Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The unoriginal sin

Published in Jul-Aug 2015

The pernicious tendency of agencies and local brands to deliberately cross all lines between inspiration and imitation.

The scene opens up to a wide shot of an eerily silent and formal boardroom. The camera pans sideways and stops at a man who is intently focused on a subject across the rectangular conference table.

He squints deep in thought, as the background tick-tock of the clock is synchronised with an incessant nervous tap of a pencil beating against the polished mahogany tabletop.

Camera cuts to the other side of the table and we see a young woman sitting in between two very eager men, waiting for what seems like a very decisive answer. They are the agency trio: an uninspired creative who, ironically, is only inspired to imitate concepts, the overzealous account manager (read: over promising, over ambitious, over efficient) and the perplexed strategy guy who never quite figured out the strategy to decipher an original and effective insight.

“I like it!” Exclaims the voice from across the table. We see quick, sharp, intercuts of his face and the expressions of the surrounding people. Cheeky smirks spread across the faces of the agency trio, as they give each other nods of victory.

The focus returns to the very unfortunate man calling the shots. He beams with a wide-faced smile and his eyes sparkle with admiration for what he thinks is, the most original, creative concept of the decade. Camera zooms out to a wide shot of a room full of satisfied people.

The marketing team, happy and unaware of what they have just brought upon themselves and their brand, get up and shake on it. In parallel, the agency people, happy to have shamelessly sold a copied concept (frame by frame, no less) cleverly, get by unscathed… for now.

Enter graphics of the film title in bold typography:

The Unoriginal Sin

Okay, that was dramatic. But it certainly is not the only dramatic way that events play out in real life. In reality, there are a number of possible villains to this story: agency creatives, people in marketing teams, every tom, dick and harry that people from the client’s side know (including family, friends, house help, drivers, uncles, cousins of cousins, etc.,), and of course, directors eager to recreate the magic of foreign films (ad films or movies, no discrimination there).

Once, I heard of a particular incident when a client propped up a laptop in the middle of a meeting, played a commercial and said that he wants nothing less than the ‘original’ idea… literally. Oh, but the re-run did require Pakistani faces otherwise the idea would not possibly be relatable.

Thinking about all of this leads me to some very important questions:

"Why do these everyday villains copy campaigns? Who is responsible for it? Why can’t some advertisers and marketers be original and draw the line between inspiration and imitation? Is there really even a line between the two, or is ‘inspiration’ just a glorified way of saying the same thing?"

Most importantly, can the copycat syndrome be stopped and how?

I nitpicked the brains of some marketing and advertising professionals on the topic, to see what they have to say. When asked why they think that international advertising is copied and aired so openly in Pakistan, I got the same answer across the board: it’s easy, it saves time and it seems acceptable here.

Although the sources that pitch plagiarised concepts are the definite culprits, industry professionals placed great emphasis on the client’s role in this problem. Fahad Yousaf, Marketing Manager, Nestlé, responded to the question of what responsibility clients versus agencies have to play, by saying:

“I think marketing departments or brand teams have a much bigger role to play here, as they are the custodians of the brands. If anything, their brands will suffer the most if they produce a rip-off commercial. I believe in the common saying of our advertising world ‘clients get what they deserve.’”

This makes one wonder, even if the client really deserves to be served a bad version of the same dish, could it be that agencies in Pakistan lack creativity and don’t know where to draw the line between inspiration and imitation… if there even is one?

When posed with these questions, Shahryar Mirza, a creative director, said: “Some of the top agencies of Pakistan are doing good work. A few cases of plagiarism should not invite generalisation or stereotypes. It is a fine line (between inspiration and imitation)... In most cases, creative directors turn to YouTube etc., due to crazy deadlines. Without much help from strategy and planning, they end up lifting ideas here and there.”

My personal opinion on this matter is that we find campaigns from other countries so original and effective because their communication is driven by focused and powerful insights. Needless to say, every brief there is not delivered with a timeline of ‘as of yesterday’, or with a side note that says they should also pitch a ‘safe’ option. Agencies do not turn to Google and YouTube because they are pushed to seek inspiration from the life around them. Little subtleties, relationships, emotions, nuances and behaviours turn the ordinary around us into extraordinary concepts and ideas.

"In an environment where creatives are expected to remain caged in a room and work around the clock, with unrealistic deadlines and little strategy support (if at all), they are left to their vices and devices to get work done."

Add to this mix, an uninformed client and one cannot help but foresee the doom that is to follow.

The reality is that no matter what we do, there will always be people who are apathetic about producing original ideas, and worse, they will get by with it.

According to Mazhar Salam, Senior Manager Marketing Communication at Zong, rip-offs “cannot be stopped. But they can be reduced by having more educated, more exposed and knowledgeable clients who should be able to snub the first attempt of chaapa and push for original, creative work.”

But when the chaapa is coming from the client’s side or other sources, it is definitely trickier. As difficult as it may be, agencies need to learn to put their foot down and convince them that they can create equally good, if not better, ideas.

So, the question is: is there any way to address this problem at all?

“We can create a monitoring authority that regulates campaigns and fair practice,” suggests Mirza.

While others propose putting together advertising agency forums and networks that publicly denounce copied work. This will build a sense of accountability for plagiarism and discourage the behaviour.

And so we return to the story in the boardroom. In this version, after hearing a rip-off concept, the client animatedly slams both hands on the table and rises with an expression of disbelief. The camera zooms in to capture a close-up shot of the fury on his face. Cut to mid shot of the entire agency team in the frame. They have melted in their seats, eyes full of more guilt than a convict. Nothing needs to be said.

The client walks out the door, and this time, a different kind of eerie silence spreads across the room.

Fade to black.

Zareen Rathor is Creative Director, Walter Lahore.