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Idea: Whose baby is it anyway?

By Madhukar Sabnavis
January 07, 2011 12:37 IST
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FacebookThe film Social Network may be a fictional or realistic account of the creation of Facebook.

However, either ways it raises interesting questions -- who actually owns an idea? What is the moral obligation of the idea creator to the funder?

Is it alright for an idea creator to break social codes to ensure his idea sees the light of day? Is the last-mentioned question a show of poor character or passion?

These questions gain in importance as we move from a production economy to an ideas economy where the future of any sector depends on the generation and implementation of new ideas everyday.

Chris Anderson in a recent Wired magazine issue writes, "If the community is the university alumni association, the fact that one member has the world's breathtaking idea matters not if it never makes it into the annual newsletter."

The meaning of an idea is only realised if its value is implemented.

Having an idea is only a start; it then needs a craftsman to give it shape, a good salesman to push it through sceptics and a financier to fund it so that it actually goes out into the real world!

Like babies, God's original idea -- ideas need both mothers and fathers -- mothers to create and fathers to nurture, fund and protect. In that context, as per the film Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg cannot stake single claim to the idea of Facebook.

Chris Anderson also writes, "Innovation has always been a group activity. The myth of the lone genius having a Eureka moment that changes the world is indeed a myth.

"Most innovations are the result of long hours, building on the inputs of others. Ideas spawn from earlier ideas, bouncing from person to person and being reshaped as they go.

"If you are comfortable with the language of memes, you could say a healthy meme needs an ecosystem not of a single but a network of brains. That's how ideas bump into other ideas, replicate, mutate and evolve."

Mr Anderson rubbishes the traditional theory of ideas owned by individuals -- there are no statues to committees -- and supports Isaac Newton's thought of 'I see the world standing on the shoulders of greats who have come before me'.

The Social Network questions are getting raised over and over again in recent times. It's just not a case of compensation -- fortune -- who makes the money from an idea.

It's also a case of fame -- who actually should get the credit.

The fracas last year between the producers of 3 Idiots and the writer Chetan Bhagat is one for fame.

Should he be getting credit only in the rolling titles at the end of the movie or should it be in the opening where the story-writer rightfully believed his place should have been after seeing the movie.

Interestingly, read the book and see the movie and there are no right answers on the extent of copying, inspiration or adaptation of the idea.

There are arguments on both sides.

Those who read the book first tend to believe that the film is a copy; those who saw the movie first think it's only inspired by the book and the credit at the end is good enough!

In a manufacturing economy, ideas were few and far between. So, fortune from mass production was a good enough reward for the producer.

However, in an ideas economy, ideas are at a premium. So, the creator seeks both fortune and fame -- recognition for the idea is as important.

And, truly unique ideas tend to reap fortune for a longer period of time and idea creators also seek the emotional satisfaction of recognition.

Hence, the law of patents exists to protect and recognise original ideas and their creators.

This debate becomes particularly important in the advertising business -- whose reason to exist is only ideas. And it is in context of both fame and fortune.

Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat enunciates that in the future, society will see the emergence of other roles (he calls them middlers) besides idea generators, people with new ideas (traditional creative minds); idea craftsmen, who give it shape (traditional filmmakers); and idea funders, who pay for it (traditionally called clients).

There will be synthesisers, who bring artists and engineers together, and make them create magic (the traditional client-servicing people in advertising).

There will be explainers, who see and understand complexities and explain it with simplicity to the larger world so that it backs the idea (the traditional account planners in advertising).

It is this community that together can truly own ideas generated. However, the proportion of ownership and credit remains a debate.

This brings us to the question of fortune.

The advertising business started as agents and got paid by commission. In India, it evolved to being consultants and charged fees in the 90s based on time costs.

In the idea economy context, the question gets raised as to whether that's the most 'fair' compensation for the power of the idea.

Though funded by clients and hence, technically owned by them, the value of ideas goes beyond both time costs and immediate sales.

Recent mergers and acquisitions have demonstrated the financial power of brands where the advertising has played a major role in creating that power.

Does this need another model of remuneration that recognises the contributions of the idea generator, synthesiser and the explainer who helped make it happen and who happen to reside at the agency?

It could be a case of the agency getting a share in the brands that it creates. It could take the form of payment for ideas -- a royalty -- the way celebrities and models charge for the value they bring to the brand they endorse.

Clearly, as we move into the second decade of the new millennium, we, in India, have had two decades of a liberalised market economy.

We have learnt much in these two decades and have seen the power of ideas and their impact.

It's perhaps time to view the concept of ideas with a new lens and review the paradigm in which we have traditionally seen them. The movie Social Network in that context is quite timely.

Something worth thinking about.

The author is country head - discovery and planning, Ogilvy and Mather India. The views expressed are personal.

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Madhukar Sabnavis in New Delhi
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