I think small matters for three fundamental reasons:
1. Big problems don't require big solutions
One of the most important pieces of academic work in the last few decades has been in the field of behavioral economics. It's hugely important to advertising (Rory Sutherland made it the focus of his two year Presidency of the IPA) but despite this and increasingly popular books on the subject (Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler is as good a place as any to start) we tend to ignore its most basic premises.
One of these is that big behavioral change can occur through small actions. Perhaps the most famous example is of the huge impact the default setting is on an employee's 401k enrollment. More often than not the default is set to opt out. When this is changed to opt in as the default, participation and saving increases dramatically.
Rory Sutherland talked about the issue of people not finishing their drug prescriptions - a waste of tablets and in some cases (eg antibiotics) patients who aren't fully treated (with the ensuing further days off work, medical costs, erc.) So why not change the instructions to read, for example, "first take the yellow tablets for 10 days and then take the red tablets for the next 10 days"). Same medication, much greater likelihood for the treatment course to be finished (this is, I believe, called "chunking").
2. Culture is increasingly small
When I worked on Palm, I was lucky enough to interview Matias Duarte the Head of Human Interface and User Experience (he's now doing amazing work at Google on Android). When I asked him about the goal of his work he quickly replied, "make it invisible".
The same is true of Jack Dorsey's work on Square. An article in the MIT Tech Review said this about the design philosophy: "Square is elegant. The user's flow through payment or application has been reduced to the fewest possible steps; the app has minimal features. This emphasis comes directly from Dorsey, who says, "I'm really good at simplifying things." He espouses a tremendously attractive belief that good industrial design wins customers' trust by disappearing."
This seems to make intuitive sense: we know from experience that the best customer service, for example, is the service you don't notice.
So, in the increasingly well designed world we live in, the advertising beliefs of bigness, interruption and 'grabbing attention' seem rather at odds with an ethos of smallness (to the point of invisibility).
3. Small is good for business
In his book 'Little Bets', Peter Sims talks about how great companies stumble upon greatness. It comes from experimentation and learning from placing little bets rather than ponderously trying to birth perfection. Google's a great example of this (originally a project to index Stanford's library). as are Starbucks and the way comedians and musicians try out new material. It's what gets Pixar from "suck to non-suck" through huge amounts of early iteration and feedback sessions every day around rushes.
But being small isn't just good for start ups, it's great for big brands. At the PSFK conference in New York last year, the designer Andy Spade made the terrific point that "a bigger a brand gets, the smaller it has to act". It's kind of the common sense version of Coke's 'think global, act local'. More importantly, doing lots of small stuff is what makes a brand feel personal and, more importantly, gives it energy and momentum, the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. So being small creates unfair advantage.
Tomorrow, I'll talk about what a small idea looks like.