The obsession with original ideas in advertising

OIA.jpgA blog written by Pat Langton, creative director of Magnum Opus Partners, Melbourne

Deep in the last Millennium when I started out as a junior creative, the idea of an 'original idea' was drilled into me from day dot. I remember coming up with ideas and thinking, "No, ditch that, that's been done before!"

Now, the concept of holding out every time for an original idea is simply, bloody stupid. Yet we as an industry are obsessed with 'original ideas'. Just look at the comments of our industry news and you'll see endless dismissive remarks like 'done before', 'not original' and so on.
OK. Ideas are what make the world go round, that and advertising (joking, not joking).

And love it or hate it two of the biggest companies in the world, Google and Facebook make
most of their money off advertising.

Both companies were born from great ideas, for sure, a minimalist search engine and a place where we can connect with friends all over the world. But were they truly original? Most de nitely not. Search engines that didn't actually work very well begat Google, which did. MySpace begat facebook. In fact sometimes the best ideas are those that have been evolved ideas, not 'original' ideas.

Take a look back in history - ideas are what have moved us forward, from the lightbulb to cars, these are things that have completely changed the way we live. But they are often derivations of what has gone before. Utterly original ideas are actually as rare as hens' teeth.

Let's look at other industries and compare. Science for example is made up of intellectual heroes building on someone's idea. They take previous studies and build on them. Expand on them. Build something fresh from what's gone before.

The music industry endlessly samples from generations past. Recording artists take something they love and build on it. Especially hip hop; look at some of the great tracks of the last decade - most are samples from old soul music, reworked and brought up to day.

So when you consider two completely different industries with two people on two ends of the genius scale; Einstein or say Jay-z and how they built on ideas and made them better, you start to question what's actually original?

There's a great quote from Banksy. 'Good artists borrow, great artists steal'. He happened to steal that quote from Steve Jobs, who happened to steal the quote from Pablo Picasso, but you get our point. Or Phillip Adams, a very original ad guy and now doyen of late night 'brainfood' radio.

"Be smart: steal the good stuff." Wot he said, right there.

Nothing is truly original. Everything that we do, hear, smell and watch is a product of the ideas that we produce from life experience. Everything comes from something, including the myriad creative inputs we all have. So why is it that in advertising that there's this arrogant perception that everything that we produce has to be original?

In advertising there's no such thing as creative without strategy but if we're truly about getting results for our clients then why can't we adapt strategies that have been used and worked in the past?

OK, how we execute these strategies should be different, but it's more about taking what people have done in the past and building on it. Not ripping it off but making it your own or making it better. After all, the greatest artists in world history studied at the feet of masters and then tried to emulate them, and then to enhance them. But graphic artists and art directors aren't supposed to do that too? Come on.

Good work needs to be celebrated, wherever they came from. We need to stop pretending that we're all geniuses and start focusing on what's important, which is emphatically "making money for our clients". We need to get our heads out of our arses and strive to make things better, and not necessarily obsess about being utterly original.

So is originality bad? Of course not. Just that it's not as important as results. If you can be utterly original AND effective, well bully for you. But businesses adopt ideas from other businesses all the time. Those that work for those business aren't allowed to? Who made that rule into a Commandment?

Whether that's an old strategy that's worked in the past, or a youtube video you've seen on online, if it sells product and creates pro ts and jobs and positive change, does it matter where it came from? Really?

3 Comments

The Armchair Assassin said:

So in other words you can't be bothered coming up with something original.

Question for armchair assassin said:

If you could use a good strat/idea from overseas that worked well vs an original idea that is not as good, what would you pick?
From a cold hard business perspective, you might argue that our job is to do whatever is best for the client. So if that was the less original option - is it right to go ahead with a worse option, just because it's 'original'?

Genuinely keen to hear your thoughts.

The Armchair Assassin said:

Why not work harder to come up with an original idea?
Burning the midnight oil is wonderfully addictive.

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