A spokesperson for the agency says the creation of real-life versions of Simpsons products and the 7-Eleven conversions were part of a pitch it made to 20th Century Fox in the middle of 2006. At the time the studio was meeting with agencies as they geared up for the marketing campaign for The Simpsons Movie. The pitched idea also included putting the products in other locations like Wal-Mart.
The agency then reportedly heard nothing from Fox into the fall of 2006 and so decided nothing had come of their pitch.
So the people who had presented the idea were then surprised to hear reports that something like what they had pitched was being developed and then fully taken aback when, on July 1st, the 7-Eleven portion of their idea had actually been executed in full.
In response to what they see as the theft of their idea Leo Burnett is considering its options, which could even include suing 20th Century Fox and FreshWorks, the ad agency for 7-Eleven that wound up making the partnership happen. Fox wouldn’t comment for the NPR story but FreshWorks says the idea was not exactly something original or inventive and they thought of it themselves.
The provenance of ideas can be an extremely slippery thing to hammer down. Industries like advertising and public relations are, of course, filled with creative people and eventually two of them are going to have the same – or at least similar – ideas to present to clients. It’s going to happen.
That a company might find a new way to execute something you presented in a pitch is also a risk that agencies take all the time. See, there are two kinds of pitches overall. The first is just a listing of capabilities, where you go through just how cool your firm is and what services it offers. The second is when the pitching team actually does a bit of brainstorming to show the potential client what sorts of big ideas they can come up with.
The latter is what Burnett obviously did. I don’t know what the truth is in this matter, but I do think that if you present an idea in a pitch you need to be ready to see some version of that executed. If nothing else, the company you pitch could use it as a springboard for their own ideas that they then want the agency they eventually sign to execute. That, I think, is a reality of the communications business.