Columns / Advertising

Are We Creative Anymore?

Ernie Schenck

“It can make you wonder: How much is originality valued anymore? Look at Hollywood. Ninety percent of films are recycles or remakes. How many books are teen dystopias? Songs? Can you say sampling? Creatively, has stealing lost its pejorative? God, I hope not.”—James Overall

That’s a comment James Overall left on a recent post of mine on Facebook. I had called out what was clearly a blatant case of advertising plagiarism, in which the victim was one of the most lauded TV spots of all time, “If You Let Me Play.” It was not an homage. It was not a coincidence. And the worst thing was that the people responsible for it knew they were drafting off one of the highest-profile commercials imaginable. Yet they did it anyway.

Even though I didn’t say a thing about the agency, the brand or the creative team behind “If You Let Me Play”—that would be Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore—for most of you, it doesn’t matter. You know as surely as you would know the players behind Apple’s “1984” spot. But for a disturbing number of us… well, we apparently have no clue. This is mind-boggling at best. Professionally negligent at worst. 

It has been said that those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. But think about this: those who don’t know or revere or learn from all the great work that has gone before them in this business are doomed to a career built on the hideously misguided belief that stealing has gotten a bum wrap.

Stealing Has Gone Mainstream

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this. As Overall says, stealing has gone mainstream. Does anyone know where The Hunger Games ends and Divergent begins? The songs all sound alike. The games all play alike. And although this author or that songwriter will cry foul now and then, for the most part the originality bar just gets lower and lower, inch by inch, year after year.

To be sure, people like Faris Yakob aren’t wrong when they say that genius steals. On the surface, this sounds heretical, professionally sacrilegious, the flagrant musings of a person who needs to be burned at the stake. But what Faris means to say, of course, is that nothing comes from nothing, that every big idea is really just the unexpected union of other ideas that have gone before and that the real creative act lies in the genius of seeing and making those connections. You steal this and you steal that and you put them together and you make something the world has never seen before. This is nothing new. 

Remember Honda’s “Cog” spot? Shortly after “Cog” appeared on television, Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) received a letter from Peter Fischli and David Weiss, creators of the 1987 art film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), which featured a Rube Goldberg–esque conceit similar to that of “Cog.” Plagiarism, Fischli and Weiss claimed. Not so, countered W+K, maintaining that there’s a big difference between being inspired by art and blatantly stealing it. 

Maybe so. Maybe not.

For the most part the originality bar just gets lower and lower, inch by inch, year after year.”

One Man’s Stealing is Another Woman’s Homage

“As much as advertising veterans would like to believe that young creatives remember, care about or hold 20-year-old ad executions up as the bar to reach, they don’t.” Laura Sweet is a creative director and an art director in Los Angeles. Unlike virtually everyone else weighing in on the “If You Let Me Play” heist, Sweet wasn’t buying into any of it. “I’d bet the creatives, the agency and the client weren’t even aware of ‘If You Let Me Play.’ And if they were? It’s akin to our generation’s homages to DDB’s Volkswagen ads that ran 20 years before we were in the business.”

Perhaps.

What I know for certain is this: If Hollywood wants to churn out one endless superhero movie after another, well, there is nothing I can do about that. If novelists want to rework each other’s dystopian stories ad nauseum, have at it. If young singers want to be Adele or Gaga or Sia, hey, knock yourselves out. But advertising? Please. We’re bigger than that. 

David Fincher puts it this way: “I watched a lot of creative directors get rope-a-doped. I could see that they wanted to be able to execute something, and the experts who were hired to help and support them would go, ‘We don’t really have the time for that.’ So I watched talented people I liked and admired get spun and worked, and I vowed never to let that happen. I was like, ‘I want to know what every muthaf---er in the room does.’ I never wanted to be the guy who was victimized by other people’s laziness.”

Creative laziness doesn’t define us. 

It never used to.

It doesn’t have to now. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

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