Ad agencies’ fears that creative ideas presented in new business pitches could be swiped by bad apple clients has been well documented over the years. And while pitches are grueling for PR firms, too, communications shops were usually spared this worry because they were hired based largely on media relationships and demonstrated expertise in areas like crisis work and stakeholder relations. But that was then.
With PR shops bolstering their creative chops, some agency executives say they’re growing increasingly concerned about client theft of their intellectual property.
Fred Bateman, founder and CEO of Bateman Group, says "in years past, this wasn’t much of a problem" for shops like his.
"Tech-focused PR firms would win business based on their analytical thinking or genuine domain knowledge of increasingly complex technology sectors. It’s not IP you can really steal; it has to be acquired over time," he explains.
Yet even b-to-b clients more often want comms partners with advertising and consumer PR capabilities, especially in the areas of digital and social media. "Today, we never go into a pitch without a creative brief of some kind," Bateman underscores. "So yes, we have begun to worry about the potential of a prospect not hiring us but executing our ideas with a competing agency. I have not experienced nor heard horror stories yet, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time."
Bateman has turned to the firm’s recruits from the digital advertising sector, "where this is not only a worry but a legitimate fear," to protect his agency’s IP. Digital strategy VP Caleb Bushner, for instance, has recommended "dazzling our prospective clients with our digital and social integration smarts, and saving the creative ideas until they’re officially on board," notes Bateman.
For RFPs that demand detailed creative strategies, Bateman Group also considers asking prospects to pay a fee before participating.
Rbb Communications CEO Christine Barney agrees IP theft is a worry. "PR agencies often find brands do a search to fish for ideas and end up hiring no one or hiring one agency and asking them to incorporate other agency ideas," she says.
Some companies are more upfront about it and give remuneration to each pitching agency. "I’ve been involved in a few pitches where they paid a nominal fee and said they would own all ideas at the end," she says.
Barney notes that agencies are trying to copywrite ideas or buy up URLs. "But I believe you can’t run your business living in fear of being ripped off," she says, noting that a great idea shared in a pitch presentation is just the "tip of an iceberg" in terms of the value an agency partner brings.
"Bringing that idea to life is what makes the difference between a mediocre program and a great one. I say, let’s give them our best concept, but make them pay for the details," Barney explains. "Agencies must stick to their guns and not give away the store without compensation. Detailed plans should only be done with pay."
Other agency executives concur, pointing out that communications’ sweet spot is still in its relationships with influencers and the ability to effectively implement plans, creative ideas included.
"At the end of the day, you can't copyright ideas," points out Nectar cofounder and partner Tracy Sjogreen. "But even the very best ideas will fall short in execution if the team chemistry, knowledge and relationships are not authentic."
Agency search consultants: ‘Take a stand’
Years ago, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies released guidelines for agency searches. A number of creative shops have also instituted and been vocal about their no-spec-work policies in pitches.
It’s a different story in the PR industry. The PRSA, for instance, has not published guidelines on how pitches should be conducted. However, Rod Granger, the organization’s director of content and integrated comms, notes that it is a frequent topic on the association’s PRsay blog.
To help clients run better pitches, agency search consultancies are a cottage industry in the creative industry, and they also see an opportunity in PR-led RFIs and RFPs.
"It’s historically a less common issue in this space, but I’d argue that as PR agencies continue to rise their way up the food chain in the marketer’s armory and drive more proactive, brand-led comms, it’s possible we are seeing it more," says Charlie Carpenter, MD of U.K.-based consultancy Creativebrief.
He points to a spat between brand comms agency Manifest and London craft brewery BrewDog. In May, Manifest founder and CEO Alex Myers accused BrewDog of using his firm’s creative concept without paying the firm. BrewDog argued the execution was different from what Manifest had pitched.
"The matter has now been resolved according to Manifest, but it's a timely wake-up call for the PR industry about the perilous nature of navigating this area of intellectual property ownership," says Carpenter, who advocates agencies "stick to their guns and behave exactly as Manifest did."
"Stick up for the commercial value and power of creativity and ideas, because right now they’re being eroded and commoditized rapidly, which will only lead to worse behavior and an increase in the number of brands who feel they can take advantage. Someone needs to take a stand, and the more publicly these issues are discussed the better," he adds. "Sometimes it’s also not the case that brands are acting maliciously, they just don’t know what the etiquette is, and that needs to be made more mainstream and visible."
Lisa Colantuono, president of agency search consultancy AAR Partners concurs, saying, "This is an ongoing concern, as it should be for agencies across the board."
"But when I hear about an agency’s ideas being stolen, usually it is from the more boutique agencies," she says. "They have a harder time protecting themselves because of their size and the fact that a lawsuit would be so expensive."
Some clients see pitches as a way to hear ideas and feel entitled to implement them internally or with another agency as long as a stipend had been paid to each agency. Colantuono is not a fan of this approach. "Even if a stipend is as much as $50,000, I guarantee their work and ideas are worth more than that," she says.
She suggests agencies run background checks on clients to eliminate the risk of their intellectual property being stolen. If the client is providing a pitch fee, Colantuono says to put in a non-disclosure agreement that "it isn’t a payment for the IP, but just to offset some of the pitch costs. Whatever is discussed and presented, it has to be stipulated it is owned by the agency, until the agency enters into a separate contract with the client."
Aaron Kwittken, CEO of KWT Global, offers a possible solution: open up the process and have agencies pitch in front of each other, even allowing them to challenge one another on their concepts in a kind of cage match.
"It would just make everything more open, transparent and accountable and could help remove the politics behind some pitches," says Kwittken. "I can’t wait for a client to try it."