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The 'Art' of the Copycat
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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It has been echoed throughout modern society that "imitation is the highest form of flattery."

But does that ring true when someone, let's say another agency or brand, copies (or imitates) your work?

On the radio show On Point earlier this week, there was a man on the show who made his living creating forgeries of famous painters and selling them for top dollar at auction houses. People, of course, called in with holier-than-thou comments, calling him a bad guy and wishing that the statute of limitations was a little bit longer so he could be "brought to justice." One naive gentleman even called to request the forger offer up his small fortune as restitution to those who bought his forgeries.

What people completely glossed over is the fact that the forger (Ken, we believe his name was) is a fantastically good painter. He himself said that he has "mastered the hand" of a couple notable painters of the nineteenth century.  Although he no longer tries to sell his works as originals, he admitted that his current, very wealthy clients still have him re-create the masterpieces he has been known for.

As advertising can be considered a form of art, have we not seen examples of brands or agencies trying to "master the hand" of other practitioners? It is not rare to see AdLand try to adopt works of art as advertising, too. In our industry, many people call the practice "appropriation." Remember when GS&P redesigned its logo based off of a defunct manufacturing company? The heat was so much, Silverstein had to send a memo out to the agency addressing it.

Purists would call copycats as unimaginative, uncreative, and therefore unfit to be in our industry. But when you look around and see the "creative" out there in today's environment, it is tough to call anything original. W+K's Old Spice Guy? Can we not suggest that he is loosely based off Ogilvy's "Man in a Hathaway Suit?" A modern twist, of course, but the reliance on substance and copy is very similar.

To tie the art forger and advertising creative together, we are trying to say that it takes a lot of skill to imitate, and imitate well. If a campaign is copied off another's idea, and works, who is to say that it was the wrong thing to do? Creativity, especially in advertising, means more than seeing something original, it means creating the message and dialogue for the brand's target audience.

Just like a forger cannot simply create a "copy" of an original, a shop cannot simply "copy" a campaign. There are too many nuances that a copy can't account for. Therefore skill and creativity is needed to make someone else's "hand" work.


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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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