Beckham Unicef ad's similarities to my 'Mr X' film raises serious questions for creatives
A view from Alex Nicholson

Beckham Unicef ad's similarities to my 'Mr X' film raises serious questions for creatives

Freelance director and creative director Alex Nicholson asks if original work in advertising is being undervalued.

As a freelance director and creative director, I get tasked to come up with a lot of ideas.

Own-able ideas, original ideas, really weird ideas, beautiful shot ideas, fast turn around ideas, "we have no money" ideas, "we needed these yesterday" ideas, "we want to win a pencil" ideas. 

I’m writing ideas all day long – looking at previously shot content and finding out that X brand has done this idea, Y brand another… Coming up with creative ideas is often like The Simpsons; if you can think of it, then likely it’s been done already. 

"There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from someone’s work. What is wrong is when you copy something directly"

A good director, or good creative anything, comes up with a good idea and then researches long and hard to see if it’s been done before, to see if it fits with the brand, how original it is, how people are likely to respond to it.  

If it’s too similar to something that’s been done before, you start again. You work hard to come up with original content in an already bloated market and if you’re like me, you work fucking hard to come up with something different. It’s a pride thing.  

Now, in an industry that has done everything – it’s not always easy to come up with something that hasn’t been done before. I get that. So you tailor it to the brand, and the situation. You change it accordingly, you look to see how you could move the idea along to be something new, one that is inspired by another, but not a direct copy. That’s why you’re a creative.

There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from someone’s work. What is wrong is when you copy something directly. When someone takes your idea, your hard work, to present it as their own unique work.

This week, Unicef released an ad, featuring David Beckham sitting against a dark background, with a melancholy piano in the background, talking about an important and emotional issue, that Unicef is working to address.   

I have absolutely nothing against Unicef, or Beckham for that matter. And it’s difficult to say anything bad about the ad, because it’s raising awareness of such a massively important issue and for that reason – I hope it’s a huge success.  I’m a Unicef supporter – and likely always will be.

But what’s important to raise, is that the agency hasn’t created a new ad. Not even close to creating a new ad.  

The ad is in fact, an almost direct copy of a short film I made in 2013, Mr X.  

It’s not just the tattoos – I get that’s a popular topic.  It’s everything.  The framing, the technique, the animation, the music, the look and feel, the voiceover. 

The same agency team behind Unicef, brought me in to pitch on another brief (funnily enough, also involving tattoos) a year or so ago, specifically because of the success of Mr X.  The only difference is, their ad is for a huge charity and it’s got David Beckham in it.  

(Important point to make, again, before I continue this rant: I hope the ad is hugely successful ONLY because Unicef and the cause absolutely deserve it to be. But what Unicef also deserve, was more than a carbon copy of a film and idea that was executed three years ago.)  

IF the case was (and I doubt it was) that the client only wanted that particular idea and execution, then best practice (read non-arsehole practice) should be to consult with the original team that worked tirelessly to create what was then, an original idea and quality piece of film. 

Our ideas, good or not, are all we have.

As a director, or creative, your ideas (and resulting work) are your currency. They are why you get brought in to pitch. They earn you a living. 

If your best ideas and work are just replicated and put out as someone else’s original ideas… then how do we keep working?

With agencies (and clients) building in-house content and production teams, putting out work for a fraction of the cost and sometimes a fraction of the quality, with agencies under more pressure than ever from clients to do more with less, it’s easy to see how some turn to what’s been done already – as that’s quicker and less risky. 

But have we got to the point where plagiarising existing work (without thought to the originator) is applauded as much as original work? 

What sort of message is that to people starting out – which I am one of by the way – that copying someone else will get you just as many creative kudos as coming up with something original?

When that’s the case, are good ideas worth nothing?    

Alex Nicholson is a freelance director and D&AD Next Director nominee (2015).