J. Michael Willard
4 min readOct 11, 2018


What’s the Big Idea? Or, Galaxy Thinking

There is thinking, and then there is Galaxy Thinking, my personal metaphor for problem solving in business, government and life.

Edward Bernays, sometimes called the Father of Modern PR, labeled it the “Big Think”. He was on to something.

I appropriated my own branding, but certainly don’t put myself in the same solar system as Mr. Bernays; or, for that matter, my friend PR legend Harold Burson.

I tend to be more P.T. Barnum, but with a dash of Mr. Peepers with England’s goofy Mr. Bean in the mix. Oh, and don’t confuse self-deprecation with humility — my ego soars with the eagles.

In my version of creativity, it is simply reaching out to the furthermost and brightest star in the galaxy — read that unique idea — and slowly bringing it back to earth.

It is a conceptual process having to do with adapting to changing conditions by taking calculated and strategic risks.

Don’t let this scare you. It’s not higher math.

It does, however, require political aforethought. One must be prepared to think beyond simple action/ re-action to other possible results.

Often consequences of any new idea are serendipity — like where pick-up sticks land when dropped from the can. Often accidental ramifications can occur.

Galaxy Thinking proposes a “what if” strategy, and the “what ifs” virtually always go counter to conventional thinking by the very DNA of the process.

For example, Christopher Columbus (prevailing view was the earth was flat), Charles Darwin (man evolved from primates), Steve Jobs (personal computing would revolutionize communication) and Ted Turner (the world is our audience with CNN).

Or, a modern version, Amazon, the online book store turned everything store. Certainly, the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, was a Galaxy Thinker.

All defied conventional wisdom at the time.

I utilized Galaxy Thinking when I acquired my first PR/Ad firm in Eastern Europe, leading to several more offices and various affiliates.

The mothership, where I worked at the time as a managing director in Moscow, said they planned to close the Kyiv office I had opened 24-months earlier. At the time I left, it was profitable.

The company was going public and, predictably, didn’t want a slew of risky market junkers in the mix to muck up a deal. I had an emotional connection to Kyiv, damn near teary.

The Galaxy Idea: What if I bought the Kyiv operation? It was an outlandish thought. I didn’t have deep pockets, hardly any pockets at all.

There was risk galore. Operating in the Wild East was difficult enough, but to do so without the cover of a multi-national umbrella was like a blind pilot high on peyote seeds.

Besides, the Kyiv office at the time had slipped from profitability to losing money for the previous six months it had been without strong direction. It was a company orphan.

Hence, “The Risky Thought”. Is it possible? The second stage was “The Rational Reasoning”.

It would only work if we had fuel-injected innovation and creative management as our talisman. Everything else was simply process.

It would also take luck.

Our competitors, J.W.T., BBD&O, the whole alphabet soup of contenders, were solidly formed along the lines of traditional agencies. We had to be obnoxiously different.

To begin with I eschewed calling The Willard Group either a public relations or an advertising company. Instead, we became a knowledge company, and added revenue streams to bolster the claim.

In other words, in football parlance, we called a lot of audibles and a few trick plays.

I also banned the use of TWG for The Willard Group. IBM (International Business Machines) could get away with it because its moniker was obsessively generic. When Hewlett Packard changed to HP — dissing two great innovators — they came off sounding like a brand of motor additive.

Within six months we were once again profitable, having regained several accounts we had lost and winning nearly every competitive pitch.

In short, Galaxy Thinking involves navigating through meteor showers of “what if” questions to reach an innovative, though weirdly sensible solution.

It is not a difficult process.

It does, however, require tossing in the trash bin pre-conceived notions, conventionality and, quite often, contrary folks. Related to this point, I dumped the fellow who had led the office in my absence.

He said the office couldn’t afford both of us. I told him he was right, and then bid him goodbye.

Butch Cassidy wasn’t wrong when he posed the question to the Sundance Kid in the movie: (paraphrasing slightly), “Why is it I have vision and everyone else is wearing bifocals.”

Robert Frost wrote that a good poem begins with a lump in the throat. Assuming it’s not a peanut butter sandwich, the same can be said for the Big Idea, the Great Kahuna or the Silver Bullet idea.

You know the one I’m talking about, the idea that awakens you at 4 a.m., sending shivers of “Holy Moly” to your soul.



J. Michael Willard

I am a novelist but my day job is utilizing my years as a business consultant, journalist, and public service in the field of international development.