Has the world run out of ideas?

After last week’s news that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games logo has been scrapped after allegations that it was plagiarised, AML Creative Director Richard Germain asks whether 21st century connectivity has made it impossible to be truly original.

It’s not an obvious link, the Tokyo Olympics and a Belgian theatre. But perhaps that was the point. When the new Olympic logo was revealed it didn’t take long for Belgian designer Olivier Debie to claim that the design was copied from his 2013 logo for the Theatre de Liège. Japanese logo designer Kenjiro Sano denied the accusation of plagiarism (although he has faced several others during his career). But that didn’t stop the Tokyo organising committee from withdrawing his design.

As little as twenty years ago, ‘What have Tokyo Olympians and Belgian thespians got in common?’ may have been the set-up for an off-colour joke. But in the 21st century the punchline is simple (and clean). The web. It connects us to each other whether we like it or not. Our connections are many and various (the average internet user has 5.54 social media accounts), conscious and subconscious. It is a blessing for those in the creative industries who are tasked with coming-up with ideas – and a curse.

The internet has made it possible to draw inspiration from an almost infinitely deep well of artistic endeavour – from YouTube videos created in an Abergavenny bedroom to graffiti sprayed in a New York subway – and of course theatre logos created by Belgian designers. But it’s also possible to suggest that such unrestricted and continuous exposure to pre-existing creativity makes it impossible to come up with anything truly original – or at the very least to be recognised as having done so. Because there will always be something somewhere – a lyric, a sketch, a photograph or an app – that someone can point to and say, “You nicked your idea from there.”

Accusations of plagiarism have long plagued brands and their advertising agencies. Honda, Guinness, Sony and Olympus are among many organisations whose advertising has been accused of being, at best, derivative and, at worst, nicked. (Before the sound of lawyers licking their lips becomes deafening, I’d like to add that none of the accusations has ever been proved).

A common rebuttal is that nothing in advertising is completely new, much in the same way, we advertising artistes might flatter ourselves by thinking, as there are only seven ‘master’ plots in literature – overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth – from which all other works are derived.

I actually think there is another, smarter answer. Most advertising, and virtually all brand campaigns, don’t want to look like they’re attempting to sell you something. Instead, they want you to believe that they’re entertaining, emotionally-engaging or informing you. To do this they need to heed the cultural markers of their audience. One of the easiest ways for a brand to achieve this in 2015 is by basing their campaign on user-generated content. No longer does advertising have to hold a mirror up to the fears and desires of its market – it simply films them being fearful or desirous themselves.

One last rejoinder to cries of ‘Thief!’ is perhaps the simplest and, for 95% of the writers, art directors and designers I have worked with in almost twenty years in the industry, the most honest. Good creatives don’t steal. Yes, we’re inspired and influenced by what we see and hear around us. We might even recycle an old idea – giving it a new twist and a fresh approach. But we don’t pilfer. Why would we? On an individual level, being creative is what we do and what we enjoy. On a business level, it’s what differentiates agencies from clients and enables the former to bill the latter.

Which leaves us with the case of poor Kenjiro Sano, his ill-favoured Olympic logo and three unanswered questions. Firstly, did he steal it? Secondly, why would he steal it, as the design is as unsporty as its possible to be (more suited to the dramatic arts perhaps)? And lastly, if he is guilty how on earth did he think he’d get away with it?