On Motivations, TBWAChiat/Day, and “Pirate Square”

There’s been a lot of speculation, including by me, on the question as to why TBWAChait/Day is the agency behind what is being called “Pirate Square” by folks in the artists’ rights community.  And I feel foolish for overlooking the most obvious explanation, which is selling the agency itself.  Ad agencies spend a significant amount of money and internal resources promoting themselves, and in fact the icon of the pirate is  central to the Chiat/Day brand.  On the TBWAChiat/Day website, you will find a button that says “Pirate Culture,” which pops up a screen that features a quote by co-founder Jay Chiat that reads, “It’s better to be the pirate than the Navy.”  This is followed by a bit of cultural identity language stating, Pirates don’t live by rules and conventions, they break them. They seize upon every opportunity, creating their own when none can be found.  That’s why we proudly fly the pirate flag.  Always have.  Always will.

Apropos of what I said in my previous post about the new generation of creative advertisers taking over a stodgy, homogenous industry in the late 60s and early 70s, this common romanticism of the pirate as dashing rebel fits the spirit of those times.  Of course the legacy of that revolution is that, today, every ad agency wants to promote itself as the edgiest, most forward-thinking, rule-breaking, unconventional, and most creative choice in the market. But when everybody’s a rebel, nobody is, and the competition to out-cool the other guy occasionally strains sound, strategic marketing principles.  We see this when, from time to time, award-winning ads do nothing for the brands they’re meant to promote.

So, it’s possible that the scuttlebutt about TBWAChiat/Day doing its part in this campaign pro bono is true, and perhaps the reason is that the pirate itself is such a big part of the agency’s brand.  In fact, the design and color palette of the outdoor and companion website for this campaign is consistent with that of Chiat/Day’s own look — solid blocks of color, a lot of black and white, the same or similar sans serif font.  So, no matter who footed the bill for the space itself, it is not unreasonable to assume that TBWAChiat/Day’s leadership saw this as a perfect opportunity to promote its own brand on Times Square and in a way that would generate tons of free publicity (including from bloggers like me) because they knew full well that they were poking a stick at a bee’s nest.

The pirate as romantic rebel endures despite the fact we know that actual pirates were nothing like their storybook versions; and there is no reason why myth and truth should not coexist.  Jay Chiat was right*, of course, that if you want to say you’re more creative than the other guy, it’s “better to be the pirate than the Navy,” especially in 1968 when the military was involved in one of the most unpopular conflicts in American history.  In 2013, though, the piracy this campaign celebrates could not be less rebellious, edgy, or adventurous.  Anyone who thinks downloading a bunch of Adele tunes for free is a form of social protest or cutting-edge thinking is sorely in need of a real cause.

I may be wrong in this analysis; these things come about in so many different ways; but the coincident link between TWBAChiat/Day’s brand and this campaign is too obvious to ignore. If I’m right, of course, it’s a bit of a calculated risk for the agency.  Pro piracy messages may be popular among consumers between the ages of 12 and 35, but these   views are not necessarily consistent with those of decision-makers at the major brands who hire ad agencies. For instance, I’m pretty sure Chiat/Day’s clients The Grammys or GlaxoSmithKline might have something to say on the subjects of intellectual property and enterprise-scale piracy.

Were I to meet Jay Chiat today, I’d have to “push back,” as the account execs like to say, and suggest that when it comes to creative thinking, it is indeed better to mirror the cunning of the mythological pirate; but when it comes to making ethical or pragmatic choices in the real world, it’s sometimes okay to be the Navy.

*See follow-up article regarding the origin of this quote.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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