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‘If you’re too original, you confuse people’: why nothing's wrong with a bit of creative imitation

Collister's team once wrote a script featuring parachuting Elvises

Are we too obsessed with originality in advertising?

A couple of months ago, the Titanium jury at Cannes threw out the Clemenger BBDO campaign for Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission – ‘Meet Graham’ – because it was derivative.

It was, they told us, a copy of a campaign that won a D&AD Silver back in 1985.

Never mind the fact that half the jury were still in nappies at the time ‘Natural Born Smoker’ was made.

Elsewhere, the Knorr campaign ‘Love At First Taste’, which I predicted would win plenty, won nothing.

Again, the jury felt it was too similar to ‘First Kiss’, a viral video with 125m views on YouTube.

The only thing the two videos really had in common was Tatia Pilieva, the massively talented director of both.

When I first started out as a copywriter all those years ago, my mum asked: “Do you sit and copy things, then?”

I was outraged.

“No, I think up new ideas!”

Heavy emphasis on the word new.

But then I thought about it a bit.

Come to think of it, yes, I did copy things.

I did a campaign for milk and the ‘Accrington Stanley’ spot is still remembered by people in their forties, who were kids when it ran.

It was a single shot, no cuts, two boys talking about milk.

There were about ten commercials in the campaign, all constructed the same way. Tight framing, dialogue, all sympathetically directed by Simon Cheek at Redwing.

I nicked the approach from Joe Pytka.

I’d recently seen his reel and a couple of brilliant commercials for John Hancock Financial Services.

So, I copied Pytka.

Not that anyone spotted it, partly because Pytka was copying Robert Altman, who was copying Orson Welles, who was copying… (and so on), and partly because ‘Accrington Stanley’ was a copy, not a clone.

One of my teams back in yesteryear created a commercial for a pre-mixed bourbon-and-coke brand in which the idea was about the ‘crazy mixed-up world’.

They’d just seen Honeymoon In Vegas with the parachuting Elvises.

Hey, that was crazy and mixed up, so they wrote an ad with flying Elvises – which I turned down.

“Copy the idea,” I told them. “Not the execution.

“Have cowboys on surfboards, sky-diving pontiffs, roller-skating King Charles IIs, I don’t care. Anything except quiffs in parachutes.”

I went away on holiday.

They were lazy and they presented the script and made an ad that was a clone of the scene from the Nick Cage movie.

What we call a rip-off, in the trade.

Mark Earls has written a brilliant book on the subject.

‘Copy, Copy, Copy. How To Do Smarter Marketing’ makes the point that every one of us is a genetic copy of our parents, but we are different to both of them.

That’s what happens if you copy a great idea. The copy often ends up morphing into something uniquely its own.

Copying encourages error, and error is where creative magic can happen.

Turning to the ads recently submitted to Creative Works, then, do you remember Cinema Paradiso?

In particular, the scene where the projectionist projects the movie onto the walls of the town?

Here’s the same idea, put to work by McGarryBowen to advertise the US Open.

It’s not original but it’s relevant and appropriate, and two out of three ain’t bad.

Same thing with Skoda – ‘Reconnect Robbie'.

The format, where we see families reunited, is tried and trusted, from This Is Your Life to Oprah to Long Lost Families.

But that doesn’t mean the two-minute film isn’t heart-warming and watchable – it is.

Have a look at ‘Brave the Shave’ for Macmillan Cancer Support by The Full Service.

There’s nothing original about it, but it definitely had me tearing up.

And visiting the website.

And learning more.

Hollywood has always known this: if you’re too original, you confuse people.

If they have to use their heads to work out what you’re on about, their hearts remain untouched.

Patrick Collister is The Drum's contributing editor and Google’s creative lead in The Zoo EMEA. He tweets at @directnewideas.