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To address the issue of plagiarism in makreting communications we spoke with prominent designers and advertising experts Stefan Samgeister, Jon Williams (Grey EMEA), Karen Welman and Hamish Campbell (Pearlfisher), and Aljoša Bagola (Pristop), and we also researched what Mirko Ilić and Kamilo Antolović have already said about the issue. 

My guess would be that plagiarism has been going on since cave painting.”, says Stefan Sagmeister, one of the world’s most prominent designers, adding: “Now we just hear much more about it and have the real possibility to find out about it.”. Accusations of plagiarism in the creative communications industry are not rare, but it seems that they are becoming more frequent. Is Google the only reason for this and is it also the best means of preventing such allegations?

Jon Williams, the Creative Director at Grey EMEA – the largest agency in the GREY Group – agrees that there have always been accusations of plagiarism, but that before Google the sources of information used to be award show annuals and the trade press. Google is just a catalyst for the problems, claims Aljoša Bagola, Creative Director at the Slovenian agency group Pristop, which is also one of the region’s largest advertising agency groups. According to him, the phenomenon of increasing plagiarism can be compared to the phenomenon of nudity or sex in advertising.  It seems as though there is much more of it than ever before, but there isn’t. The percentage of nudity and sexuality in advertising is the same as it was in the sixties and seventies, if not smaller. However, the media ecosystem has in the meantime become so intense that the impression has increased tenfold.

 Today, with just one click advertising and design creatives all over the world can publish their work somewhere on the internet.  By doing so they expose themselves to being copied, but at the same time, the available search of existing solutions makes it possible to prevent copying.  However, since a single database of such solutions doesn’t exist, they are left with Google, as an inaccurate research tool. Award annuals and trade press have been replaced by online magazines and blogs dedicated to creative industries as a source of information about the newest global innovations, and a source of inspiration. Designers, copywriters, creative directors and others who work in the creative communications industry use these online resources daily, to keep up to date with the most dynamic of industries.

Karen Welman, from one of the most well-known design studios in the world, Pearlfisher, in London, thinks that more and more is available for designers to see and be influenced by and that therefore designers design by influence and nothing is new.  “When we think of ideas for concrete tasks, we can’t ‘lock ourselves up’ in our minds and think entirely free from the influence of ideas, opinions and analyses which already exist for the same topic, which we have seen and saved somewhere in our subconsciousness.”, says Siniša Waldinger, Creative Director at Bruketa&Žinić OM.  On the other hand, the best way for creatives to protect their ideas from being copied is to send them to the editors of the same magazines and blogs, with the hope that they will be published, or as Bagola says, submit them to a festival to increase the chances of them being noticed.

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Jon Williams has been on many award show panels where he has come across examples of possible plagiarism, stating that sometimes it’s a genuine stolen idea, and sometimes a simple coincidence. Nevertheless, the examples reveal that the line is usually very blurry. And this is precisely why the most heated dispute takes place in all cases of alleged plagiarism – when is it coincidental, and when is it a stolen idea?

Sagmeister claims that it is almost impossible to say when something is plagiarism or weather it isn’t, because, as he colourfully illustrates, sometimes we are just all fishing in the same river and something that what looks and feels really rather similar might be a complete coincidence.  “Work and design of any sort is created in that we all use influence, it is plagiarised when we copy it completely.” says Karen Welman. Her colleague, Hamish Campbell, Creative Director at the New York branch of Pearlfisher, believes that if a ‘big idea’ at the heart of the work mirrors someone else’s, then the work cannot be truly called original and must be reworked.

In the introduction to their iconic book Anatomy of Design, released in 2007, Mirko Ilić and Steven Heller wrote that graphic design is a mix of many influences and inspirations.  In the book, each of the 49 pieces by different world-famous designers is taken apart and the historical influence for its elements is identified[1].  “Today, everything which exists in design is a variation of something which has already been made”, claimed Mirko Ilić in an interview for B92 while in Belgrade promoting the book.  Each of these variations takes something old and uses it in a new way, because, as Ilić and Heller write: “These days, old becomes new at breakneck speed and likewise becomes old again in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, each new/old discovery adds to an ever-expanding design vocabulary”.

What do official Croatian documents say?  The Code of Conduct of the Croatian Association of Communications Agencies (HURA) states that market communications should not imitate the communication of other marketers so as not to lead to an incorrect conclusion or confuse the consumer – for example, with visual concept, text, a slogan, or the treatment or editing of an image, music or sound effect. The Croatian Prohibited Advertising Act does not allow advertisements which lead to the identification with other retailers and traders, advertisers and their competitors, products and services, brands and trademarks, and all other differentiating features between the advertiser and competitors.  The field of intellectual property in creative communications is also regulated by the Copyright and Related Rights Act and the Trademark Act.

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Legal expert for advertising Kamilo Antolović lists a few very concrete parameters according to which works are evaluated for plagiarism (the misuse of someone else’s property): [2]

  1. Similarity of product: Are the products the same or similar or direct competitors on the market?
  2. Period of creation: Has enough time passed between the creation of the original and the plagiarised product (message), that is, the brainchild?  
  3. Intended market: Does the competing work have similar intended target groups and does it represent competition in the product category ?  
  4. The nature of advertisingPeople don’t follow media for the advertising, they often ignore it.  The influence of the message on the average receiver is often overestimated. 
  5. Message content:  Valorisation of the connection – that is, the common elements of the works, in accordance with legislation and the Code of Conduct.  For example, for a logo this involves the name, colour, typography and symbol (author’s note: for a newspaper advertisement this involves the texts and photos or illustrations, or the main visual, while for a television commercial it involves the script, music, costumes, set, etc).
  6. Differences between the works: View them from the point of view of the average consumer: are the differences noticeable?                        
  7. Confusion of the message recipient (Code of conduct): Is the average recipient confused?
  8. Identification with the business (Code of Conduct):  Does the average message recipient connect the messages with the two advertisers that are concerned?
  9. Damages for the creator: Is damage inflicted on the original work-company because of the customer behaviour created by the confusion (regardless of whether or not the process of proving damages is greater than the actual damages)?

And what about the nature of the formation of creative communications solutions?  Design and advertising don’t exist for the sake of themselves, but are means for solving communication problems.  The solutions that branding experts, strategic planners, designers, copywriters and other members of the creative team at agencies come up with are formed based on the solid brief of the client, which can – if there are similar products or there is a common market – therefore result in similar solutions.

Advertisements come about using a simple formula – unique selling proposition (USP), or services being explaind as stories, explains Aljoša Bagola.  This means that at any given moment, hundreds of thousands of creators in advertising agencies are inventing stories for, as it were, identical products or services.  Nevertheless, Bagola believes that it should not be the client’s brief which has the most influence on the creative market communications idea, but the actual product which is being advertised.  If the product has a unique competitive advantage, the job of the advertiser is much easier.  Unfortunately, we live in a highly standardised world in which true innovation is rare – meaning that creators work with identical USPs and identical briefs.  “The problem is the installed recipe for creativity,” says Bagola, adding that along with today’s hyper-productivity which dictates technology, and globalisation which results in equal positions and references for inspiration all over the world, we easily reach a system for copying ideas.  “That’s why today, what’s important isn’t how creative you are, but are you the first” concludes Bagola.

According to Hamish Campbell the most powerful weapon for creators is to begin work without sourcing inspiration from blogs or design resources, as well as developing original thinking.  As far as homework is concerned, the people we spoke with all agree that there doesn’t exist a 100% foolproof way of verifying the originality of an idea in creative communications.  However, this does not give creators an excuse, because, as Campbell says, it’s just good business to know the category you’re working in, and doing proper research is the best way to protect yourself and your clients.  This brings us back to Google.  As Aljoša Bagola says, soon we can expect to see the emergence of a new function in agencies – the Chief Originality Inspector, and this person will have to do lots and lots of Googling.

text: Jelena Mihelčić

illustration: Nebojša Cvetković



[1] Ilić, Mirko and Heller, Steven, Packing and unpacking design in Anatomy of Design, Rockport Publishers, 2007, introduction

[2] Antolović, Kamilo and Haramija, Predrag, Responsible advertising – law and ethics in marketing communications, K&K Promocija and HURA, Zagreb, January 2015, pages 273-274

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