Fair Exchange: Who owns which idea?
by Erna George (@) In the age of democratisation of ideas, partnership with multiple agencies and open-plan offices, how do we protect ideas and ensure distinct ideas across brands?
Everyone has a CV or a reel or portfolio showcasing their work and their ideas, and it becomes interesting when those projects appear in multiple portfolios. It’s even more interesting when we see what we believed to be a breakthrough idea brought to market by another brand at almost the same time as our activity breaks — now how did that happen?!
I don’t want to get into a moral or subjective debate on this as I suspect emotions will run high. All I want to do is see if there are ways to diminish the confusion and I will try for no judgement. If I don’t succeed in not taking sides, please know the intent is not to judge but provoke a level of appreciation for how important addressing this subject is
Few big ideas, distinct executions
At a previous job, one of my mentors told me there are very few real and distinct insights; I believe a similar line of thought may apply to ideas. Given the idea is the big overarching theme or principle, it may be brought to life in various executions or expressions. Think family reunion as an idea: soldier comes home safe after war — ‘the tear jerker’; family comes together from across the world for a reunion celebration — ‘laughter and good times’; or ‘the epic, moving tale’ of twins adopted by different families finding each other years later. Same idea, different stories and emotions.
If indeed there’re only a few ideas, we need to work so that that our executions of these are distinct, relevant to category and consumers and, above all, true to the brand. It’s key to develop memory structure that can be woven within to protect the brand ownership of the idea’s execution. This ensures that, even if the idea or execution is used by another, a unique aspect is recognised or remembered as your brand. Don’t forget to push the boundaries so the idea expression is remarkable and remembered.
Be disciplined about protecting ideas
So, whether there’re few or many ideas, protecting your ideas and executions is crucial and a challenge. At my first job after graduating, we were required to complete numerous (what I then thought were crazy) courses and mystery checkers on data protection, risk management, confidentiality checks. What I realised later was the discipline that was entrenched with clear actions and signs of ‘confidentiality-health’ — simple things like a clear/clean desk policy, no visitors beyond reception unless accompanied and, even then, only to communal areas or meeting rooms. I have joined businesses where this has not been formalised and visitors walked freely to R&D or marketing seating areas, which are the hub of many ideas, new launches or innovative twists. New pack formats or designs sit on desktops, new campaigns are discussed across the room or taste sessions for breakthrough new products are shared around.
It’s not about not trusting your agency with your ideas but you often work in close proximity to other category brand teams. If the agency works on these categories (with other teams in their businesses), don’t take the chance. Chinese walls are tough to maintain. I doubt it would be intentional but it’s difficult to un-see an idea or design; it often pops uncalled into your mind and, while the connection may not be made to your company, a good idea could be shared unwittingly. Find a room or space where you can share your idea with your agency partner openly but care enough to shelter it from unsought temptation.
Power of language used around idea
So, on one of my brands, I came up with the idea of rejuvenating an existing product to be used or made three ways — yielding three outputs. The marketing manager on my team took the idea and ran with it, refining, building and then executing with R&D and agency partners. So, while I spouted this crazy idea from my lips in a creative spurt, how it looked when it was executed was well-rounded, distilled and shifted into the realm of completeness. Is this my idea or may the marketing manager lay claim to it? What of the other parties? Do we discuss the idea generator vs the idea refinement and execution of the strategy?
I’ve seen the same happen in my exposure across the globe on multiple brands, ie when I see an idea an agency was part of in its pitch/portfolio but I know that it wasn’t the lead-idea generator. Some stay true to their role; others allow the lines to be blurred. The trick is, you never know who’s in the room, whether it’s a pitch or an interview; speak to your role in the process and how instrumental you were to your aspect of the project, as everyone adds value in the chain of custody from idea to execution. This will protect relationships and levels of trust.
Doesn’t have to be war
We work in a small industry where the rules of engagement around ideas are unclear but this doesn’t have to be war. However, ego is involved and this makes it more sensitive. Ideas and effective execution of these are a strong currency and may be priceless for a brand, agency or individual when leveraged well.
- Don’t be too democratic with these ideas, especially before they are crafted into distinct and ownable executions
- Protect ideas and executions like they’re your children — build the discipline across your business
- If you didn’t ‘give birth’ to the idea, acknowledge and craft the story on your role in the execution so your expertise and skill are clear and integrity maintained.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.
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