Copy That: How to Protect Your Agency from Ideas Theft

So, you were invited to pitch for some business. You spent hours – weeks, or months – coming up with a creative direction, a strategy, and an execution plan that you then shared with the potential client in a formal environment. Your pitch was well-received. You nailed it. You leave the meeting, go and have a drink and hope all your hard work pays off.

And it does! Only, not for you. Instead, you discover, the client loved your ideas – but not your (reasonable and justifiable) retainer. So they took your plans and your creative concept and passed it along to a smaller, cheaper agency to execute your vision under the guise of “going in a different direction” or some other excuse. But you soon see your vision – your exact vision– come to life, and you just about burst a blood vessel over the unethical practices of some businesses. How dare they be so bold as to steal your creativity while another agency reaps all the glory? Maybe they even win awards for it. You bitch and moan with your team, but you grit your teeth when it comes to actually doing anything about it. What can you do, really? What’s done is done, right?

Yes, idea theft happens – we all know this. In fact, almost half of all PR agencies have experienced it, according to a new report by PRCA.

We’ve experienced variations of this at Mutant over the years. Some have been a shock, while others have given off a bad smell from the outset. We’ve even had a potential client demand several time consuming rounds of comprehensive proposals, only to take it all in-house while simultaneously trying to poach our staff to run the show.  Thankfully, we’ve got a loyal team and a strong culture, and this was flagged by our people pretty quickly.

To be fair to clients, some crossovers may have been unintentional. Creative PR strategies are often closely tied to the clients’ business goals – and several agencies may have pitched ideas that are similar. But while I try to believe all clients have the best intentions, sometimes things are just way too coincidental.

So, instead of sitting there clenching your fists, I believe we all need to do more to combat these poor practices and hold clients accountable for their lack of ethics and blatant theft. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Call them out

This is probably less popular solution here in Asia where saving face is a big deal, and confrontation can be difficult. But if there are no consequences for these actions, then the practice will never stop and the industry won’t change. Keep things civil, but know you’re well within your rights to at least ask what the hell happened and why they are running with your exact idea with another agency. At the very least, you might get an apology and stop them from doing it again – at most, you might end up winning additional work with the client in the future (if you still want to work with them).

Protect yourself

So many clients ask the agency to sign an NDA ahead of sharing business information with you, so why can’t we do the same? Unfortunately, we have seen some unethical pitch demands and briefs that specify how all ideas submitted at the proposal stage will remain the property of the client, with no legal recourse given to agencies.

But our creative ideas are intellectual property. We know our value and that our top quality services cost money. Our ideas and approaches to briefs are not magicked out of thin air, and it’s fair to expect the parties you are sharing them with to acknowledge this if they want to hear them. We all need to stop underselling ourselves and placing a higher value on the great results we know we will achieve.

Qualify, qualify, qualify

Receiving a clear, concise brief with an indication of how agencies will be evaluated as well as a shortlist of other players we are up against is a breath of fresh air. Agencies give as much as we get – and this helps us to focus on showcasing our approach and share an idea alongside several case studies with proven results. If required, agencies are always happy to work closely with clients to help shape their briefs to truly nail their business objectives.

What doesn’t pass the sniff test is a topline brief with no clear indications of budget, timelines or evaluation metrics.

Pay for pitches

Sounds like a dream, but it makes sense when a client needs to evaluate actual work by an agency before a longer term commitment. We have experienced this firsthand when a client handed us a clear content brief and compensated us for the articles we wrote. Two weeks later, we realised it was a test they conducted amongst two agencies – and we were handed over the other half of the scope as they were satisfied with the results. It was a smart move by a client who’s still with us four years later.

While getting paid for pitches will never be commonplace, it does help a client who need a stronger justification for a content or integrated marketing retainer investment. Plus, it’s just good manners, honestly.

Industry regulators

The PRCA have created the Ideas Bank as an option for agencies to store their creative ideas, intended to serve as an independent body that can help mediate suspected IP infringement. This is a great start as transparency is key – and we need to work together as an industry to move ahead.

The bottom line is: if something smells fishy, it’s probably gone bad. Don’t be afraid to ask for more information or walk away. As agencies, we are allowed to make money, too – so reserve your time and best ideas for fair clients who are looking for partners, not vendors.

Need a partner who can formulate compelling, original pitches? Drop us a text at hello@mutant.com.my