Agencies: make sure you take credit for your ideas

18 Feet & Rising was stung recently when a client claimed one of the agency's ideas as its own. Its chief executive, Jonathan Trimble, says the agency model needs to evolve to ensure attribution cannot be lost

Trimble: 'If open conversations with a client are not possible, it is OK to say goodbye rather than try until you die'
Trimble: 'If open conversations with a client are not possible, it is OK to say goodbye rather than try until you die'

Tectonic plates are crashing together, lava emitting from the fissures. We see this first hand as a mid-size agency, whose success or failure is defined by how accurately it can predict where the market is going next. There is no disagreement among the creatives, agency heads and clients: the industry is passing through one of the most disorienting periods in its history. 

Here’s what I see. I could outline various "new models" but, when we discuss theoretical structures instead of practical realities, we stop everyone from seeing what is important. Every day, come rain or shine, our job is to create fresh ideas that hold the audience’s attention. Our ability to do that depends squarely on the talent that thinks up these ideas. The model is the creative people, so we need to lead the charge for what creatives  value. 

I am encouraging open conversation. I am making this an open protocol to stop the debate and start coming up with some answers. Answers that will not be found in the easy chat of coffee-morning debates but through brutal contradiction and careful listening to both sides. It’s what Adam Morgan, the founder of eatbigfish, calls "the rise of the unreasonable". 

Here’s my suggestion for how we should go forward – in four parts.

First, if attribution gets lost sloppily through a dropped ball, a "pinch" clause in a contract, then a precedent is set and the industry is lost overnight. Because beyond fees – which are going down and not up – attribution is the primary way that agencies attract talent and clients and, ultimately, derive value for what they do. 

No matter what gets blabbed about in the pub, we’ve never existed in a system where ideas were owned by us and then licensed, which is the model used by artists or musicians. You cannot copyright an advertising idea. Initially, we gave ideas away and got commission for selling the media space. It didn’t matter. Great work ensued. The money flowed. You didn’t need to own the ideas. Publications – including Campaign – grew up around the freedom to publicise who did that great work. Why do I know who Parv at Wave is? I don’t know him personally. But it’s important that I know he’s one of the best. And while the ecology of some industries can sustain anonymous creative invention, ours cannot. 

Second, there’s lots of talk of disintermediation. So we need to talk about how our work is derived. Economic pressure and the collapse of clients’ business models mean more pick and mix, less "whole egg". 

Let me clarify this metaphor. Selfridges fell in love with an idea we had for a bucking whale – a mechanical bronco ride to raise money for a sustainable fish project. We did not know how to make a fairground ride but the in-house team at Selfridges had some contacts. After the presentation, we never saw the idea again until it was beautifully staged in the Wonder Room, with Prince Charles beside it. 

The reverse is possible too – concede control and you risk giving it to people who don’t deserve it. If the work can be fiddled about with by who-ever has spare time and a magic marker, then we risk damaging the reputation of the authors and the agency. 

Third, what can we practically do? There’s no point attempting to gather the industry around a consistent way of doing things because it doesn’t work that way. This is an industry full of tough competitors and each must find its own way. 

I have been inspired by Lawrence Lessig, Ryan Merkley and their work on Creative Commons. It suggests ways to create a "disintermediated" approach that is commer-cially sustainable. 

I am going to borrow some of the principles. In the beginning there was C (copyright), now we have CC (creative commons). I’m proposing OC (open conversation). I have forwarded this idea to Lessig and Merkley to make OC an official subset of CC for advertising agencies to use. 

Here are the abridged principles:

  • Collaborate on what we have in common.
  • Be open about the big decisions.
  • Find solutions in the spaces between us.
  • Work together confidently and not just legally.

Fourth, this also means we can have a much clearer conversation about pricing. Knowing the impact our ideas have on the client, we can set different parameters for how we capture that value back. For example:

  • Attribution. What freedoms do we have to fully promote ourselves? For example, the win, the work, the outcomes. And, if decoupled, what freedoms exist to hide ourselves?
  • Derivatives. What control do we have of the production of the ideas we create? And if we don’t have control, what level of change to the original idea are we happy with?
  • Ownership. If an idea is not used, can the copyright return to the agency, is it still owned by the client in perpetuity or will there be a mix of the two? For example, a period of time where clients have first right of refusal, just in case.

Some industries price themselves by each condition of "the contract". We’re too quick to price by the hours used or the scope of work, when this doesn’t take into account the value we generate for ourselves through attribution, our input to the production process or all those ideas that don’t get used but form part of the debate. And if these open conversations are not possible and a client wants to change direction underneath you, we’ve reached the conclusion that it’s OK to say goodbye rather than try until you die. It’s as close to a new model as you’re going to get.

Jonathan Trimble is the chief executive of 18 Feet & Rising