Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

Years ago, my genius brother tried to explain to me why he kept giving away his intellectual property. He had developed new languages and other tools that helped put massive amounts of academic information online in the 1990s, but he refused to patent or sell any of it.

If I recall correctly, his explanation was to the effect of "if I try to sell it, a few people might buy it; if I give it away, then lots of people will use it and I can sell my expertise as the originator". (Sorry if I got this horribly wrong, David.)

This line of thinking has been an influence on me ever since. In the first years of this century, ad agencies were falling all over each other trying to brand their own proprietary processes, as if they were off-the-shelf products.

It was so bad that ADWEAK, the sadly short-lived but hilarious ad satire site, was able to make me LOL with the following:

Ogilvy Planners Claim Bates' "Brandwheel™" Is a Direct Ripoff of Their Own "360ยบ Branding®"

NEW YORK— Allegations surfaced last week when a team of account planners from Ogilvy & Mather suggested that Bates Advertising has infringed on their trademarked process of building brands.

Ogilvy, which operates under the term “360° Branding®” claims that Bates “Brandwheel™” process is “strikingly similar” to their own. “We’ve spent millions of dollars and months of work creating 360° Branding®. This is something that sets us apart from every other agency, “ said Martin McVeney, Senior Account Planner at Ogilvy. “To have Bates basically just rip it off is appalling,he added.

Planners at Bates contend that their “Brandwheel™” process was created without outside influence. “This is ludicrous,” noted Bates’ Director of Planning, John McDougal. “Our process for creating advertising that gets results is something we take great pride in. After all, it’s not like our creative is going to win new business. We had to have something we could trademark and Brandwheel™ was just the kind of approach we were looking for.”

The two approaches are indeed quite similar. Both suggest that the agencies look at the brand from all aspects and integrate any marketing efforts based on the entire brand under a sub-process which Ogilvy terms “SyneBranding®” while Bates calls theirs “Brand-Alysis™.”

Further, the agencies have nearly identical tactics in consumer research. Ogilvy locates consumer “Touchpoints™” by initiating dialogue where people “actually interact with the brand.” Similarly, Bates seeks to understand consumers with a process called “MindSeek®.”

“All we have is our proprietary marketing tools,” said Mr. McVeney. “Without it, what do we have to offer clients? Good creative? I don’t think so.”

There’s no word yet as to how the situation will be resolved at the two agencies but insiders say that more agencies could become involved in the fray. Nearly every major ad agency in the U.S. boasts of a “proprietary marketing tool” unlike any other. Noted one anonymous insider, “We all do the same god-damned thing, we just give it some stupid trademarked name and a logo and say we’re different. For Chrissakes, what happened to doing better creative than anyone else? Did that ever occur to anyone? Now every agency is flapping their gums about how they do better focus groups. It’s just f*cking pathetic, if you ask me.”

The joke, of course, is that we all pretty much do it the same way. You can count the steps differently, and call them whatever you want, but what differentiates one agency's branding process from another's is the insight, expertise and experience of the people doing it.

When we set out to develop our own description of branding process for pitches, etc., I was determined to make it an "open source" system that deliberately looked throughout the industry for best practises and gave clients something that they could easily implement. And then we applied those simple (or "SIMPL", for "Social issues Marketing PLan", since we can't help but brand everything that moves us) steps to every process we undertake, from advertising and design, to communication and media planning and digital marketing development. Here it is, on the house:
1. Understand the issue
2. Inspire ourselves
3. Inspire our client
4. Inspire change
5. Build on our results
Those are the words we use, but like I said the overall process is standard. And like everything else, we give the details of the process away quite freely in pitches, classes, meetings and seminars. Why? Because there's no voodoo involved in what we do, no "secret formula". Getting marketing right just takes listening, understanding, inspiration, and a hell of a lot of hard work. Every branding job leads to a unique solution, even if the steps that got us there are the same. The unique part is what our clients are really paying us for.

Postscript: If you're over 30, I apologize for putting that song in your head. The only remedy is to listen to it again:

Ironically, the vid has been completely nuked from YouTube over copyright violations.


  1. I like David's thinking and, to a certain extent, I agree. (Yeah, weird coming from me!)

    Anyway, from David's perspective, yes, his approach makes sense since what he's selling is his expertise. Also, given that he's a lone inventor and given the horrendous cost of IP rights enforcement (oh, those so-overpriced IP lawyers!), if someone infringed his IP, it's unlikely that he would really be able to enforce his rights anyway.

    Sad to say but I'm really beginning to think that the world of IP is a world for the big boys with cavernous pockets, especially if you have something that everyone wants. ... Read More

    If you're a lone inventor and you REALLY want to enforce your IP rights, your best bet would be to get a bigger brother who can go toe to toe with an IP bully. (You can license the technology to a large company and tell THEM to enforce the damned rights!) And I think this is ESPECIALLY true if you're dealing with a very specialized niche field that's crowded.

    Oh, and all comments are my own and do not represent the views or positions of either my firm or my clients. :-)

    (Nice song as well. Now it's stuck in my head. Thanks dude.)

  2. Wow -- thanks for the kind words, Tom!

    Anonymous (I know who it is, but will leave him/her that way) is right about selling expertise, but there's also another consideration. It turns out that there are *two* ways to take on the big boys: cozy up to a deep-pocketed Sugar Daddy who can pay the bills while you fight a prolonged Iraq-war-type struggle to defend your IP claims, or just smile and give good stuff away.