A few months ago I listened to a fascinating podcast featuring one of pop music’s most successful writers. He was explaining what made a song into a massive hit record.
There were some technical music bits about the structure of the chorus and the bridge, but what sticks in my mind is his assessment that a hit song perfectly balances sounding new and different with sounding quite familiar. This comment took me aback but as I listened to new songs that have raced up the charts since then, I’ve realised how true it is.
In fact many famous artists – including Ed Sheeran who has recently settled a $20m case for plagiarising a Matt Cardle composition and is still involved in two other lawsuits – have got into trouble by either being heavily influenced by, or downright copying, the work of others.
There are parallels with this in the world of marketing. Every time a creative pitch comes up, agencies are under pressure to produce new and exciting work in order to clinch the deal.
But are there any new ideas under the marketing sun? Do brand-side marketers like the comfort of that bit of familiarity in the work they see and if so, does danger lurk for brand and agency alike that they might accidentally favour ideas that have already been done elsewhere? How do brand decision-makers deal with these issues when they are seeking new agency partners?
I recently asked a selection of brand and agency marketers a series of questions on this topic.
Tabitha Brear of Silicon Valley Bank responded: “The music analogy is a good one; in the same way that we’re attracted to new artists that sound similar to other acts we like – hence the magic of Spotify – we’re looking for design that resonates with us based on other brands we engage with. Web design all feels very familiar too, it goes in waves and brands start to become fairly tricky to identify based on their website alone. Cover the logo and it could be anyone’s site.
“In terms of originality, I’ve found that when an agency has been working on an account for a while, the ideas can get pretty tired. You get a sense that the bottom of a barrel is being scraped. There’s also the risk that you stop seeing the crazier ideas as the agency knows you’ll reject them, which stifles their creativity and originality. I think you have to keep pushing the client and pitching the crazy ideas, otherwise we really will be getting into safe, dull territory.”
Others argued that where a lack of originality does occur, often it can be the result of unfortunate coincidence or excessive caution on the part of the client. Pete Martin of AlwaysBe Content said: “I feel most similar ideas tend to be unintentional. Samey briefs produce samey solutions. However, I think bang-out plagiarism is quite rare. What’s more common is stuff that just seems to be in the ether at the same time. You’ve got an idea and someone else does something spookily similar at roughly the same time. A few years back, we launched an ad for an extra cold beer with an upside down pint as an ice lolly - and so did Guinness.”
Martin believes that shortcomings in the pitch process itself can often be a barrier to originality. He said: “One problem is the use of found images at the early visualization stage. The agency-client approval process means that people buy into and/or approve the early visual. Unthinkingly and to their cost, some agencies have then found themselves quite closely re-creating copyrighted works in the finished campaign.
“In truth, the traditional pitch format is a terrible way to get well-targeted original ideas. The objective is to win the business, not to produce original ideas per se. Unsurprisingly, agencies play to the panel. In reality, original ideas demand grown-up conversations about risk and long-term return that are unlikely to happen in pitch situations.”
He added: “Of course, not every mold needs to be broken. Some molds work perfectly. Some markets demand recognisable forms. Equally, some clients don’t want, or can’t get through, creative work that aims for originality over proven efficacy. So, it’s horses for courses.”
Don't get too comfortable
Nick Morris of Dropbox agrees, but argues that an element of ‘discomfort’ should always be present in every creative pitch. He said: “A familiar ethic is important, but it should be complemented with a respectable amount of discomfort - this is where people are challenged, inspired and it can produce the most engaging results. We tend to try and create a reaction in people to get them thinking and talking for a good reason, rather than just to shock for the sake of attracting attention.”
So how do clients and agencies alike ensure that their campaign ideas are original – or, at least, original enough to avoid censure?
Morris said: “We leave it up to the agency to present ideas but certainly have checks in place throughout and work with the agencies to ensure that work is original, that it will land with our audiences in the right way and hopefully inspire. All companies now exist in an ‘attention economy’, an extremely busy space when it comes to share of voice, and so agencies know they must deliver something that is going to stand out from the crowd. The best ideas are normally developed over time, so, often in pitches, we look for agencies that can think and develop ideas at the time, rather than if they have the best, fully-fledged ideas immediately.”
Katy Howell of Immediate Future said: “We check everything. Being in social means our work gets public fast and can elicit a rapid response. There is no way you want to plagiarise anything, ever! While original work (especially creative) is a must, in social you need to catch the trending current of opinion and ideas. If a topic is hot, a format is scaling fast or a style is making the headlines (think meme) then brands and agencies need to move fast to capture the opportunity and build on the trend.”
However, Paul Bullock of Fast Web Media argues that, perhaps, the originality debate is a red herring for brands and what is actually required is for clients to reframe what they regard as Return-on-Investment (ROI).
“I think it's human nature to err on the side of caution and comfort,” said Bullock “The challenge lies in how much you're willing to risk that comfort. There's a theory in storytelling that there are only seven core plotlines: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. The same can apply to marketing as we're always working to similar templates and pumping out similar campaigns. Why? Because they generally work, providing strong ROI that we're not willing to risk. This creates a rut where we're running around in ever decreasing circles and doing the same thing over and over again.
“But this can change by altering the way we view ROI. If we see it simply in financial terms, originality will be hard to come by: the consequences of that originality failing are too high. However, if we expand our vision of ROI to include more intangible benefits - learnings into creativity and the production process for example - we'll have much more success. Defining success purely in financial terms means that there are no other benefits. If we're to break out of familiar ruts, it's time to review what return on investment really means and how creativity plays into it.”
Steve Antoniewicz is head of consulting at The Drum Consulting
The Drum’s search consultancy service helps brands to choose agencies and avoid the worst pitfalls of pitching. To find out more visit http://www.recommendedagencies.com/consultancy.