An Artist Says His Work Was Copied on a Stock Service, Then Used to Win a Cannes Lion

Even a juror now questions the bronze winner for Hyundai

From left to right: an image created by Rik Oostenbroek, a version created by another artist on Shutterstock, and a campaign for Hyundai that utilized the stock imagery.

Is it really Cannes Lions if there isn’t a controversy around at least one winner?

Just as the annual festival’s dust seemed to be settling, a freelance Dutch illustrator named Rik Oostenbroek has accused agency MullenLowe SSP3 in Colombia of using stock imagery that copies his signature style and dropping it into a Hyundai campaign that features little more than the stock art.

The campaign in question won a bronze Lion in the Cannes Lions Print & Publishing category this year, as well as a Wood Pencil at the D&AD Awards last month.

The work features imagery that, similar to the style Oostenbroek has become known for, conveys motion through swirling, colorful shapes. He tells Adweek the style is something that “clients hire me for and people identify me with.” His art style can be found on his Instagram.

"Building a campaign from a stock collection is quite lazy. Had we been aware that this was the case, it would have altered our rating of the piece."
Cannes Lions juror, speaking on condition of anonymity

Oostenbroek said he first noticed the Hyundai work on creative platform Behance and left a comment about the similarity to his work. He claims he received a response within hours from Carlos Andrés Rodríguez, CCO of MullenLowe SSP3, who apologized and told him that the agency did not intend to steal his work. In their exchange, Rodriguez also made clear that the agency legally purchased the rights for the illustrations through Shutterstock.

Here are the three ads, alongside their original stock art source images:

(MullenLowe has not responded to Adweek’s request for comment on this work and Oostenbroek’s concerns. If we receive a response, we will update this article to include the agency’s perspective.)

Oostenbroek said he was willing to put the drama behind him until he saw that the Hyundai work was winning industry awards over the past month.

“Once they won at Cannes, something an individual like me can only dream of, I was simply shocked and mind blown,” he said. “The agency apparently is still super proud of a campaign they only put copy over. The judges don’t do any research on what the original source is in this case.”

Oostenbroek said he was surprised to see “such a respected agency” would be “super proud of a campaign built around stock images” and submit it to numerous awards shows.

“Where is the line in this case?” he said. “Why does this get rewarded by institutions who are supposed to pick up good work?”

One of the members of this year’s Print & Publishing jury, which gave the Hyundai campaign a bronze, shared Oostenbroek’s dismay after learning about the source of the images.

“Building a campaign from a stock collection is quite lazy,” the juror said, on the condition of anonymity. “Had we been aware that this was the case, it would have altered our rating of the piece. The fact that the stock image in question so closely resembles the work of an artist who is not being credited or remunerated is more concerning.”

MullenLowe sent the following response to Adweek:

“We’ve recently been made aware of some discussion around one of our campaigns. We understand the concerns that have been raised, and have always been committed to supporting the creative rights of any author. As a company, we follow strict protocol put in place by our external auditors which ensures that we do not air any campaign for which we do not own the rights.

“In regards to this particular campaign, the images were identified as the most fitting way to illustrate the important ‘don’t text and drive’ message for our client. The appropriate rights for the four images were purchased through the correct channels and we acted legally within the terms of the license. We have been in contact with the artist claiming credit for the work on social media, with a full explanation of the creative process and the surrounding legalities.

“D&AD investigated the entry and deemed it eligible on the evidence provided.

“We have the utmost respect for the advertising industry and we are committed to our responsibility within it.”

Stock art is a common resource for creatives, but industry leaders say there’s a line between using stock as a tool and using it as a complete replacement for original art.

“If you literally copy and paste something and stick a line of copy on it, I don’t think it’s worthy of an award,” said Chris Garbutt, global CCO of TBWA\Worldwide and a frequent awards juror. “I don’t think it’s enough to do that anymore.”

"If you literally copy and paste something and stick a line of copy on it, I don't think it's worthy of an award."
Chris Garbutt, global CCO, TBWA\Worldwide

Garbutt says juries often debate the originality of a creative execution and whether it’s been done before or properly credits an earlier creator. But he said those debates require transparency around the source of images and ideas.

“I do think if the context of the idea is known in the room, it should be discussed, and if the origin of the artwork is known, it should be discussed,” he said. “But in this case (the Hyundai campaign from Colombia), I just don’t think it’s creative at all.”

That said, creatives and awards show executives say they’d be reluctant to create firm rules about the use of stock art in entries.

Kevin Swanepoel, CEO of the One Club—which includes the One Show and ADC Awards—says stock art is an acceptable tool for creatives entering awards shows, so long as it’s used in a high-quality way.

“There is no rule against an agency, art director or designer using stock art, photography, video or illustration,” Swanepoel says of his organization’s awards. “Stock agencies provide a service for the industry. It would also be the same as saying that every piece of music has to be an original piece of music created for the ad.”

While this means stock-heavy submissions might sometimes slip through, Swanepoel says it’s important for jurors to stay focused on the ideas and the executions, rather than trying to investigate the origin of each piece.

“I think the key point for any judge reviewing work is: ‘Is this a great idea well executed?’ From a jury standpoint, it is almost impossible to know if it is original created content, and I don’t think it matters. From an award show perspective it would be impossible to monitor and police.”

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."
@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.