Whose idea is it anyway?

An incumbent agency pitches for an account, doesn't get it but finds its ideas executed by the winning agency. This is just one scenario, and other agencies claim that they, too, have been cheated at some point.

While some have argued the practice is less rampant as compared to a market like India, the age old problem still exists locally and nothing concrete is being done to tackle it.

Richard Bleasdale, managing partner of agency-client relationship consultancy The Observatory, says he has seen his fair share of these practices in the industry. “I have seen a pre-pitch contract from a very large Singapore corporate, which forced agencies who wanted to pitch to agree to sign over all their ideas as part of their entry ticket. This was without any pitch fee being offered.

I have also seen pre-pitch contracts where agencies are offered a pitch fee but again this means that they must agree to sign over their ideas as part of the agreement.

“These are rare examples, but the point is that they do happen.”

Mike Langton, vice president, business development, APAC for Adz, says he doubts there is an agency CEO in Southeast Asia who hasn't seen this happen at least once.

“Usually (this happens) less with multinational corporations and more with local brands, but there've been exceptions.”

And that it's been happening for ages doesn't mean it's an acceptable practice. “It just means it hasn't been addressed properly yet,” says Langton, who has previously headed agencies such as XM Asia, Carat and others.

According to Sony Wong, managing director, Singapore, Omnicom Media Group, idea stealing seems to take place more on the creative front. “I have heard of such incidents but only a few, and mainly in the creative arena rather than in media (pitches). That said it is always very difficult to prove that outright plagiarism has occurred and I believe not many agencies would take the clients to court just for that.”

So is there a solution to the problem? In a market like India, agencies look to industry bodies such as the Advertising Agencies Association of India or the Indian Society of Advertisers which have the power to stop these practices, to remedy the situation.

Locally, industry bodies like the Institute of Advertising Singapore, Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Singapore(4As) or the Marketing Institute of Singapore need to step up to give advice and guidelines to their members on how to deal with such issues, says Bleasdale.

“At The Observatory, we are completely opposed to the thought that IP should be given away for free. We will not get involved in search and selection processes where this sort of practice is being considered or undertaken,” he added.

However, at some level, agencies can be their own worst enemies, with there being history in Singapore of creative thinking or ideas being given away for free or heavily discounted by the agencies, he continues. “So if that is the norm, it is not surprising that some marketers will see this practice as ok to continue.”

Theodore Choo, president of the 4As says that it will soon publish a book of guidelines covering good business practices and case studies.

“It’s our aim to educate through sharing of good business practice from across industries, in the effort that by sharing the guidelines and experience more agencies, clients, and partners understand and appreciate the pitch process better and the amount of resources, time and financial commitment placed on any pitches.”

However, he added that it has no legal power to enforce any ruling.

He specifically even refers to flawed practices in government tenders. He says that the 4As is lobbying with government bodies for a more transparent approach to the tender process, and hopes that it will back more transparent initiatives, while using enforcement as a last resort.

“Currently while we purport to be a first world country, some business practices by governmental agencies and big organizations are still operating in a third world mindset.”

He paints a bleak picture for agencies, saying it’s left to the individual agency to take the matter up with the specific client, and the time, effort and justification may not be worth the effort.

The burden of proof will be on the agency (should it choose to take the client to court).Then though it may win on moral grounds it may lose out on potential clients when they hear of it, reasoned Choo.

On the part of agencies, Bleasdale recommends that agencies need to say “no” more often.

OMG’s Wong says that his agency usually has a page at the end of a pitch document to state claims to its ideas, but added that it largely operates on mutual trust. “Again, we never had to use it & I hope we never have to exercise our copy rights over a dispute with any clients. It boils down to mutual and professional respect between the client & the agency,” says Wong.

With additional reporting from Afaqs!