Tuesday, May 02, 2006

IP and PR

Every so often the PR industry heads get rightly annoyed by clients that effectively steal their IP. It happened to me earlier this year when a pretty big company took some pretty extensive thinking done as part of a pitch and simply used it without paying for it. Now in this instance it was hard to actually go and charge the prospect for the work without looking cheap but a principle was being broken which was hard to sit back and watch. But like most agencies we sat back and we watched. Sadly you tend not to get paid for sitting back and watching.

This event has troubled me for some time, not because the client effectively stole the IP but because the client didn’t even think it was a problem. In truth I’m not sure many clients realize where the IP we as an industry create starts and ends. After all, it’s tough to describe most work as being truly unique, especially when most campaigns are in effect a rehash of an idea used for another client. That’s a pretty harsh but in some cases fair description. Indeed, if you spend any time judging awards in the PR industry you will notice the same ideas being used time and again for different types of companies, with different effects. Looking at this another way, what the industry is really doing is taking the same common ingredients and then cooking them in a different way to produce a different dish. Of course a chef will staunchly defend their ‘unique’ recipe for a certain soufflĂ©, yet a PR pro will struggle to defend their unique approach to a product launch. Here-in lays the challenge to protecting IP in our industry.

Price it
A critical element to protecting IP is finding a way of charging for it. I recently met with a firm in the UK that charges clients for the value of an idea, not for the time it took to create. The argument here is that a client should take the best idea, not the one that took the least or most amount of time to dream up. On this basis the agency won’t discard the first ideas they generate for fear they’ll only be able to bill the client for 10 minutes of brainstorming. Instead, they can hold an exhaustive brainstorm and genuinely pick the ideas they truly believe in. I personally like this approach but in talking with some of my industry colleagues who’ve tried it they’ve often found clients baulk at the concept. It seems their procurement departments fear that by accepting there is IP being purchased they will open the door to ongoing charges for use of that idea. Now of course such practices are common in the advertising world. Perhaps this is what the procurement people are trying to prevent.

Document it
Another critical element in the IP struggle is the documentation of the ideas. Now in truth the law says that you don’t need to register copyright to own it. All you have to do is to be able to show that you documented your ideas first. That’s assuming of course your fear is that your ideas will get stolen. Of course this is easier said than done. I’m pretty sure that I could come up with a derivative of an idea that would sound pretty different to the original. While this is technically covered by the law, I’m guessing the originator would struggle to make a claim given the sheer costs of taking legal action in this country.

Educate
In truth I think the biggest issue in the IP battle is one of education. By this I don’t just mean the education of our clients, though I do believe this to be critical, I also mean the education of our staff. If they don’t appreciate the true value of the work they’re doing how can they expect the client to do the same?

The missing link (to business processes)
By truly understanding the value of our ideas and thinking we open the door to solving the IP problem. After all if we recognize that our IP is simply a good tag line or creative stunt, then we have to expect the client to pay accordingly. Great IP is more than this. Great IP is a set of thinking that links to business processes – it may even create them. If we educate our people to come up with thinking that links to the way clients run their businesses, or better still improves the way they run their businesses, then there is a far greater chance the client will appreciate the full value of the ideas being presented. This in turn will shift the needle away from PR being commoditized and towards being a tool that really builds businesses and brands.

So if PR wants to become a true form of consulting it needs to think long and hard about the ways it links to the client’s business and stop thinking just about how many hours were spent on a particular program. While the latter should get paid for, in the long run the real opportunity is to use our skills to significantly improve the fundamentals of clients’ businesses. Now that’s what I call real IP.

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