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The creative & the thief (a complex relationship with pilfering)

By Andrew Boulton

November 6, 2020 | 4 min read

Creative Advertising lecturer Andrew Boulton explores the worst crime in creativity – idea theft.


Forgive the creatives. Forgive them their inattention and their absence. Forgive their whims and their attachments. Forgive their strangeness. Forgive the length of their trousers and the depth of their feelings. Forgive them for it all.

But perhaps don’t forgive them their larceny. After all, a creative who steals ideas is not really a creative – are they?

Creativity in advertising has a complex relationship with theft. Our searches for inspiration are often more like inelegant heists than the innocent pursuit of stimulation. In need of a creative place to go, we may sometimes borrow the horizon instead of following the path.

But, perhaps naively, I believe that any respectable creative who lifts fully-formed work as a beginning for their own thoughts, would not go so far as to plagiarise it – partly from a sense of imaginative obligation, mostly from a fear of being exposed.

Yet, where there is fuzziness around how we gather and use our inspiration, there is one type of creative theft upon which our morality does not need to squint.

I, as far as I know, have never had an idea stolen from me by a colleague. Perhaps my colleagues have all been virtuous and honourable. Perhaps my ideas have little appeal to a bandit.

But I know of countless creatives who have had their idea nabbed, used (often without any adaptions) and passed off as an original thought, without a backward glance.

Sometimes the work has been bought, sometimes not. Sometimes it has been made, sometimes it has been commended. Sometimes it has been the escalator on which these pickpockets of the imagination have been propelled upward.

And while the morality of what we do – twisted as it is like a barrel of coat-hangers – has never fully confounded me, this is one aspect of the job I can’t comprehend.

Creativity is personal – even when someone else is paying for it. Everything we create is, however invisibly, a reflection of ourselves as a creative – a reminder of what we do and how well we do it. A small footprint in the dusty surface of the mysterious creative moon.

Stealing someone else’s good idea might have all sorts of beneficial outcomes. But the deficit against one’s own sense of creative worth is surely too high, too terminal a price to pay for a moment’s reprieve or a word of praise.

Surely, as soon as you choose to pilfer from someone else’s imagination, you’re conceding your own is inadequate. As soon as you appropriate someone else’s unique mind you’re declaring yours as unfit for the life you find yourself in.

Originality, above all, is the mark of creativity. To be so dismissive of it, to discard it for something so cheap and fleeting as glory, is the mark of someone for whom a great idea is not, and never has been, the only worthwhile prize.

The creative part of this job – where the strange substance of your unusual mind finally begins to pay you back in life – is the best part. It may even be the only good part. And if you choose to cheat yourself out of that, please don’t pretend to be a creative.

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter and teaches Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter

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