Shreyas Kulkarni

The curious case of idea ownership

After the response of MullenLowe Lintas Group’s Amer Jaleel against a recent Motilal Oswal’s ad, how is the adland feeling?

Good advertising makes heads turn. Despite the incessant run of Diwali ads recently, it was Amer Jaleel’s remarks against a Motilal Oswal Financial Services ad that left Indian adland feeling dizzy. 

On October 15, Jaleel, chairperson and chief creative officer, MullenLowe Lintas Group (MLLG), took to LinkedIn. He spoke about the lack of credit from the financial service giant (Motilal) for an ad it made in-house. The ad was a replica of one MLLG made for Motilal Oswal in 2017. 

When somebody goes ahead with an idea, “but doesn’t take the idea or thought forward, our hearts sink,” Jaleel told afaqs! over a chat last week, and batted for “joint ownership of the idea.”

The client-agency relationship is based on a transaction, says Sambit Mohanty, creative head, South, McCann Worldgroup. The client pays for the intellectual property rights (IPR) of an idea to help sell its brand. The agency gets paid to come up with an idea.

“By that logic, clients are well within their rights to recycle or replicate the creative idea. However, a little magnanimity wouldn't be out of place to credit the original creators, especially if the idea is being recreated without any embellishments,” feels Mohanty. 

The question of a creative idea’s ownership is old enough to become an adage. Only this time, the legal benefit lies in the hands of the client. 

"Acknowledge that while the original idea has come from the agency, it has been built by us together. Also, since we have compensated the agency for the idea over previous campaigns, it is the client's property and can be used for a campaign created in-house," comments Ramnik Chhabra on Jaleel’s post. 

Chhabra was Motilal Oswal’s executive director and head of marketing, until he quit in June 2022. But he held the position when MLLG made the ad.

The ownership boils down to the contracts drawn between an advertising agency and its client. “The IPR, as per present day contracts, belongs to the person commissioning the work,” says Sukesh Nayak, chief creative officer, Ogilvy. 

He, however, feels that the IPR belongs to whoever creates the idea. For it to happen, “we, as creators, need to re-look at the way contracts are drawn.” 

Lack of protection 

Artists enjoy a certain level of protection, thanks to their contracts. They enjoy credits, if someone else covers or edits their work and are paid royalties. Creative agencies don’t enjoy such protections. 

In the absence of such contracts, one could consider discussing the period of usage of an idea/script right at the beginning of a client-agency engagement, suggests Mayur Varma, chief creative officer, 82.5 Communications. 

“Whether the idea is owned for a year, two years or in perpetuity, depends on the client, the agency and the negotiating power they have,” says Varma. 

Credit sharing, the bare minimum? 

In the absence of protective contracts, can a mere credit as the original creator, suffice? 

While Ogilvy’s Nayak says every idea generator or partner must be given credit for what they do, Varma of 82.5 Communications feels differently. 

“The good old key numbers aren’t possible in TVCs. Also, unlike credit titles in feature films, in the case of ads, the intent can’t be to showcase who the creators are.” 

Varma adds that production houses and other partners too should ideally be given credit. “Creative agencies have created the idea on paper and various mediums. Perhaps, there’s a need for an IMDb-equivalent for advertising.”

“It is really annoying to see your idea being credited to another entity, whose job was merely to execute, and who had no contribution to the 'thinking process'. I'd suggest brand managers give credit where it's due - it's the classy thing to do,” mentions Mohanty.

A different perspective 

While the idea of creative ownership rages on, Mukund Olety, chief creative officer, VMLY&R, feels that the agencies are being compensated for the output, rather than the outcome, and that is where the crux of the problem lies. 

“Once we sell the hours, we can't complain about owning the idea… now if we can get paid for the outcome, agencies will be in a better place to truly own an idea.” 

The change-makers 

The idea of ownership, in reality, feels like a prick, which refuses to leave, despite repeated applications of creams and gels. So, adland and clients will have to ramp up their treatment course. 

There is a bit of change happening on both sides, says Olety, adding that it will not happen overnight. 

It is not only about compensation, it is about acknowledgement too, says Nayak, and reminds everyone that acknowledgement leads to reward. “For a creative industry of any kind, whether you're inspired or an original creator, your reputation is built on the name.”

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