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Ogilvy-Vivo spat puts the spotlight back on plagiarism in advertising

Venkata Susmita Biswas
Ogilvy, Vivo

Idea thefts during the pitching process is a common gripe among advertising agencies. Historically, advertising agencies have let these indiscretions pass, in the fear of losing future opportunities. But last month, Ogilvy took smartphone maker Vivo and its creative agency Dentsu Impact to court alleging plagiarism.

The agency claimed that the idea for a Vivo ad starring Aamir Khan for the V17 Pro was first conceptualised by Brand David (an Ogilvy agency). Having reviewed the matter, the Bombay High Court passed an interim order asking Vivo to pay Rs 1 crore or furnish a bank guarantee. The next hearing for the matter is scheduled for November 22. The advertising industry has come out in support of Ogilvy. Could this be the watershed moment the advertising industry has been waiting for?

Shopping for ideas

Identifying the root cause of the menace, Prasoon Joshi, CEO and CCO, McCann Worldgroup India, and chairman, McCann Asia Pacific, says, "We need to clarify for all those who take creative ideas for granted and do not acknowledge taking those ideas that, at the pitch stage, the agency is the one that owns the ideas."

Joshi also points to a lack of ethics in the industry. "Intellectual property rights may be complex to exercise, but the ethics of it are clear. Being in the creative service industry should not leave any organisation vulnerable to exploitation when it comes to their key asset - creative ideas."

With their margins under immense pressure, advertising agencies are more than eager to turn up for a pitch that may draw participation from a dozen other agencies, thereby exposing themselves to idea thefts.
At forums and events, industry leaders have proposed charging clients a pitch fee to dissuade them from calling frequent pitches and scouting for ideas. But it has never been acted upon. "That's because as an industry, we have lost our strength and unity. Additionally, advertisers/ clients have made it extremely compelling to be competitive," says Manish Bhatt, founder director, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi.
Plagiarism is hard to crack down on in India also because "copyright laws are lax," says Rohit Ohri, chairman and CEO, FCB India. A client or an agency can make a slight alteration to an idea and claim it as its own, making it hard for anyone to prove plagiarism.

Uniting against copycats

Ohri, who leads the creative group of Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), says that the industry body has been mulling a system that could prevent plagiarism right at the pitching phase. "We are trying to make sure that at the pitching process it is very clear which agency has registered the idea first," he says.

While this could be a good start, it may not be a foolproof solution. Sandeep Goyal, chairman, Mogae Media, suggests a code of ethics with harsh penalties for violations in the industry.

The real challenge with regulations is that of implementation and compliance. For instance, the punitive action that the Advertising Standards Council of India - the industry watchdog meant to weed out dishonest, offensive and unfair advertisements - can take on violators is limited. Goyal suggests instituting a council headed by an external expert, such as a retired judge, "who can ensure that the code of ethics is adhered to in letter and spirit".

Ohri hopes that the Ogilvy-Vivo incident will accelerate discussions between advertising agencies to find a way to safeguard themselves. AAAI is expected to have a system in place by the beginning of next year, he informs.