Ad agencies take immense pride in helping their brands dazzle and delight consumers with interesting and unique ideas. As an industry, they often lurk in the shadows letting brands take the spotlight in the eyes of the consumer. Within the industry, what they often ask for however, is to be treated as partners instead of vendors, and credit for their efforts and ideas.

While the conversation on credit is an ongoing one, it really stole the limelight earlier this week when CEO of crypto firm, Coinbase, Brian Armstrong (pictured left)  shot out a series of tweets to paint a picture of its Super Bowl ad being done in-house when in reality, the company actually had help from agencies. He said that the team "did an amazing job pulling this off last minute" with a production budget of less than US$100k. While Armstrong later followed up with a tweet saying that Coinbase had worked with a creative firm, he did not name the agency. 

Armstrong’s tweet was then called out by CEO of The Martin Agency, Kristen Cavallo (pictured right), who said the ad was inspired by the agency's presentations last year. Cavallo also wrote in a separate LinkedIn post that she responded because somebody needed to. "Not because it was one agency’s idea versus another. But because the whole thread was unbecoming and unnecessary. And in this case, incorrect," she explained. She added that Armstrong's thread could "easily have been a celebration of creativity and breakthrough thinking versus claiming credit and disregarding agencies".

CMO of Coinbase Katie Rouch also added to the conversation after Cavallo spoke out. She said the fit with Accenture Interactive was seamless that the “CEO actually thought [they] were a single team when presenting work.”

Rouch added that multiple agencies - including The Martin Agency - pitched the idea for several different campaigns. However none of the ideas were conceptually what Coinbase was looking for. “Only when Accenture Interactive onboarded and came up with the idea of inserting a QR code in a popular meme did we green light the idea,” she said. Shedding more light on the relationship with The Martin Agency, she said, it is always tough when an agency of record is chosen right before a CMO starts and that when she was onboarded, she made the call that The Martin Agency wasn't a fit for Coinbase. “They are a strong agency and I am sorry they left the relationship with a bad feeling. Breaking up is hard to do. I wish the team at The Martin Agency all the best,” she added.

Such instances are not new in the industry and can also happen when brands, for example, demand intellectual property over an agency's ideas during a pitch, leaving the latter with no choice but to watch their ideas being adapted and used. In fact, 4As Malaysia has attempted to prevent such issues from occurring by calling out companies in Malaysia for demanding the ownership of intellectual property when conducting requests for proposals. According to the 4As, this includes ideas, plans and work products described in the proposals regardless of which agency wins the pitch. The association previously called this practice "unethical and unfair" and called for the practice to "cease immediately".

A short poll conducted by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE in our  Telegram group chat with over 100 respondents also found that 48% said it's a norm to have clients steal their ideas. Meanwhile, 41% said this has happened to them on some occasions and 11% indicated that they have never had such an experience.

Echoing similar sentiments, The Clan's creative chief, Casey Loh, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that he has faced many similar encounters. While not on quite the same level of dismissal as the Coinbase CEO tweet incident, Loh explained that clients have been "prone to bouts of insomnia" when it comes to recalling if an agency had previously presented or shared an idea that contributed to the end result.

Although this may make agencies sound whiny, nothing is more painful than seeing the discussions, brainstorms, presentations, that brought the idea to the very point of realisation, be dismissed on the grounds of treatment and execution.

"We’ve had tech-enabled ideas rejected because the clients weren’t ready. But a few months later, that very same idea was executed by another agency and went on to win industry awards. We’ve experienced concepts sold but claimed by another as some changes were made to the brief," Loh explained.

That said, Loh added that ideas do overlap sometimes and concepts can cross over from one agency to another. To tackle this, Loh believes that the very least a client can do is to acknowledge that any collaboration between client and agency can only make ideas better.

"If agencies aren’t valuable in what they bring to the table then surely they lack the ability to provide talents of any worth to the client’s in-house departments. The danger of dismissing an agency’s worth is not just in campaigns that lack perspective. The true danger of dismissing collaboration is a brand being stuck in an echo chamber," he added.

Sharing a real-life example, Sean Sim, CEO of McCann Worldgroup Malaysia, said:

I can remember instances where the client managers hijacked the agency’s ideas as their own, just to boost their standing in front of their bosses.

While Sim declined to name the client, he lauds Cavallo for being brave enough to stand up for her agency. Sim added that he personally would not engage in a Twitter or social war with the other party. "If it was a clear case of IP appropriation from the agency’s proposal, I would let the lawyers do the talking," he added.

Taking a different stance is founder and director of Hungry Digital in Hong Kong, Rudi Leung. Leung said he too would have called out the client publicly if put in a similar situation mostly because Coinbase’s CEO publicly displayed how "unprofessionally and disrespectfully" he treats agency partners.

"I too would have called it out if I were in her shoes. It’s nothing personal, just professional," he explained. That being said, Leung said it isn’t uncommon for pitch ideas, strategy, campaign structures and celebrity recommendations to “inspire clients to create something similar” and it has happened to him in his career more than once.

“While we didn't resort to any public confrontation, we spread the word privately among our industry peers," he said. Leung added:

Reputation matters. Not only for ad agencies but also clients.

According to statistics from Meltwater, online mentions of Armstrong and Coinbase rose to 1.64k (+27,167%) between 13 to 25 February. The number of mentions across all platforms - Twitter, blogs, news, Reddit, forums, and podcasts - peaked at 553 on 22 February. Meanwhile, the number of mentions on Twitter peaked at 376 on 21 February.

Among the list of keywords included "super bowl ad", "qr codes", "quick back story", "creative partner", "ad agency head", "unnamed creative firm", "IP or credit", and "coinbase CMO kate rouch".

meltwater coinbase stats

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'Disrespecting an industry with weak arguments'

Armstrong shared some of his opinions in his series of tweets. For example, he said it never made sense why he should like a product because a famous person got paid to say they like it. He added that while he is still new to marketing, it seems like reasonable advice to "do things that you think are funny or awesome even if people tell you it won't work".

CEO at hasan & partners, Riku Vassinen, said Armstrong's tweets about Coinbase's Super Bowl ad is "disrespecting an entire industry with weak arguments". "We as an industry should be proud of what we do and stand for what is right," he added. Vassinen previously worked at Ogilvy Africa as well as JWT and R/GA in Asia Pacific.

Vassinen also added that creativity is not owned by ad agencies, in fact, good creative ideas can come from in-house, production, tech companies, influencers, and brand CEOs. However, putting out good ideas at a steady pace and realising them requires experience, skill, and craft, and ad agencies generally have expertise in these areas, he explained.

Breaking down Armstrong's advice on "do things that they think are funny or awesome even if people can tell it won't work", Vassinen said:

"That is terrible advice. You should do things that your audience thinks are funny or awesome. Of course, when you're CEO or founder, most of your employees think the things you like are funny and awesome, but that does not mean they really are.”

Joining the chorus of industry players who have spoken up about this and voiced support for Cavallo, industry veteran Cindy Gallop said she has talked for decades about the fact that work created by the ad industry is the only product that is not branded with who actually created it. Hence, she has always advocated that it was crucial for clients to give agencies credit and that agencies demand it.

Citing her experience at an industry conference years ago, Gallop said she sat through a day of clients presenting big campaigns on stage, only one of whom credit the agency responsible.

"The then-CMO of McDonald's delivered a case study on the success of 'I'm Lovin' It' and referenced 'a small agency in Germany' as the creators but not their name at a conference where those credits would have been hugely beneficial to every agency's business in sending the marketers in the audience to work with them," Gallop said. ''I'm lovin' it'' was the brainchild of Heye & Partner under DDB Worldwide. 

"We are masters of human psychology and consumer insight; we're able to analyse complex business scenarios and come up with ingenious strategies to ensure better business outcomes, in ridiculously short timelines; we're able to make creative leaps that dramatically change people's perceptions of brands and products," Gallop explained.

Having spent 37 years in the business of pushing consumers to do things they originally had no intention of doing, Gallop is bent on seeing the industry get the credit it deserves.

So how can ad agencies claim their credit?

Cavallo wrote in her LinkedIn post that the ad industry is filled with professionals, creative and strategic thinkers who deserve to be respected for their ideas and cleverness. She also explained that advertising is seen by everyone but not everybody is capable of creating effective memorable ads. Hence, respecting the discipline requires clients who value agencies' work as an economic multiplier, and it requires an industry that knows its worth.

Her post had 13,336 reactions at the time of writing at 773 comments, with many showing support for Cavallo and applauding her for speaking up. While it might not be common for agency leaders to boldly voice their opinions online, this does not mean they should remain silent when faced with similar issues.

Lauding Cavallo’s statement, Vanesse Lai, co-founder of Start PR in Hong Kong, said that the statement highlights the industry’s expectation to be respected. Using her metaphor in dealing with such a situation and educating clients, she said, when a consumer subscribes to a video streaming service or the monthly plan, you cannot waive the charges even if you haven’t watched any movies or spent the data because the service providers have offered what they promised to. The same logic should actually apply in our industry.

“We spend our time to develop the ideas and provide them to our clients and so we expect our ideas deserve gain,” she said.

Meanwhile, The Clan's Loh said to stand up for what’s right for the industry is to sometimes speak the truth and have an open conversation with the clients first. "Have them hear you out and understand that it’s never just a one-way street when it comes to ideas. It is a road that branches in many different directions, taking many people with you and arriving at the destination together, without leaving anyone behind," he said.

Nonetheless, agencies should also not forget that it is with the client’s brief, guidance, constant changes (and that’s not always a bad thing) that have helped craft an idea to the point of perfection, Loh said. Collaboration has to happen and empathy is required to understand the challenges on both sides of the spectrum.

“While the scales are usually tipped in favour of whoever is paying, I think it makes more sense for clients to also know that the hidden value in a loyal and passionate agency far outweighs the merit of hoarding all the glory,” he said. According to him, the only solution is for agencies to unite and show value to clients who think the days of the agencies as valuable partners are over.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's Content 360 is back for its 10th year! Running from 26 to 27 April 2022, the hybrid conference covers topics including the creator economy, value-based storytelling strategy, consumable content on social, as well as video and community content. Register today to learn, connect and level up with the best content marketers in Asia!     

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