Helen Edwards: Agencies and accusations of plagiarism

Helen Edwards: on agency curating
Helen Edwards: on agency curating

Advertising agencies in the habit of 'curating' ideas rather than creating them run the risk of doing themselves out of a job

Advertising agencies like to celebrate the creativity that defines them. It is why clients commit time and money, and often overcome difficulties, to work with them. It is the bit, according to the industry mantra, that clients cannot do for themselves.

Yet many agency teams are not so much creators as curators, seeking out ready-made ideas and content to appropriate for their clients’ brands, often to the considerable irritation of the true originators.

The practice is not new. You can still feel the wrath of the 80s video director who accused ‘so-called creative teams’ of ‘ripping off pop videos frame-for-frame’. More recently, the accusation of plagiarism has been levelled by artists and directors at big, award-winning campaigns for Honda, Guinness, Olympus and Aero (see 30 seconds, below).

As with so much in commercial life, digital connectivity has not created a behaviour, but has served as an accelerator.
Today, teams are spared the effort of the trip to the obscure art dealer-ship or cult-film cinema to get their hands on promising material; they can just sit back and spin through YouTube.

Since this can be easily done with or without a specific brief in mind, agency teams around the world are sitting on film clips, images, techniques and characters, just waiting for the right brands to append them to. It didn’t take long for Fenton to show up in an ad.

Agency curating brings into view the informal and utterly lopsided adbiz code on what is and what is not OK to plunder. Be first to be influenced by a brilliant piece of original film, as Wieden & Kennedy was for its Honda ‘cog’ spot, and you can be fêted with industry awards.

It is strictly taboo, however, to steal from another ad. Memories can be long and unforgiving on this one, aided by the quaint practice of preserving ancient commercial fragments – ads, in stout, hardback awards annuals.

Does any of this matter? Isn’t success that is borrowed preferable to something less strong but original? Is agency curating defensible as long as the advertising works, and there is no IP infringement?

After all, ‘sampling’ is an established part of music culture, and the line between ‘influence’ and ‘theft’ has always been blurred; so perhaps the curator shortcut should not occupy too much worry time.

Nevertheless, two watchpoints spring to mind, one for either side of the client-agency divide.

For marketers, the concern must be that the idea has been shoehorned into the strategy rather than specifically crafted for it. Research will help, of course, but if two or more routes are being tested, there may be an execution effect in favour of the one that comes with a watchable YouTube clip.

For agencies, the danger is more fundamental: high fees are justified by rare skills, and the ability to curate is nothing like as rare as the talent to originate. If the internet is where the ideas are taken from, clients might be tempted to trawl the net for themselves, or find savvy, lower-cost curators to do it for them.

Agencies are right to celebrate creativity, and clients are right to prize it, but no one should be blind to the natural human desire to achieve the same for less. There is nothing new here, either.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand

30 seconds on: curated ads

  • Nike’s latest TV spot, ‘Make it count’, is a montage of footage taken from popular culture, featuring more than 40 clips spanning sports (Federer in action), cartoons (Popeye) and viral clips.
  • In the making of its ‘Cog’ TV ad for Honda, Wieden & Kennedy admitted to giving copies of Der Lauf der Dinge – a 1987 film showing a domino-style chain reaction of objects – to its scriptwriters as ‘inspiration’. The film’s creators started legal action but dropped it.
  • Irish agency Arks ran into similar trouble with its 1994 TV spot for Guinness when it took an idea director Mehdi Norowzian had previously shown the agency and made it with a different director. Norowzian filed a lawsuit against Arks and Guinness but it was eventually dismissed.
  • German agency DSG came under suspicion of plagiarising a short film by Taijin Takeuchi in a commercial for Olympus. After accusatory comments built up on YouTube, DSG responded by posting that it had ‘intentionally quoted’ the film.
  • JWT London’s 2009 ad for Aero bore a striking resemblance to a YouTube video also showing a skateboarder ploughing through a sea of balloons in a skate park; creative director Russell Ramsay conceded that the agency ‘did acknowledge it in the end’.


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