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Can PR Agencies Protect Their Ideas?

PR Ideas

“You give away your best thinking on spec.” My husband once said that as he watched me sweat a high-stakes new biz proposal that hinged on The Big Idea. That observation bothered me for years, because it was true. But how does a PR or ad agency avoid it?

A recent Twitter dustup highlighted the dilemma. The CEO of crytocurrency exchange Coinbase tweeted about its wildly successful Super Bowl ad. You know the one…it featured a simple QR code floating about the screen, changing colors against a music track. The ad won raves within the industry and subsequently crashed the Coinbase website. The QR code thing was a great match for crypto enthusiasts, and the accompanying PR didn’t hurt.

CEO Brian Armstrong is proud of the ad’s success, naturally. He tweeted over the weekend about how it came to be, crediting his team with a bold departure from “traditional” Super Bowl spots. His final tweet concluded that “no agency could have done this ad.”

CEO called out on Twitter

Except according to Martin Agency CEO Kristen Cavallo, an agency did. Or, at least her team presented the idea to Coinbase in a pitch meeting back in August, which she helpfully notes in a tweet, complete with dates and deck page numbers. Awkward.

To make matters more interesting, Coinbase CMO Kate Rouch jumped into the feed with her own version of events. She explained that multiple agencies pitched a QR-code idea but that it was “inserting a QR code in a popular meme” that won the day, crediting Accenture Interactive with the work. This led some ad-watchers to conclude that after Accenture was engaged, they looked through old proposals and adapted Martin’s idea.

Creative minds can think alike

Every agency person has pitched to a prospective client, only to see their idea executed months later – by another firm. I’ve honestly thought there should be some kind of “Hall of Shame” site that embarrasses those who steal ideas from spec pitches. It’s why lawyers advise agencies to copyright their proposals and trade groups urge them not to participate in spec presentations for free.

But the thing is, more than one agency group may pitch similar or even identical ideas in a competitive situation. In fact, it happens all the time. You can copyright a tagline, a creative execution, a storyboard or a script, maybe. But there’s no way to own an idea. This is particularly true in the PR business, where a presentation might rely on a great media strategy, a clever angle or an unexpected juxtaposition of ideas rather than a graphic or copy line. Then, too, timing can be a huge factor. What seemed off-strategy in August can be brilliant by December. In public relations especially, the news cycle is critical.

Don’t give away your best thinking

That’s why in my experience most of the advice is sensible, but a bit beside the point. It’s tough to sit out all agency reviews on principle. And as much as I admire those classy companies who pay competing agencies for the creative work they do for an RFP, that doesn’t really solve the problem. You may get $5000 for the work, and that helps restore some of the billable time sucked away by spec pitches, but it’s cold comfort if someone else executes your idea.

It also strikes me that what really set off Kristen Cavallo was Brian Armstrong’s dismissive attitude (“No ad agency would have done the ad”) when he actually used an agency for the execution and probably the idea, too. It was not only untrue, but smug and disrespectful.

So, what’s the answer? It helps to be selective about RFPs for big competitive searches, and most agencies are. And it might help to throw a copyright symbol on the last page of every proposal, as my supervisor at Edelman routinely did to try to deter idea theft. Most clients are fair-minded and want to make the process less painful for everyone; for ways they can help fix the broken RFP process, this post holds up pretty well.

But that observation – “you give away your best thinking on spec” still bothers me. Maybe the best antidote to losing your IP is to try to generate your best ideas for existing clients – you know, the guys who are already paying, with whom there already exists a relationship based on a certain level of trust, and yes, respect.

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