Unoriginal Sin

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A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Wal-Mart, presumably slightly green-eyed over close competitor Sears' success with the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, had opted for the sincerest form of flattery. In a display of unabashed emulation, the big retailer announced the launch of its very own reality entry, The Scholar, seeking to copy Sears' success in generating zap-proof TV brand mentions in a (they sure hope) controversy-proof media context.

Whether this represents an upgrade on the company's usual flying-happy-face commercials is a matter of debate. That it's emblematic of an emerging advertising zeitgeist where clever originality is no longer the singular coin of the realm is not. Especially here in the land of the freedom fry and the home of SpicyParis.com.

In fact, some 21 years after "1984," the pressures countervailing against the unique and the not-seen-before are more pervasive and intransigent than ever. And it's not just a matter of seeing more and more TV commercials that paste some highly compensated schmuck's moderately hip track onto mundane "people using product" visuals and call it an idea. Instead, it's a growing roster of clients-and their agencies-that seem to be queuing up to join the "If it worked for them, it'll work for us" parade.

My view: Willie Sutton may have had a point when said he robbed banks "because that's where the money is," but it's a hell of a mission statement for an ad agency. Yet the sheer paucity of discernibly original domestic work suggests that it's only the scarcest of U.S. clients and rarest of our colleagues who still live by the Golden Rule-whoever breaks new ground deserves the Gold.

At this year's Andys, U.S.-based agencies took home a whole eight out of 20 top TV honors. Meaning, and please check my math, 60 percent went elsewhere. Search the signs and portents for the proximate causes of this trend and it's easy to conclude that the forces at play are complex, diffuse and rooted in shifting organizational, structural, financial and even cultural considerations. But when you cut to the cliche, it seems like four critical factors deserve special attention.

The first, no surprise, is economic. Len Orkin, who was-I kid you not-one of Bill Bernbach's lawyers and is still an amazing advertising attorney, observes that it's gotten "too damned expensive to do business in this country." Seen in that light, of course so many clients have become as creatively cautious as they are focused on ROI-and not just in their marketing but in the products they actually take to market. Personal observation: just as ontogeny inevitably recapitulates phylogeny, less than original advertising is almost guaranteed when the thing being advertised is, itself, me-too. See, for example, Detroit automakers and the good agencies now breaking picks on same.

The second is a direct by-product of the above. Economists and scientists talk about the "cost of discovery," which roughly equates to how many person-hours and how many bucks it takes to unearth the new. Apply that notion to shrinking agency revenues, margins and creative staffs and you don't need Illustrator to paint the picture.

The third is environmental, as in creative environment, as in the sheer volume of ideas coming from both inside and outside agencies around the world. I don't know about you, but living in a global advertising echo chamber is making it highly difficult to tell where "influences" leave off and novel ideas begin.

Finally, there's the other environmental consideration-the heaping helping of media chaos and clutter that even a cursory reading of the tea leaves suggests will be our ultimate gift to succeeding generations. In fact, it's in this steaming cauldron that a legitimate answer to ad zapping-branded content-is mutating from the brilliance of Fallon's BMW Films to the banality of Wal-Mart's The Scholar.

In part, what we're seeing is an inevitable product of a convergence between Hollywood and Madison Avenue. And in those conditions, it seems almost certain that clients will incline toward a value system that puts a premium on remakes, sequences and spinoffs of previously proven concepts. Anyone who thinks it's going to be different is hereby reminded that Anakin ultimately rejects the dark side of the force in Episode VI on the front of the screen-not the back.

Is this too much worry about the future? Anyone who's ever been part of a "next generation" and dealt with their predecessor's nostalgia for the "good old days" could certainly make the argument. But I'd counter that originality, defined by the storied DDB art director Helmut Krone as "the dark side of the moon; not seen before," is on the wane only in places where you can lose your job-or your AOR status-for championing it.

That being the case, it's time come to grips with the fact that unrestrained and fresh ideas are now as likely, if not more so, to be found out in the world than inside an agency war room. And it's time we started honoring the evolving role of agencies as magnets for good ideas-and not just the sole source of heat and light.

Which, in turn, prompts an idea that's just evil, or perhaps silly enough to warrant some discussion. What would happen if, following the lead of the Oscars and the Tonys, we created a brand new awards category designed to prompt agencies to put aside "not invented here" and look under every conceivable rock for an idea that beats "me too." Maybe we call it "Best agency adaptation of an original idea."

For those of you who think this is the dumbest idea since garnishing Wendy's chili with a severed finger, I have just one word: "Whassup?"

Jef Loeb is a creative director/writer at Brainchild Creative in San Francisco.

www.brainchildcreative.com.

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