Over the last month, we saw the ad industry globally celebrate creativity and ‘lions’. And with that celebration, came along conversations around the evolving role of creativity and finding inspiration. One easy way that clients have always fished for inspiration is no doubt, through the pitching process. Yet time and again, in our conversations with agency professionals, the gripe of pitch ethics and etiquette and idea theft have emerged in the conversation. The issue of stealing of an idea, is not new to the region, and disputes involving renowned brands have broken out many times in the past.
Most recently a winning campaign at Cannes for carmaker Hyundai created by Columbia-based creative agency MullenLowe SSP3 saw itself making headlines when a Dutch designer named Rik Oostenbroek accused the campaign of being “super inspired” by his work. Meanwhile, Xiaomi confirmed to Marketing Interactive last month that one of its designers used artworks by artist Peter Tarka without permission after Tarka took to Twitter to expose the incident. The same artwork also involved pieces commissioned by LG. Meanwhile, closer to home in 2016, creative agency Leo Burnett in Malaysia faced plagiarism charges by Malaysian film-maker Tan Chui Mui for its Petronas CNY spot, which was nominated for Cannes Lions festival in France.
It is, as such, not all that surprising for creative agencies to spot an uncanny resemblances in a company’s campaign visuals or concept after losing the pitch to another agency that put in a more attractive quotation.
In the eyes of Isobar Indonesia’s managing director Wisnu Satria Putra, idea theft is “slowly becoming a norm in Indonesia”, especially in the innovation space.
“When we believe in ideas without limit, people tend to ‘borrow’ ideas across categories […] The competition is tough, but idea theft is tougher, and this becoming a serious issue. When we do something good, others simply copy it and get the credit,” he said. He added that in the spirit of growing revenues, idea theft is often overlooked but in fact, the industry is hurting itself by shoving it aside.
Creativity is no longer appreciated the way it used be when it was considered sexy. Yet, we don’t do anything about it. Because, often, it’s all about money.
Hiring consultants such as R3, he added, is one way to minimise idea theft. However, clients could also consider not conducting broad spread creative pitches.
“Instead of exercising our creative muscles based on a creative brief, we can showcase our creative capabilities based on our experience. We have some clients who start the working relationship by having chemistry meeting with us,” he said, adding:
Client-agency relationship can be built without creative pitches. It’s not easy, but doable.
He added that rather than pitching for one-year contracts, agencies should do more to build longer relationships with clients. By doing so, clients can also benefit from better outputs and higher efficiencies.
Anish Daryani, M&C Saatchi Indonesia founder and president director, said victims of such actions often find it hard to digest that it has happened to their work, and feel cheated. However, agencies handling this “stolen idea” are not necessarily partners-in-crime.
“No self-respecting agency will willingly copy another agency’s idea. Its often the client who leads them down the path. And my guess is, the agency doing the work, may not even be aware of it,” he explained.
The existence of idea theft in any market is undeniable, added Daryani, who cited pitches that many pitches in Indonesia run on very short notice and instances of clients calling for pitches just to “explore new territories” for their brand. According to him, sometimes the results are not announced for such a long time that despaired agencies just stop following up.
While there is room for industry bodies to put a mechanism in place to prevent such cases, Daryani acknowledges that execution can be complicated. He said:
Often the idea is tweaked, so there’s a lot of grey area where the ‘theft’ becomes arguable, at best.
On the agency side, Daryani suggests that agencies go beyond the usual non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for pitches to factor in stronger clauses to safeguard their interests. Clients, on the other hand, should also be more mature and show integrity. But he was quick to add that clients that commit idea theft are exceptions in the industry, and publicly naming and shaming those responsible in the event of such cases can help put down the practice.
Health of the industry impacted
Meanwhile, according to TBWA\Indonesia CEO Soum Banerjee, idea is the business itself and as such, idea theft has deeper implications to the health of the overall creative industry. He explained:
We sell ideas. Agencies are defined by well-executed ideas, so we have to be more protective about the ideas we share.
Noting that there are instances where similarities are unavoidable when a brief is limited to execution, Banerjee encouraged clients to do their part to prevent misunderstandings. It includes drawing up a mutual NDA that also safeguard the agency’s proposal, limiting the number of agencies in a pitch, reduce multiple rounds of pitching, and placing more importance on credentials and chemistry with the team.
Wunderman Thompson Indonesia CEO Marianne Admardatine said time is often the biggest collateral damage. Agencies, that work many hours to produce strategies, ideas and creative expressions, have a lot to lose in idea theft.
As the rules of the game becomes harder for agencies, Admardatine said there is a strong need to “elevate the relationship’s balance” between agencies and clients.
One way to make the process more fairer and transparent is for the industry to put forward a legally binding rule protecting all parties involved such as a pitching fee. There has been heavy talks on pitching fee in the past according to Admardatine, but it died quickly as not everyone was on board with the idea.
“Pitching application fee allows everyone to be more disciplined and appreciative on the time and efforts spent. Education to all stakeholders on how important it is to appreciate, and put commercial value in time and original ideas is a good start, and something that is still lacking in this market,” she said.