Intellectual property (IP) is as vital to the lifeblood of the small business as it is to the enterprise. The World Intellectual Property Organisation defines Intellectual Property (IP) as the creations of the mind. The definition includes inventions, literary and artistic works and the names, images and symbols used in business. The definition does not include a description of IP as something that is only respected if the owner is a large agency or business behemoth. Unfortunately, this is not a definition being read by many larger organisations when they work with the smaller agencies.
“When dealing with a small to medium enterprise (SME), many companies expect the SME’s Intellectual Property to be a part of the package – they believe that the small company is so grateful for the business that they will share their creative insights and innovations just to keep the relationship alive,” says Lizelle McDermott, MD, McD Squared. “This is not an expectation they have when dealing with a big agency.”
In South Africa, the small business mindset is already battling red tape, entrepreneur fatigue and a poor economy. No matter how heavy the statistics that prove that a thriving SME market transforms economy and employment, it seems that attitudes and opportunities remain limited. There is plenty of preaching about the need to support the small business, but the reality is that many SMEs are the David staring into the gimlet eyes of the corporate Goliath.
“Expecting access to your IP means that the company is doing more harm to your bottom line than good,” says McDermott. “As a small agency, we differentiate ourselves by doing something completely different. We don’t just give our clients what they would expect from a traditional agency, we go to the next level, we provide fresh and creative ideas. We differentiate our clients as much as our IP differentiates us.”
The expectations around access to IP on commencement of contract are one side of the complex coin. The other is, of course, the end of the contract when the work is done and it is time to move on. When the relationship closes, the IP doesn’t open. It’s not the cliché with the doors. It is the agency’s mark of excellence and it has not been bought along with the contract.
“Sometimes a client will expect you to teach them how to do the things that you’ve been doing for them,” says McDermott. “They want you to give them your knowledge so they can carry on with the work without you. This takes away the core of what differentiates me – if I teach it, everyone can do it.”
The wandering hand into the small business Intellectual Property is often found in the lap of social media. Every agency professes to have their own magic touch. They probably do, but for them to hand over their formula to a client would mean that the mess of scheduled posts and random hashtags that the client used to call social media, will now be replaced by the agency’s IP. It benefits nobody but the large company.
“If I get a query on a client’s social media platform, I’m there and I answer in real time,” says McDermott. “What makes us stand out is that we do a lot of social media asset growth and organic brand development that’s structured around certain types of content, sharing and engagement. If I teach my client how to do that, they won’t need me anymore. I can’t run a successful business if I tell everyone my secrets.”
While on the subject of secrets, perhaps the one that should be shared is the one that explains how to educate clients about the value of IP, without damaging relationships. The answer lies in managing expectations from the start, in drawing a solid line in the concrete – one that cannot be blurred by relationship boundaries – that says ‘you can go up to here, but no further’.
“It is easy to ruin a relationship by saying no, but unless more small agencies do this we’re all going to carry on facing this issue,” says McDermott. “We must start sticking up for ourselves. A client wouldn’t expect a large agency to impart their IP, so why expect it from us?”
The corporate world should not hold the smaller agency to ransom just so they can keep the business. It’s hardly ethical and it’s definitely not supporting the entrepreneurial spirit this country sorely needs. Ultimately, if the SME were given the corporate support it requires, the end result would benefit everyone. It’s a long-term view that seems to inspire very few.
“I believe that this is a global issue, not just one impacting the South African SME,” concludes McDermott. “It is a mindset that affects small agencies around the world, and it is definitely one that has to be changed. At the end of the day, we are all in business to make money, so why not make it together?”
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