Idea Ownership...Discuss

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Jason Gaboriau
Executive Creative Director/Partner, Amalgamated
I think it was right for Leo Burnett to step up and claim their idea. It took a tremendous amount of guts, and I applaud them for doing so. I hope they get the credit they deserve, if not from the industry, then internally. I hope that the people who work at that agency see that their management is willing to do whatever it takes to fight for their ideas.

I cannot imagine that Leo Burnett would put itself out there publicly unless they were absolutely sure the idea was their own; though I do believe it's plausible that Tracy Locke could have very well come up with the same idea on their own. It was the client's responsibility to let both agencies know they were presented with a similar idea, and that credit would have to be shared, even though one agency would be executing. Advertising is a business of ideas—that's what we sell. It doesn't matter if it's TV, print, online, outdoor, in-store, coupon or urine cake, for that matter. If we cannot take credit for our ideas, then what's the point in sharing them?

Scott Cohn
Partner/Executive Creative Director, Night Agency
It might be difficult for them to prove, but if Leo Burnett presented that idea to Fox and 7-Eleven like they claim, and Fox and 7-Eleven then went on to execute the idea without paying or crediting Leo Burnett, then I applaud Leo for coming forward and staking their claim. Their services were called on and rendered, and they deserve to be compensated accordingly.

It's not uncommon for companies to ask agencies to pitch creative in order to win the business; it's taken for granted that should the company adopt any of the ideas presented, that would also mean adopting the agency that came up with them. Unfortunately, as many of us have learned, that is not always the case. Somewhere along the line, ideas get passed on without any contract, and sometimes they get appropriated without any consideration for their authors. That is a reprehensible tactic, and its perpetrators should be identified. If Leo Burnett's claim is true, then they were 100 percent right to raise a flag, and I hope it sends a message to others looking to co-opt the work of people who make their living from their ideas. The solution here is simple: if you don't want to pay for ideas, just come up with your own.

Christian Anthony
Co-CEO, Special Ops Media
It's a very interesting issue. I think different agencies are at different points of the spectrum on this. As a young agency, one of the things that we've done early on is put our ideas on the table for free. That's been something that as you become more established you try to do less of, because that's your capital. Agencies have always had to put their ideas on the table of the pitch process. Does every agency have a story where they felt like somebody might've taken their idea or the crux of their idea and modified it? Sure. Was this a good idea and a good execution? Absolutely. But would you be hard-pressed to think it wasn't an obvious idea? I don't think so. I'm just speculating, but if you went to 10 agencies on this, I wouldn't be surprised if at least two of them came back with a very similar idea. I don't think that's uncommon, especially when you have such a recognized brand like The Simpsons, where the connection to 7-Eleven is so obvious.

But is the idea protected property? I don't think so. One of the reasons this was so successful was because it was executed well. The idea in and of itself can be strong, but it ultimately comes down to the execution, and it's that part of the discussion that people should focus on as well.

Riccardo Zane
President, Agency.com
If Burnett feels they have the right to say, "Hey, it was our idea," then they should push that. The bigger issue is who owns ideas within the space. If we're commissioned by clients, then our client owns that idea. But what if that client doesn't do anything with the idea? Is there a statutory period where we gave you an idea and you didn't do anything, so now it's ours to propose to another competitor? As president, those are the things I spend a lot of my time in contract negotiations trying to sort through—which is the most boring part of my job.

But from a creative agency perspective, I think it would be great if there was a way for us to co-own ideas where if I'm at the point where client X decides not to move forward on something, then we have the rights to that idea. Moving forward, I think there will be more and more agencies that are going to be asking for that. But at some point, if you've got an idea and a company takes it, OK, that's part of the way the industry's functioned in the past. That sucks creatively, but we live within an industry that pays our bills. Is it right? Probably not. Can we shift it? Probably so, on a client-by-client basis. But to go to the point where the client owns the idea and the liability, even if the agency is not executing, I think is incredibly far-fetched and unfair.

The onus is on the agency. If they've got PDFs, signoffs and various things from the client, those are pretty good proof points. Signoffs are usually designed to protect the client, but sometimes they can help the agency as well.


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