In Defense of Inevitable Creative Outcomes

Viewpoint: The Rush to Point the Finger of Plagiarism Often Ignores What's Best for the Client

By Published on .

Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
A few days ago, I stated on my agency's website that advertising is not, as some would contend, an originality contest.

Too frequently ads are accused of being rip-offs of music videos or movies, without recognizing the talent that is required to identify creativity within one artistic genre and translate it successfully into another -- namely marketing.

To be clear: I despise plagiarism in all its forms. So much so that I forbid our creatives from thumbing through advertising annuals while developing ideas. Furthermore, I agree with those who assert that a good agency must demonstrate originality on a consistent basis.

However, the desire to do what's unprecedented must be balanced by the humility to do what's appropriate. Only then is an agency of maximum value to its clients.

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What's more, it can't be ignored that different agencies are frequently receiving similar creative briefs. Many car brands want to communicate fuel-efficiency; multiple laptops models want to communicate portability; and countless video games want to communicate realism. It's not coincidental that analogous ideas arise -- it's inevitable.

At my last agency, we produced an ad for Sony that ran exclusively throughout Latin America. Several months later, Crispin Porter & Bogusky ran a remarkably similar execution for Volkswagen in the U.S. Unless the Crispin team was reading Argentinean architecture magazines, I doubt they stole the idea from us. And had they discovered our ad in time to change theirs, I'd like to believe they'd have chosen not to.

Since prospective VW consumers in the U.S. were unaware of our Sony ad, the only reason to make a change would have been to satisfy the agency's ego, not the client's best interests.

I'm a firm believer that when creative similarities occur purely by coincidence -- without a geographic, demographic or competitive overlap that compromises the effectiveness of an idea -- it's selfish and irresponsible for an agency to withhold the work.

There should be no debate about whether advertising is art or commerce: It is clearly art in the interest of commerce. If an ad is well-executed, well-received and accomplishes a business objective, to lambast it for being derivative would be to miss the point of our industry's existence.

As for the matter of repurposing popular culture in the interest of marketing, I'll restate my belief that there's no easy way to copy a music video, movie scene or piece of artwork and make it relevant to a marketing campaign. Just as it takes tremendous skill for a music producer to identify a sample-worthy classic and reinterpret it in a way that will resonate with a modern audience, connecting the dots between art, business and consumers requires genuine talent.

By all means, originality should be celebrated, risk should be rewarded and innovation should be admired. But so, too, should the ability to translate popular culture into effective marketing. Not when it's done illegally, surreptitiously, or dishonestly -- but when it's done humbly, artfully and insightfully. After all, if it were easy, the struggling "branded content" companies established in last five years would be thriving today.

Mike Wolfsohn is founder and chief creative officer at independent agency High Wide & Handsome.
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