I Just Stole Your Idea!

by Thomas MORADPOUR on January 29, 2011 · 11 comments

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals.

I just coined that phrase.

OK, that’s not true, it’s actually from Pablo Picasso, who stole it from Oscar Wilde.
Or Stephen Morrissey.
Well anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s from one of those guys with fairly low Klout scores.

But I digress.

It’s a great quote. Yet it does not quite explain Cisco or Intel’s latest advertising stunts.


I stole this example from Brad Spychalski (@bradspy), who mentioned it in passing in his latest post, Customer Service Bowls a Perfect Game.

Like most people, I had completely missed the campaign when it ran, in the summer of 2010.

Quite surprisingly, I might add, as it borrowed all the attributes of the most succesful viral campaign of 2010, the Old Spice Man: a bathroom setting, a man in a towel adressing the audience directly through the camera, and video responses to questions asked through Twitter.
Except it featured ‘Ted from Accounting’ rather than the great Isaiah Mustafa. And it was not that funny.
Or rather, it was, but not in the way Cisco intended to make you laugh (at versus with).

Take a look at the video below to judge for yourself. Funny enough, it answers a question by none other than Mitch Joel, author of Six Pixels of Separation. It was viewed exactly 775 times on YouTube.
And the overall campaign it belongs to, was not exactly a success.


Perhaps not such a blatant copy, is the recent announcement that the rapper and member of Black Eyed Peas, Will.I.Am, was to take a job at Intel as Director of Creativity.

I can attest first hand that Will.I.Am’s creative juices flow well beyond his core music expertise, having had the luck to sit in a couple of meetings with him a Pepsi. But doesn’t this remind you of a similar move by Polaroid, who recently named Lady Gaga Creative Director?

The idea is the same, and sure, its’ a big one.
Bringing in an outsider superstar creative left thinker to overhaul your creative processes beyond your internal talent pool and practices. Or at least, claim you are, as cynics will say you’re just reframing what rest of the world knows as a celebrity endorsement.

While so far, Gaga’s visible input has not dramatically transformed Polaroid (camera-enabled sunglasses aside), I can at least see a strategic brand fit there. Gaga’s fame is built on powerful imagery, she is the stuff great fashion photography is made of.

This fit completely escapes me in the case of Intel. In Will.I.Am’s own words to explain the Intel connection: “nearly everything I do involves processors and computers”. Big deal, that’s also true of the folks at H&R Block.

The net result feels more like a second mover PR stunt.


Copying is not so uncommon as an advertising practice, that these two brands would deserve to be called out for plagiarism. In case you’re not convinced, head over to Joe La Pompe, the site dedicated to hunting down ‘similar advertising ideas’ around the world. Hundreds and thousands of examples there. Any successful idea will have its copies, and the wildly successful ones will turn into marketing juggernaut fads, which only the next one can stop (how many “flash mob” videos did you see last year?).

There is no genius in these examples because we’re talking about Copying, not Stealing.
Two very different things.


It’s actually quite a simple one.

Copying is looking at the surface of things, and reproducing their visible attributes. The towel, the bathroom set, or the job title. No one gets kudos points for copying the ‘remarkable’ of someone else. Once it’s done, it ceases to be remarkable… especially if you follow it with a clearly lesser-than-the-original execution.

Stealing is something else altogether. It’s about understanding principles, not surface attributes – understanding why something worked, and how you could apply that to your brand. Polaroid recruits a creative rockstar to bring new perspective to their innovation plans? Great idea! Find your own way to bring outside blood to your innovation department, not the same as them with another star… Old Spice shoots real-time video responses to Twitter fans? Great idea! Find some other story to tell with social media interaction.


This is where genius comes into action.
Not just copying, but taking the fundamental core of an idea, and improving it:

  • making it bigger
  • making it more entertaining
  • making it funnier
  • making it more exclusive
  • making it more unexpected
  • or making it simpler, faster, cheaper, more convenient…

Stealing is good practice.
But it does take genius – the genius to look past the surface, understand why things work… and make them better!

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  • http://www.kherize5.com Suzanne Vara


    I had seen the Cisco when it ran and was unsure why they thought it would work. All it did was make me think of Old Spice. That was not their intention at all however being that they received 775 views it probably received 775 thoughts of Old Spice. A win for Old Spice maybe if some of them bought.

    We know something that is so great will be copied. What Happens In Vegas was brilliant. The folks at R&R Partners (agency for the LVCVA) did something magical with that campaign and when we saw/heard it copied over and over, what happens in x blah blah it became maddening. Instead of building a brand, it diminished the value of the brands using it. Over time all of the copy cats did not enhance the brand image of Las Vegas, it simply got us to ignore the message all together.

    Copying and stealing are going to happen in advertising. Those that do as you say here and make it bigger are going to have something special on their hands. Those that do not, well they have wasted time and money. If the ad is confusingly similar to the other, best not to run it. You have not only made people think of the other brand, you have confused your own brand’s identity.

    Great article, I enjoyed it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Suzanne!

      What Happens In Vegas is a fantastic example of avertising that makes it into pop culture. A worthy goal of any brand builder who’s after iconic status. And I’m sure many people don’t actually realize it started as avertising.

      I think it lead to a different outome – each time someone uses the phrase, they are reminded of how cool and exciting a destination Vegas really is.

      What happens in Zurich also stays in Zurich… but that’s because nothing ever happens there. Not quite the same :-)


      • http://www.kherize5.com Suzanne Vara

        Yes but the campaign was based upon the risque part of what Vegas brings and as you say what happens in Zurich … does not pan out or pay off. The reason this campaign was so brilliant was because it paid off with the offerings of Vegas. I talked about this in a comment to your other post about sex. We have that side where were are drawn to and almost fascinated with the sex part of the message. The risk associated with going to vegas and something happening that stays here. When a brand steals and it does not pay off, like Margie said, and they have to explain it, it is not going to work. Stealing when it can pay off in the offering works but when it does not, you have disappointed your customers and potentially lost a whole slew of new ones.

  • http://www.margieclayman.com Marjorie Clayman

    Great post, Tom. I do indeed love it!

    I had never seen the Cisco idea, but there’s one thing I have learned in my advertising career thus far. Well, no, that’s not true. I’ve learned a lot. But one thing I’ve learned – if you have to explain your campaign, it’s not going to work. Cisco should have known that their audience would, as Suzanne says, either just be reminded of the Old Spice campaign or be left to wonder why that particular tactic was being used for a 100% different kind of company.

    Very interesting. I love your line, “Don’t cut and paste, steal and improve.” I”ll have to think about that one :)

    • Anonymous

      Fully agree with you Margie!
      I assume you saw that video of the Cisco Marketing Manager explaing the campaign… You are right – quite lame that he had to actually do that…

      Thanks for commenting!

      • http://www.margieclayman.com Marjorie Clayman

        Yeah, it’s great to have clever ideas, but if you have to say, “Ok, now here’s why this is AWESOME…” you have a problem :)

  • http://womeninbusinessradio.com Michele Price

    I love this post the best. Having often wondered why folks will try to duplicate without making something their own is rather maddening. (unless they like making everyone think of other company)

    Think it would be fair to say stealing is more work therefore not done often. Not fond of word stealing though. It really does imply it is ok to take someone’s work and put paper behind it then call it your own. (been on receiving end of that one). I do recognize you are saying to us, none of us has a truly original idea.

    Funny this reminds me when people would ask my how have you worked in such different industries Michele. They didn’t see a connection. It was so simple to me. The basics of business-those principles you referred to are always the same. It is how you apply them and where your creativity comes in to support them that industries grow

    Thanks for getting us thinking..

  • Smartel

    Great post Tom.

    We must not forget that being inspired by, or copying, even stealing exists as well in the startups world, in business in general, music, sport, … well everywhere.

    Great Ideas, no matter the industry, influence and inspire.

    And them being copied and stealed from should eventually try to understand why, watch or listen closely and improve their idea as well.

    You said it, it’s all in the way we stay focus on our own objectives, adapt and improve.


  • http://twitter.com/jmitchem Jim Mitchem

    This reminds me a bit of a post I wrote a while back called “You’re not creative, deal with it.” (http://bit.ly/eEivmd) Which disproves that there is anything like true ‘creativity’ in the world (much less advertising.) Look, nothing is original. We all form our ideas based on ideas that came before us. I personally try to avoid outright stealing, since I have too much confidence in my ability to think things through (quickly) without the aid of award annuals. Frankly, if you’re running around looking for things to steal from, you’re just lazy. Don’t mistake this for efficiency.

  • http://twitter.com/skypulsemedia Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    W+K were wildly successful taking something done first with Wheat Thins by the Escape Pod in Chicago, and took it up exponentially. Like you said its ok to steal but it has to be improved upon. But the spot you showed…really did not. Though some non-brand efforts on YouTube making fun of the spots got serious views…because they were better. Sadly for W&K they are kind of working with a broken brand. I am not sure this time around it will have the impact or the sales boost.

    Great post Tom this is a subject that creatives discuss on and off forever in Art, Media, etc

  • http://twitter.com/OptioneerJM Jeannette Marshall

    Thanks. I really enjoyed this article!

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