Note to agencies: We are not alone

For the last few years our agency’s worldwide mandate has been to “put digital at the core” of everything we do. This means exactly what you think it means. Instead of putting digital in a “bucket” or “silo,” and treating it as one of many marketing services, Euro RSCG revolves the company’s universe around it. And within that scheme, we (the employees) have been strongly encouraged to “get social” or get out of town! These directives are elemental to the agency’s primary purpose of “getting us and our clients to the future first.”

A couple weeks back, JWT named its Worldwide Digital Director, David Eastman, North American CEO. Worldwide CEO, Bob Jeffries indicated that this sent a strong message (to clients and competitors) about what direction the agency was going, and that JWT was serious about putting digital at the center of business operations.

As I write this, Ogilvy & Mather Chicago rehired digital ECD, David Hernandez from Tribal DDB. He’ll “provide digital creative leadership across all agency disciplines,” said Joe Sciarrotta, Chief Creative Officer of the agency.

And so it goes, by hook or by crook, ad agencies everywhere are finding ways to make digital their big story: on our creds, in our case studies, in general. Whether this is done via purchase or through internal machinations or both it is getting done. Some of us are doing it faster and better than others. But it’s a crowded field. And the race is far from over.

My point is not to ridicule this any of this. I wholeheartedly support it. What I find interesting is Ad Land’s belief that this is a media centric phenomenon, that the migration of marketing to digital platforms is somehow unique to our industry.

Everyone is putting digital front and center. Be it media, education, insurance, institution, government, finance, retail, CPG, the dry cleaners up the street. One is hard pressed to find any operation that isn’t doing business online, let alone marketing it that way. Some die trying ( Some flourish (Amazon). Most are somewhere in between.

One has already heard the call that consumers are taking over the message. Ad Land’s first reaction was just that: a reaction. Born of fear. That somehow we –the creators and drivers of all consumerism- woke up one day and discovered a new landscape, and one where we weren’t needed anymore. That fear drove us to buy, hire and promote digital expertise with breathless abandon. To play catch up if you will.

But is the fear real? No more than it is for any other business. The only difference is somehow we deemed it our mission to re-take that landscape. Or perish. Perhaps we doth protest too much. By overly stating how important digital is to our operations, we demonstrate fear of being left behind.

I’ve said it before: We are all pioneers. The landscape is free country and has been since Al Gore invented it. We need only apply our vast skills (ideation, creation, brand management and so on) in the same direction as everyone else.

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With accusations of plagiarism, who’s smiling now?

In my last post, I accused the American Express “Take Charge” campaign of plagiarism. I was especially upset because I’d chosen the work as my favorite piece of advertising in 2009. Ouch. Not only was the source material (pictured above) pirated but the agency used the concept for another client (Audi) in a different country (South Africa). I’m not a detective, nor a journalist, but the evidence was damning. All of it is viewable here:

Evidence of plagiarism

As I think about the controversy, I can’t help but recall situations in my career that put my agency or me in similar peril. It would be false to say I never created advertising that was derivative of other ideas. Or that I never knowingly or unknowingly approved advertising that was “guilty” of the same.

There are weeds in every garden. Some are harmless. For example, with new models every year, car advertising would be tough to do without repeating headlines. How many variations of the phrase “tanning bed” have you heard in copy for this or that sexy new convertible? The Bonneville Salt Flats have been used hundreds of times to dramatize fast cars in TV commercials. Copyright infringement or just cliché? Back when we made newspaper ads, cutely naming coupons “rip off” or “price cut” was common word play.

Numerous terms and phrases are used over and over again as copy. Puns get recycled, both verbal and visual.  Are these examples of plagiarism? I don’t know. But if creative directors sent copywriters back to their offices every time they experienced deja vu nothing would ever get done.

Here’s a scenario that might indemnify the agency in question (AIQ). Or at least explain its behavior. What if the AIQ came up with the “smiling faces” concept before having seen the artist’s images? Great minds think alike. Why can’t (we) get credit for the concept, too? The answer lies in who got there first. In this case it was the photographer. Case closed.

Okay. But what if the AIQ approached the artist for permission to use the idea (and presumably him as well)? If the AIQ did and he said “yes” they’d be good to go, right?

Something went wrong. Either the AIQ didn’t ask for permission or they weren’t granted it. At this point the Audi commercial was made and then, much later, the campaign for American Express.

I’m not trying to rationalize plagiarism. I’m just saying it’s gray. We must be careful when calling someone else’s kettle black. Yes, I still think American Express and its agency crossed the line. Big time. But for the grace of the Gods of Advertising go I.

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Far be it from me to court controversy on a blog (!) but only a few days into the new decade and we have one. A doozy. Followers of this blog know I chose the American Express campaign, “Smiles” as my favorite advertising of the year. Over the course of two posts I praised this work for its craft, charm and simplicity.  On December 7th, I wrote:

There is sincerity about Amex’s work, which belies the rampant turmoil and cynicism gripping the financial (and advertising) world. Kudos to American Express and their advertising agency for giving us pause to smile.

Well, that sincerity has been called into question and I’m afraid the evidence is most damning. A commenter, “Jane” makes a hard case for plagiarism and offers film as proof.  First, her comment:

Yes, everyone has seen (these) happy and sad faces because Francois and Jean Robert have been producing books with faces since 1978. Francois and Jean Robert have helped all of you SEE the world in a different way because of their books. An original idea? Perhaps, perhaps not… but they have produced 4 books with copyrighted images.

Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg approached Mr. Robert through his rep in NY in 2006 about using his faces for an Audi commercial, didn’t use him, but used the “faces idea” anyway… then Ogilvy & Mather uses “faces” for American Express in 2009. Coincidence? I think not.

The agency basically used Francois Robert’s book as a storyboard to create this commercial. The shopping bag, wallet, are headphones compared side by side are almost identical.

Here is the Audi commercial:

In addition, have a look at a recent story from Fast Company: Fast Company article

I hope it goes without saying that I was unaware of both the photographic source material as well as the Audi commercial. If I had been I never would have chosen the Amex campaign as my favorite advertising of the year. Quite the contrary. While much advertising is derivative one cannot abide blatant plagiarism. We are paid for our ideas. Stealing them is unacceptable. “Jane” puts it in more poetic terms:

The question is, who owns an idea? Is it OK to steal the idea for commercial gain in the case of Ogilvy & Mather? Is it OK because agencies do this all of the time? What if it were YOUR idea? YOUR music? Your industrial design? How would you feel?

I’d feel like shit. Therefore I’d like to offer my apologies to those wronged for furthering this charade. If the agency, filmmaker or anyone else involved cares to make a rebuttal be my guest. I was wrong once. Maybe I’m missing something yet again…

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The best marketing in 2009 did not arrive via new media. It wasn’t a so-called “viral.” Nor was it “consumer driven.” It was an ad and it came in the form of a TV commercial –you remember those?

The best advertising in 2009 wasn’t edgy or ironic. Frankly, it was anything but. Our deserving winner was old-fashioned, easy going and pleasant. Driven by classical music. Sedate.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Droga 5, Mother or BBH didn’t produce the best advertising in 2009. While those shops made lots of fine work they did not create the finest. Nope. The best ad in 2009 was made by one of the biggest, oldest advertising agencies in the world: Ogilvy & Mather.

Appropriately, this terrific TV commercial wasn’t for a hip technology brand or the latest new, new thing. As a matter of fact, the best advertising in 2009 was for something more associated with last century than this one.

Without further ado, the best advertising in 2009 was the “Smiles” campaign for the American Express card.

Shot by Kevin Thomas for O&M in New York, I can think of no piece of creative I admired more in 2009. Two months ago I wrote about the campaign in detail. Fittingly, that post (Amex review) continues to be one of the more popular stories on my blog. The comments it received are universally praiseful.

Likewise, my young daughters shriek with delight whenever the commercials appear in our living room. In this respect the spots are more popular than even Spongebob Squarepants.

It gives me great pleasure to close by stating the most shocking thing about this campaign is how utterly un-shocking it is. Will it win gold in Cannes? Probably not. And that wouldn’t shock me either.

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While I struggle to understand the relevance of American Express in our modern world I absolutely adore their new TV campaign, which I’m calling “Smile.” These spots have been running for several months now and yet I stop everything to watch when one comes on. Don’t you? The imagery is, in a word, lovely. Not in a baroque way but pure, unfettered and almost childlike in it’s simplicity. A series of inanimate objects appear, first depicting sad faces, which then become smiling faces. A soothing voiceover addresses our fears regarding credit card purchases and then assuages them. Throughout we hear the hypnotic Cello Suite No. 1 by Sebastian Bach.

That’s it. No special effects. No celebrities. Nothing but inanimate objects subtly propped to mimic smiley faces. While there are no actual people in the commercials these spots illicit more humanity than just about anything on the air. They are masterpieces.

Appropriately, it was my 11 year-old daughter who first brought the campaign to my attention. She asked me if I’d done it (alas, no), telling me it was her favorite TV commercial. A month later I got the same question from an in-law over Thanksgiving dinner. She, too, adored the campaign.

I believe this is the work of Ogilvy & Mather in New York, though my online searches failed to produce credits. Yet, everyone responsible deserves praise: the writer, the art director and especially the director. (If anyone can provide names please do.)

The last time I was so moved by an ad campaign was when Saturn launched “a different kind of Car Company.”  Then as now the awesome power of TV proved itself without so much as breaking a sweat.

There is sincerity about Amex’s work, which belies the rampant turmoil and cynicism gripping the financial (and advertising) world. Kudos to American Express and their advertising agency for giving us pause to smile. In my novel, The Happy Soul Industry God wants an ad campaign to market Heaven. Something like this would’ve done quite nicely!

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