Been Done: Creative Coincidence vs. Stolen Idea

By Jay Adams, assistant professor in advertising at the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

One of the worst feelings as an advertising professional or student is to discover your ground breaking idea is already out there in the industry. Solving a brand’s business problem with a unique creative campaign is obviously challenging, but what should one do when reaching this crossroad?

Let me take you back to 2007. I was a first year student at the VCU Brandcenter in Richmond, Virginia and our six-person team was in the midst of an all-nighter before our Red Bull presentation for Don Just’s Business of Advertising class. We’d spent three weeks doing research, coming up with a strategy and executing creative work. At the 11th hour our copywriter looked up from his computer as if he’d seen a ghost. “Audi did an idea just like ours last year” he said. Our team deliberated for about 30 minutes then agreed it was too late to start over so we trudged forward. Fast forward to the moment we finished presenting the next day. A classmate of ours raised her hand during the Q&A. “I worked at Audi last summer and we did a campaign just like yours”. Crickets. Horror. Failure.

Three semesters later, my Global Campaigns professor Cabell Harris brought in a national client for an integrated campaign assignment. The project was set up as a new business pitch where eight teams pitched their idea to the client in order to solve their business problem. Competition brought out the best in us, and this presentation was no exception. Each team kept their ideas under lock and key until the presentation date. Well, you’ve likely already guessed the outcome. Four of the eight teams presented the exact same creative idea.

What happens to your work, particularly if you’re a student, if it coincidentally mirrors another campaign that’s already out there? You walk into a job interview and present your best work. A few weeks prior, the creative director saw a similar campaign at an awards show. She ponders “Did this guy rip off the work or is it a shear coincidence?” Either way the situation quickly becomes awkward. Should the campaign be pulled from the portfolio even though countless hours were spent creating it? Do you gamble and hope nobody has seen the other campaign?

Let me tell you a story about some work that was created in my copywriting class back in October 2015. I assigned World Wildlife Fund to my student Bridget Guckin who executed the two ads below. The concept for these ads started as Sharpie on plain paper and evolved over a few weeks.

Source: Bridget Guckin

Now take a look at these two ads (top and below) created by Grabarz & Partner in Germany that were published in February of 2016. They weren’t posted online until March. The full campaign won a range of awards later that year including a Gold Clio and a D&AD Wood Pencil.

Source: Grabarz & Partner, Germany

Keep in mind that the first series of ads were executed by an undergraduate student for a copywriting course. The second series was executed by a professional team that included an art director, art buyer, graphic designer, illustrator and a print producer. Regardless, do you see the similarities? I discovered the Robin Wood campaign in the fall of 2016 and shared it with my student. She asked me what to do and I was extremely torn. I encouraged her to keep the work in her portfolio but be aware of the Robin Wood campaign should it come up.

Based on my agency experience, all work that falls under the “been done” category immediately dies or is reworked so that it does not remotely resemble the campaign or ad that’s already out there. However, this isn’t always the case. We’ve all seen copy cat ads and it’s not pretty. People in advertising know that you should never steal an idea from another campaign but it happens. From a student standpoint, I would argue that coincidental work is a judgment call. Coincidental ideas will continue to happen until the end of time. To help prevent them, I encourage students to avoid awards annuals and look elsewhere for inspiration: art, books, movies, music, etc. Why? You might see an ad in an awards book, file it in your subconscious then accidentally regurgitate a variation of the same idea during a concepting session. Besides, inspiration is everywhere in the world. Look outside of the industry to improve your work. It can help you find the elusive ground-breaking idea that is unlike anything that’s been done before.