Own Your Shit

In William Goldman’s great memoir on Hollywood Screenwriting, Adventures in the Screen Trade, he laments the fact that writers end up with much less respect and money than they deserve because they rarely insist on owning their creations.

Apparently they are so bloody delighted that someone actually wants to commit their guff to celluloid that they enter a state of delerium where they can be persuaded to sign away the rights to their painstakingly realised stories and characters in perpetuity.

So when the toys are sold and the sequels are made, no one asks or pays the writer, because they don’t have to and because writers can be quite annoying people to talk to.

In the world of advertising, this shit-owning problem is equally true.

When an agency creates a great campaign or endline, they simply give it away to the client for a few pennies and the privilege of working for them for as long as they are granted such a beautiful gift. This can even happen with pitches, where the creator doesn’t work for the client at all, and yet still gives all his goodies away for the square root of fuck-all.

So when John Webster invented the Gary Lineker Walkers campaign or the No-Nonsense John Smiths campaign the clients were able to move them to AMV or TBWA without any compensation.

The same is true of directors, who sign away the ads they shoot forever, and post houses, who never see a brass farthing of any continued success their creations might have.

Perhaps that seems reasonable, after all what’s the alternative? Well, how about photographers and illustrators, who merely lease their work to the agencies for a certain period of time, but retain ownership; or actors who get repeat fees and can renegotiate their fee if they become the ‘face’ of some client.

How come they can own their output, yet agencies and production companies who, arguably, create far more valuable products, cannot?

Well, as far as I can work out, the photographers must have had some Kissinger-esque genius negotiating for them way back when: the client pays for them to travel business class to Marrakesh or California, bankrolls the entire shoot, then has to hire back the end result, which the photographer can then sell in limited editions for thousands of pounds. Amazing.
The actors have a different argument, whereby their stock falls with greater exposure. The more you want to use them, the more it hurts their bank balance, so the more it costs you.

Ad agencies have no such arguments, and therefore no such remuneration. They are are currently so keen to gain some business of any kind that they will happily accept some quite exploitative terms. Which is why you get paid the same for coming up with ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’, as you do for coming up with ‘Zoom Zoom’.
In fact it seems almost as dumb as spending a substantial part of your life committing your thoughts to the internet and demanding no financial compensation for your efforts.