Close-Up: Live Issue - Has adland run out of original ideas?

Are similarities between campaigns due to plagiarism, and does it really matter, Emma Barns asks.

The Daily Telegraph has launched a neat campaign to promote its celebrity sports pundits. The work, by Clemmow Hornby Inge, imposes the faces of the newspaper's sports writers, including Des Lynam and Geoff Boycott, on to the heads of famous writers such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys and William Shakespeare.

No problem, you would think, until it emerged that Mother created an ad for Observer Sport Monthly a couple of years ago using an embarrassingly similar idea.

This is by no means an isolated example in adland. Talk to any creative and they can come up with any number of cases. Take the remarkably similar idea used in the recent Smirnoff and Carlsberg ads, for example. Both play on the notion that if their company were to turn their hand to something other than making alcoholic drinks, they would be the best in the world at it. Or the T Zone and NSPCC ads, which both centre on the idea of a discarded face-mask (Letters, page 20). Or the recent Head & Shoulders spot, which is almost an exact replica of an old Macleans ad. It even uses the same soundtrack.

Are these cases of similarity by design or by accident? And if it is the latter, how can such a schoolboy error happen time and again?

Leon Jaume, the executive creative director at WCRS, is adamant these situations are nearly always unfortunate coincidences. "No-one intentionally copies an ad, unless it's a homage," he says.

Johnny Hornby, a founding partner at CHI, agrees, saying: "With more proliferation of channels, ads and ideas pop up everywhere, so it's harder to check if something has been done before. Having said that, agencies have a duty of care to make sure ads are original."

Worse are the occasions when similar ads break at the same time. Campaigns for Comet and Currys broke within a week of each other, using parallel "world of electricals" themes, for instance.

"Often, there's an alignment of planets and two ads for similar products come out with the same idea," Jaume says.

However, for consumers, the big question is whether such similarities matter. If the ads work for the product, the client is likely to be happy even without award-winning originality. Hornby thinks this is true to a point but cautions: "Advertising isn't just about flogging gear. You want to build an original brand, to give it personality."

"Copies don't invalidate either ad; they just dilute both," Oliver Caporn, the Euro RSCG London creative director, adds.

The problem is that it is near impossible to come up with an original idea. Everything is inspired by or adapted from something and this is not just the case in advertising. The recent accusation that Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code copied key ideas from the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is the latest high-profile case in literature.

One creative director says when a new director's reel or a piece of music comes out, there is a scramble between creative departments to be the first to use it.

Even the lauded Honda "cog" ad was accused of copying the film The Way Things Go by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, a fact widely held to have contributed to the ad's failure to win the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Matt Gooden, the art director at Wieden & Kennedy responsible for "cog", says: "You can't come up with something from nothing. You've got to look at other stuff - that's just what happens."

Most creatives seem to agree that this can be perfectly acceptable behaviour, depending on how it is done. "You need to acknowledge it, pay for it, or both," Jaume says.

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CREATIVE - Leon Jaume, executive creative director, WCRS

"There's a difference between using a brilliant idea from elsewhere and using that idea but putting your stamp on it and saying it's yours.

"This is not a purist business - it's about effective communications and this might involve stealing from other places. You just have to be big enough to acknowledge this. We strive for originality, but efficacy is more important."

CREATIVE - Gerry Moira, UK director of creativity, Euro RSCG London

"There are new ideas constantly, but there is a finite way of executing these. No-one knowingly copies other agencies' ideas. It's only when it's knowingly done that it's fair game. It's OK if you're honest about it.

"As for the other inspirations creatives use, I like to think they're a stepping stone used to make ads of their own. If not, it's plagiarism."

CREATIVE - Oliver Caporn, creative director, Euro RSCG London

"There's a general consciousness theory in Hollywood to explain spates of similar films. Sometimes the zeitgeist just happens and films pick up on this. There is a case for this in advertising too. I'm surprised no-one's done Sin City in an ad yet, but I expect they will.

"There is also an explanation in that clients do order ads like those they've seen - like when they ask for 'an Orange', for example. This happens more than creatives like to admit."

CLIENT - Simon Thompson, European marketing director, Motorola

"First, coming up with new creative ideas is the hardest job in the world. New ideas are hard to find and I think we should all start by remembering that. Second, most ideas are triggered by an experience - a place or something you've seen - and therefore there is always the risk of ads feeling similar.

"However, it is always my dream for a consumer to remember my ad after a week, so for them to remember it after a year or two would be very unusual, so similar advertising is not a huge issue."

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