Frank PR's award-winning launch of Nickelodeon's Nicktoons TV channel with the creation of a Simpsons-style cartoon based on a real British family last year may well go down in public relations history.
The consultancy has just sealed a deal to be paid a licence fee whenever Nickelodeon rolls out the idea in other countries (PRWeek, 30 April). Industry peers believe this could be an important first step within the sector of finally being recognised for the value of its creativity as well as its delivery.
Kaizo creative director Eugen Beer is one of those who believes it's high time PR professionals were rewarded for coming up with ideas that can be used beyond the original brief: 'Good for Frank - the deal shows appropriate respect for the creative input, as well as the delivery.'
Frank PR chairman Graham Goodkind says that when the campaign was originally pitched to Nickelodeon UK, he had a feeling that the idea was good enough to catch on.
'The original deal we agreed on was that Nickelodeon UK would own the rights to the idea in the UK in perpetuity. If the series was rolled out internationally, then it would be acknowledged that we worked on the concept and we would get usage rights for other Nickelodeon territories,' he says.
One of a kind
The deal is thought to be a precedent - even Goodkind says he hadn't thought of it before: 'I think it's partly down to fear. Agencies don't seem to have enough confidence in the value of their ideas, and we are so eager to please clients that sometimes they get a better deal than us.'
He points out that PR agencies give away intellectual property in pitches for nothing all the time, but says that the industry shouldn't sell itself short: 'If we are confident that our idea is valuable, it's absolutely fair that we are paid for it. The advertising industry has been doing it for years.'
The theft of creative ideas by clients and rival agencies is a perennial part of life for the industry. Part of the problem is that many ideas are variations on a theme rather than truly original, but it's also notoriously difficult to prove any infringement of intellectual property and copyright laws.
Michael Frohlich, MD of Chime-backed consumer start-up Resonate, says that he has put copyright notices on his work for years, including in the pitch process, but this is no guarantee that ideas are safe.
'Clients often hire smaller agencies for their creativity, but if a big client steals your idea, as a small agency you can't really go after them - we just don't have the clout. What Frank has done is great, because it shows that a PR agency can have some serious rights over its creative work.'
Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser says that the increasingly global nature of media means it is much easier to see if ideas are being used in different countries than it was previously, so this is a logical step.
'All agencies will be prepared to invest more into their ideas, as they may have the opportunity to see their work used on a global basis,' he says.
'All parties will need to be much clearer upfront about who owns the creative for campaigns in a way they have not needed to do before, so that there are no disputes later.'
Goodkind does, however, point out that this type of deal is more likely to be successful if the creative idea in question is an entire campaign as opposed to a one-off tactic.
'I'm not saying we should charge for every idea, but if we know it's one of those special ones it is worth trying to protect it. We should all be doing that, as it would inflate the value of PR.'
Goodkind advises that agencies that are considering going down this route should use media law experts to help with the contract. He says he can't disclose the usage fee the agency will be paid every time the idea is rolled out in a new country, but he does say that although it's 'not a licence fee of Pop Idol proportions', it's not a sum to be laughed at.
Since the end of last year, Revolver Communications, which was beaten by Frank to the Nickelodeon business, has charged all new clients a one-off creative fee to reward the hours of creative thinking that happen before even winning an account.
'PR has always been the poor relation of advertising,' says creative director Martin Ballantine. 'We're normally given four weeks to come up with a campaign for a whole year, and we need to look for more acknowledgement of creativity in PR. Every single PR consultancy should start charging a creativity fee.'
Ballantine believes that it is up to the industry to be proactive, since clients are not likely to offer licence fees for the recycling of agency creativity: 'Nickelodeon is a rarity - I would be amazed if clients decided to adopt that attitude.'
Nevertheless, Frank's move has the PR industry excited. At Resonate, which has just taken on Gavin Lewis, one of the Frank team who worked on the Nickelodeon campaign, director Graham Drew says that the idea of licence agreements signals recognition for the creativity of PR, as well as being another possible revenue stream: 'It can only be good for everyone in the industry.'
So how does an agency place a value on its most creative ideas? The short answer, says Goodkind, is whatever the client is prepared to pay: 'It might be a lot less than you might think, but if you don't ask, you don't get.' Perhaps it's now time for PR agency folk to start asking.