Mother London's 'FCK. We're sorry' ad for KFC won three golds and a silver Lion at Cannes, splitting opinion among UK attendees. Older heads were surprised that something that so blatantly aped Trevor Beattie’s famous "FCUK" campaign for French Connection – by deliberately misspelling a profanity – was singled out as an example of brilliant, original creativity. Younger delegates (and perhaps the judges as well) either didn’t know about the link or didn’t care.
The question of the open-sourcing of creative ads has become a potent one – tales of creative teams trawling YouTube in the desperate hunt for inspiration in their spare time are legion. And it is often used to point the finger accusingly at a lack of originality.
But should we care? After all, in this open-source world, ideas are fluid – they extend to everyone, whether we are talking about ad agencies or the audiences they serve. Beattie tweeted about the KFC win, pointing out how much it owes to his campaign in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive way (but given his career has moved on to films, quite how proprietorial or wounded he feels is a different matter). The fact is that the sharing of ideas is how humanity has evolved (and wordplay on risqué subjects has always been advertising’s stock-in-trade).
If we didn’t share things, life would be pretty hard. Imagine having to discover fire or reinvent the wheel every day because the person who did it first didn’t want anyone nicking their idea? While I’m not pretending that amending a brand name to something that may seem shocking to some is in any way a parallel, using cultural tropes made famous by others could be a smart shortcut into an increasingly busy and congested world.
However, for brands, open-source ideas might at first seem like anathema. In cluttered categories, brands fight very hard to identify "clear water" where they can distinguish themselves from the competition. Now I don’t think that brands should share their hard-won competitive communications strategies – rather it’s about creativity as a global resource, and the importance of true collaboration between all the stakeholders involved in a campaign.
We need to open up, share the way we think, be vulnerable and learn not to worry about losing intellectual property. Whether we like it or not, the internet has made everything open-source now – brands put their work out there but audiences will always respond to it and play with it as they please.
Jeffrey Castellano, global executive creative director at IBM iX, had an interesting take on this theme in a session at Cannes called "Dare to Share: How Open-Source Ideas Win". He reminded us that ancient Greeks embraced the concept of the divine spirit – even Socrates thought the spirit spoke to him and gave him all his wisdom. And ancient Romans had the "genius", a whimsical entity that worked its magic through a human creator.
This outsourcing of inspiration protected people from narcissism because they couldn’t ultimately take personal credit for the work. Then the Renaissance came along and introduced rational humanism, which put people centre-stage and created a lot of ego issues.
An individual was no longer visited by the genius, the individual was the genius, which created the need to protect intellectual property. The patent was introduced in 1474, and that’s the way it was for centuries – until open-source software came along to upend the process and compel people to share.
The software that allowed Stephen Hawking to talk by moving his eyes remains open-source and, to this day, anyone can walk in on it. Bitcoin is the ultimate in open-source and it’s pretty much started a revolution – but its founder (who may or may not be called Satoshi Nakamoto) doesn’t even want to be identified. Similarly, blockchain is built on the idea of an anonymous group of people coming together as creators.
The tech creative community understands that being proprietorial about individual contributions just isn’t practical or helpful in any way because isolated ownership of ideas affects the rate of innovation.
In the advertising and marketing industries, too, we have to see open-source as helping people to share, not taking ideas away from them, because we can’t own things as individuals in the way we used to. Creativity comes from without – we need to liberate ourselves from the conception of ego and simply begin.
David Billing is the chief creative officer of The Beyond Collective