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How Agencies Are Cracking Down on Creatives Who Post Unapproved Ads

Playing with brand equity is hazardous to your career

Copyrighted content sometimes finds its way online, as creatives aim to promote their work via their personal websites. Illustration: Mitch Blunt

Call it friendly fire. An agency art director posts an unsanctioned version of a TV ad for a client on his personal website to enhance his portfolio. It was the cut he worked on and fought for—even if that particular version didn't make the cut.

The problem is, he doesn't own the work, and neither does his agency. The clip belongs to the client, making the art director guilty of copyright infringement.

It's a scenario that's become all too familiar at agencies. Copyrighted content routinely finds its way online, as creatives aim to burnish their own brands as much as the brands for which they work. But too often, career aspirations clash with a marketer's need to protect its intellectual property. Clients pay agencies hefty fees and, naturally, expect loyalty rather than an art director going rogue.

Creative chiefs attempt to prevent such digital dustups, though clearly they can't police everyone all the time. So, they have taken to schooling employees on the importance of protecting the client's property—stressing that their very job security is at stake.

Posting work without permission can land not just employees but also their employers and even the client in hot water. Ford was forced to apologize in 2013 after a creative team at JWT India posted spec posters that never ran, including one that featured an illustration of the Kardashian sisters tied up and gagged in the trunk of a Ford Figo. The copy read: "Leave your worries behind with Figo's extra-large boot." The piece ended up on the blog Ads of the World and sparked a public backlash.

JWT now mandates that employees get permission from the client before posting work, according to worldwide CCO Matt Eastwood, who added that unauthorized postings can run afoul of talent agreements. "We're super cautious about posting anything anywhere because if you don't have the digital rights for talent in a TV spot, you can't go posting it," noted Eastwood, who joined JWT last year and faced the problem at prior agency DDB.

Following a couple of incidents at Grey, creative chief Tor Myhren communicated to employees that altering ads was unacceptable and possibly grounds for firing. Myhren said he couldn't recall the brands in question but noted that in each instance, the marketer itself found the offending ad online. "It is up to agencies to do everything in their power to make sure that does not happen," Myhren said. "You've got to make sure that there are consequences for that type of thing, that people know that [brands] just shouldn't be messed with."

At the extreme, bogus ads can even find their way into awards shows. A notable example: "Speed Dressing" for JCPenney, which won a bronze Lion at Cannes in 2008 after Epoch Films submitted it for consideration. When it was revealed that the ad was never approved by the client and never even ran, the award was rescinded.

For BBDO's David Lubars, the solution for that disgruntled art director who posted his cut on his website would've been to fight for the ad he believed in and get it made. "Do the brilliant thing for the client, and then that's what runs and that's what you enter in shows. It's that simple and that challenging," said Lubars, global CCO. "Do the real shit. Make the real shit great."

To brand marketing execs, anything that threatens to tarnish a brand's reputation is serious business. Considering that, Pete Krainik, founder of The CMO Club, believes marketing chiefs should educate agency employees just as they would their own rank and file. "I call it leading the brand beyond the marketing department. The best CMOs, I think, are doing that," said Krainik, a former CMO at Avaya and Siebel Systems.

Young creatives in particular should be reminded that the ad business is, above all, about partnerships, insiders stress. "People have to take personal responsibility for what they're putting out there because what you say does also represent that organization," said Bartle Bogle Hegarty creative chief John Patroulis.

Added Young & Rubicam CCO Leslie Sims: "Half of the job is actually getting [the ad] made together with a brand. Otherwise, it's just called an art project."

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