I think you know what I'm talking about. You see a new technique or a particular style used in an ad, on a bus shelter, on TV, in a website or in some promotional brochure. It may have been created by a venerable ad agency or a hot design shop. The client might have been a big conglomerate or a little upstart. Nevertheless, in a matter of months you see the same technique or style used by their competitors. You can't believe there isn't a law against it.
But the fact is that most advertising and graphic design is a clone of someone else's work, and it's done on purpose. Around here, we call it creative claim jumping, and it's on the rise.
There Are Few Rewards For Being First
So how does this happen? The answer is that clients and creatives are both to blame. Neither are rewarded for taking chances. In a world with such fierce competition and high stakes, a wrong move can spell the end of a career or a lost account. Better to keep an eye on what's working for the risk-takers, and knock them off. Of course, it's important to change it a little. No one wants a lawsuit or market confusion. But even that doesn't really matter. The market is totally confused anyway. And it is confused because there is so much creative claim jumping going on.
For instance, I remember the first time I saw 'jiggle-cam' used on a TV spot. I think it was a bank spot. It is an annoying and unfortunately effective hand held camera technique. In fact, it must have worked pretty well for the bank, because in a matter of months every savings bank - big and little - was using this technique in their ads. Soon the vernacular of a bank spot was 'jiggle-cam'. What started out as a unique, differentiating style became the source of brand confusion. And the strange part is that it took years for the technique to finally burnout.
So why didn't the other banks simply take note of the new creative and attempt to come up with something better? Because it is safer and easier to copy. The risk of market confusion was simply not as scary as the risk of failure with a new idea.
It's Easier To Ski In The Wake
Another reason for this rampant plagiarism has a lot to do with physics. It's just so much easier to let someone else do all the work and then coast along in their slipstream. With market economics, the icebreaker may forge the path, but it's the freighters that deliver the goods. And you see this every day. Microsoft let Netscape do all the Internet browser work and then knocked them off just as they started to tire, and Netscape's port was in sight! Marc Andreesen may get the glory, but Bill Gates got the girl — for a while.
Few Ideas Are Truly Original
Still another reason for all this creative claim jumping is that few ideas are truly original, and many new creative ideas emerge simultaneously from several sources. It's as though it gets in the air — like the flu. The source of the bug may be a new style (like David Carson's use of type), or a lifestyle message (like appealing to Gen-X) or it may be a new production technique (like photo app filters) or a new tool (like the latest Mac OS). Nevertheless, the bug wouldn't necessarily lead to a plague of wholesale creative claim jumping if designers paid more attention to solving problems - instead of decorating them.
It Comes Down To Design vs. Decoration
The task of producing effective, original and creative ideas does not have to be a scary proposition – either for the designer or the client. If the proper design steps are taken and all parties keep an open mind, creativity will flow. The proper steps involve, first, a careful study of the problem, which includes the market, the product and the client culture.
A key product of this study should be the identification of the 'value proposition'. This is the answer to "why would someone want what we're selling?" If the reasons can be quantified or described - like price, performance, dependability, style, etc. - then the creative team is on the way to producing original creative solutions that won't mimic the competition. This can lead to original ideas like the Avis "We try harder" campaign.
It is the critical understanding of and agreement on the 'value proposition' that galvanizes a creative team. Suddenly creatives and clients are working together. Creatives stop producing hair-brained ideas that have little connection with customers' perception of the product, and clients stop shooting down every original idea simply because they haven't seen it used effectively before. It's when the 'value proposition' lacks definition that designers (and clients) turn to window dressing or decoration.
Reebok is a perfect example. In my opinion, they have never clearly identified their 'value proposition'. Nike leads the way, and Reebok follows at a distance. A Reebok campaign doesn't look exactly like Nike. It looks a little different - a little different than a Nike ad from two years ago. Adidas, on the other hand, follows its own creative track - and thus appears to be an original alternative.
There you have it. Designers and marketing directors can choose to design or decorate - to forge new ground or claim jump. If they choose the original path, they stand a much better chance of defining their brand in ways that cut through the clutter and fragmentation of today's marketplace.
Originally written in 1996 and still relevant today.
Rick Seireeni is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Architecture. He has been Associate Art Director of Rolling Stone Magazine, Senior Art Director of Warner Bros. Records and Creative Director at Carabiner International and Enterprise IG. He is currently a Brand Strategist for SeireeniChinn and President of The Brand Architect Group.