize in any way; he just knew it was something honest.
“Like a Rolling Stone” ran in excess of six minutes. It ignored the popular convention of the two and a half minute song, a rule that was firmly established with the unprecedented success of the Beatles. Bob Dylan didn’t follow a formula and turned convention on its head. The result was the number one song in rock music history according to multiple music polls and above all, Rolling Stone Magazine. The song changed the music industry and launched Bob Dylan to icon status.
Breaking the rules is common in advertising but it’s usually done as a cheap way to get attention. Dylan and Maya Lin pursued their ideas without regard for the formula of the day. The ideas were groundbreaking and the executions were groundbreaking as well. The execution was always in service to the idea, and coincidentally, against convention.
In advertising we sometimes come up with groundbreaking ideas for our clients. I mean really big audacious ideas, the kind of ideas that make you happy that you make advertising for a living. We think our options for implementing an idea are limited to the usual media plus a few hot new digital applications.
We lean heavily on what the industry is doing today, asking questions like, “Is there a place for a QR tag in this idea,” or “What can we do on Facebook?” We are essentially following the most popular approach and looking for opportunities to finally produce an iPhone app.
Instead, we should ask ourselves questions like, “Where and how can this idea really come alive?” “What media are best suited for this idea?” and even, “What media can we invent that will serve this idea?” If the answer is a 90-second television spot that runs once, then we should do a 90-second spot. If hiring actors to run naked through the Mall of America is the best way to bring this particular idea to life, then that’s what we should do, even though it’s never been done before and even if we can’t prove it will work because it worked for someone else.
The bottom line: Serve the idea and you will serve the brand. Consumers don’t want to see more of the same. They’re exposed to over 5,000 ad messages every day, and they’re very good at filtering out the ones they don’t want to see and hear. Surprise them with big ideas and do it in a way that’s true to the idea, not true to advertising.