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Severed Hand, Severed Trust

Posted on Dec 1, 2010

The best feeling in advertising is seeing one of your ideas produced. The worst feeling in advertising is having one of your ideas passed over…then seeing it fully produced by the same people to whom you pitched it without your knowledge or participation. I’m not talking about “oh, we had that idea like a year ago” or “I’ve seen something like that before.” I’m talking about a company soliciting ideas via a proposal process and then producing the work without consulting, compensating or notifying the creators. It’s wrong, it’s disgusting and it happened to me. Here’s the story:

Representatives from Mattel came to my workplace looking for experiential marketing ideas around their X-Games line of finger-sized skateboards. As the group creative director assigned to the project, I spent about two weeks with our experiential team coming up with fun and provocative ideas. We built a deck containing our initial concepts, strategies and costs, and were invited to Mattel’s headquarters in El Segundo to deliver the presentation.

To break the ice at the beginning of the meeting, I produced a Mattel badge with my photo circa 1995. The Hot Wheels brand was one of the first pieces of business I worked on in advertising (at FCB/LA) and therefore held a special place with me. The ideas were met with laughter, surprise and appreciation, and we parted ways with the understanding that they’d get back to us if any of our initiatives fit with their marketing plans. The proposal was done on spec (that’s adspeak for free) and the only reason agencies do this (and they do it all the time) is to make money and fame on the eventual production of the idea. Well, after a few futile follow ups, it was clear that Mattel wasn’t going forward with any of the ideas.

A few months later, a different group of Mattel employees showed up at Ignited. They were soliciting proposals for a different brand but, in the midst of sharing cool happenings in other parts of the company, shared a video that put our jaws on the ground. It was a “behind the scenes” video that detailed the creation of a giant foam suit in the shape of a hand. A professional skateboarder was wearing the suit and skating a course at the X-Games making it look as though a giant hand were riding an oversized fingerboard. This was—to a T—one of the ideas I had conceived and presented to Mattel. I had the sketches in my notebook. I had the emails with the concept description. I had the Powerpoint deck with the illustration and description together. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that what I thought had just happened had just happened. And I was right.

Ignited’s head of experiential marketing was the first to get the sick feeling as she was Mattel’s audience when the video was shared. She notified me shortly thereafter and we felt sick together. After a detailed conversation with Ignited’s president, he decided to handle it delicately. He was after the new business at hand and had serious if not understandable reservations about taking on a goliath like Mattel in a lawsuit—a company with no shortage of lawyers, evident from the high profile, $100 million Bratz case. So, we arranged a meeting on the current project (I was invited to sit in) and confronted them ever-so-diplomatically at the end of the meeting. Our president simply asked that we get some sort of written arrangement signed for the new project given that Mattel had used our previous idea without compensating us. In one of the most awkward and uncomfortable responses I’ve ever heard, the Mattel representative stammered, “actually, that’s not what happened. Someone in our building had the same idea at the same time.” And that’s how companies get away with theft.

Back when the idea was presented, no one from Mattel mentioned anything about a similar idea being considered at the time. In fact, they were visibly and happily surprised by the idea when I shared it. Also, no one at Mattel notified us at the time that they intended to produce the idea, regardless of who conceived it. That would be the least any decent person or group would do in that situation. In any case, while no one in the room I spoke with believed a word of their story, that was Mattel’s line and they stuck to it. Ignited, not Matt Garthoff, was the intellectual property owner (as described clearly in a line of legal copy at the end of our deck) and they chose not to pursue the matter legally. That was that.

Along with the other members of the experiential team, I moved on from Ignited and tried to put this ugly incident behind me. But a buddy of mine from the team who witnessed every second of this drama sent me the video above via Facebook the other day and it brought back a flood of memories. My only catharsis is this blog entry. I’m sure I’m not the only one in advertising with a story like this and I know everyone’s got a beef with some company or another. But if you ever have a choice between a Mattel product and another toy, choose the other company. Mattel is not ethical. Plain & simple. My daughter knows that her dolls aren’t Barbies anymore and because I want her to know right from wrong she also knows why.

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