An open letter to Grey London

22 January: Please see the update at the end of this post for what happened next.

Dear Grey London,

I’ve just been made aware of the ad you were involved with creating for Horlicks.

In the middle of the advert at 1’15”, amid the collection of shots of coffee/tea/beverage making and drinking, there’s a brief shot which is slightly different.

It’s a woman sitting on a tube train going along an above-ground track. She’s holding a book in front of her face. The book’s cover depicts a woman’s face. I’ve screengrabbed it below:


I find it very difficult to believe that this shot wasn’t styled on this image I took and posted in August 2006, which has since become well-circulated on the internet.


Your treatment is startlingly similar to my original photo, right down to the woman; the hand position; the ring; the tube above ground; the styling of the cover; the sweep of the hair; the man with his head down, reading next to her.

I’ve written before about advertising agencies using internet-popular ideas and artwork as source material for campaigns, but there’s a fine line between homage and rip-off.

Should I submit an invoice for the portion of the creative work that I unknowingly did on your behalf? Or would acknowledgement of your inspiration be out of the question?

Best regards,

Meg Pickard

PS If anyone else reading this has any ideas about what I might be able to do about this, please let me know in the comments below or via email or Twitter. Thanks.

Update, 22 January

I spoke to Hugo Feiler, MD of Grey London today, after the creative director of the ad forwarded on the email I’d sent him about the issue. Mr Feiler was very pleasant, and said (transcribed from notes taken on phone):

“On reflection, I would agree that we had been influenced by your photo … we shouldn’t have gone on to use such a similar image without speaking to you first, so I’m very sorry about that”

He offered to have the film re-edited to remove the chunk in question. I declined this, but asked him to ask the production company involved to remove the still from their site as proof of their creativity. He has done this since our call.

In addition, as a gesture of goodwill, Mr Feiler offered to make a generous donation in my name to a charity of my choice. I accepted this and am pleased that Oxfam’s Haiti emergency appeal has been able to benefit from this experience.

He went on to say that he would have said and offered exactly the same thing if I’d spoken to him privately before “going public” on my blog, but he understands why I did because of what I do for a living. (I’d actually sent email via the Grey website, to the production company and to the CD’s personal site).

I don’t think that my work was copied maliciously or through an attempt to decieve or claim credit: I’ve worked with enough creative agencies to know how easy it is for something to slip from early-stage random found object moodboard into a concept storyboard and then through to the produced object, all the while getting further and further from the original credited influence. As with most things like this, Hanlon’s razor applies (and especially the Sir Bernard Ingham variant).

In summary, I am reassured that this has been handled in a timely and considerate way by Hugo at Grey London: I’m glad that they’ve apologised and acknowledged the influence of my work, and feel sure that they will have learnt a lesson from this experience about how random internet influences are handled within their creative processes.

30 thoughts on “An open letter to Grey London

  1. Helpfully, this page on Campaign…:

    …lists those responsible for the ad, both on client side, agency, and production.

    Shouldn’t be hard to dig out a few of the emails of the people involved.

    And – get this – if you go to the page for Serious Pictures on their latest work, they’re actually using that exact grab to show off how creative they are!

  2. Hi Meg,

    There’s really nothing you can do as far as I’m aware. Although there are very definite similarities there are enough differences that I don’t think you’ll get much further than this post. It’s the same in library music used in television etc, there are ‘new’ songs which are virtually identical to other commercially available tracks which have enough subtle differences as to render any claims from the original writers null and void.

    It’s crap but that’s copyright in this country for you.

  3. Simon, it’s not a question of copyright really. It’s a question of lack of creativity. If I was the client involved, I wouldn’t want my agency to be so bereft of creative ideas that they go beyond inspiration and into the realm of copying a shot outright.

  4. There are plenty of other ‘influences’ for this type of work – sleeveface ( being a notable example. They actually collaborated with a Heart FM ad campaign, a couple of years back, which you could also say is very similar to your photo. There is a flickr group here with nearly 3500 similar images.

    It is worthwile noting that there has never been a successful court case for plagiarism in advertising in the UK, and that is because, contrary to popular belief, copyright does NOT extend to ideas. Copyright applies to a tangible work, not to the idea behind it, so if you use a similar idea, but execute it in a different way (ie. Not a direct remake), no copyright infringement exists.

    However, having said that, it would be very difficult to show that that your work is unique and that they copied your work directly since there is so much other similar stuff around, and some of it probably pre-dates your photograph.

    While the previous copying of your photograph and false attribution etc is quite clear cut, I don’t think there is going to be anything you can do about this. Your copyright only extends to the artistic expression of the idea, not the idea itself.

  5. I don’t think you should do anything beyond this post – let the story spread on it’s own…hopefully the client will stumble upon this story an draw their own conclusion.

    also, as much as this looks like a proper rip-off like most of these cases, it’s a moral and ethical thing rather than pure legal – i’d expect the creative dude to at least drop you a line and thank you for the inspiration (but then, the creative dude can rightly(?) argue that on an average day you will have at least 10 opportunities to take a picture like you did on the tube

    creative commons anyone?

  6. taking photo’s of books and LP artwork in front of the face (sleeveface) have been going since early 2005 maybe earlier, The image above was taken in 2006!!!! IT IS NOT UNIQUE and there are PLENTY of this style that supersede this.

  7. Ian,

    Absolutely agree with you, it’s just shocking that such well paid ‘creatives’ aren’t in fact creative at all. Though I suspect Grey London are relying on the fact that no-one at horlicks will have ever seen Meg’s photo and wouldn’t think to question it.

    So as to what Meg can do, financially speaking, nothing really? Morally, make sure as many people know as possible. I imagine the ad agency and the commercial producers bank on the fact that no-one ever calls them on this despicable type of behaviour.

  8. The funny thing about the internet is that as a medium it doesn’t really allow reliable or proper attribution of the ownership of digital content. It gets spread around, especially cool stuff like your photo, making it difficult to work out the original source. – one of the comments on the flickr page says, “I found 54 locations this image is being used and mostly renamed and saved as their own”. I did a quick google image search and found a bunch too. I notice you’ve also written a post about finding it elsewhere.

    Whilst I’d agree that it’s fairly likely (but by no means a certainty) that Grey London were influenced by your photo, whose to say that they didn’t spot it when surfing some other random site where it appears.

    I think that both the Technovia post and your ‘open letter’ are a bit of an over-reaction because it makes Grey look evil which is a little unfair. Did you try contacting Grey to ask if they were indeed influenced by your photo. I’m sure they’re quite reasonable people and would own up to it if it was the case.


  9. I’m sorry, I don’t see it. This has been going on with record sleves since the 1970s. Just becasue this is someone on a train with a book – its not even a copy of the image, diffrent book/clothing/framing.

  10. It’s rather telling that the ad agency were concerned enough about copyright infringement to create a fake novel (I hear “Angela Davis” has a much more relaxed attitude to intellectual property than Arthur Golden), but not quite concerned enough to create a novel idea.

  11. Of course invoice them. Agency or client, with a copy to the other one. Covering letter or email explaining how you’re sure it’s a mistake and you know they’ll want to put it right. After all, it’s quite possible that the issue came up during production and someone objected and was overruled. Bear in mind the likely overall budget and what they will have paid for eg camera hire, and make sure you ask for a decent sum.

  12. The people saying “Look, look, it’s been done before loads of times with album sleeves” are missing the point.

    It’s not just the general idea of holding something in front of the face that has been ‘lifted’ here, it is the entire scene – the setting, the position of the actors/models, the position and scale of the face on the book cover, etc – which make it instantly recognisable as Meg’s picture.

    That is the problem and I think someone should be explaining how it got there. If not to Meg herself then certainly (as commented above) to the paying client!

  13. @marcus: “I think that both the Technovia post and your ‘open letter’ are a bit of an over-reaction because it makes Grey look evil which is a little unfair.”

    It’s not a question of being evil, Marcus. It’s a question of lacking creativity. As I said on my post, being inspired by other people’s work is one thing, and it’s entirely appropriate. Anyone in the creative industries who says they’ve never been inspired by someone else’s work to create their own is either a liar or a fool.

    But there’s a big difference between being inspired by something and simply copying it – and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Grey’s creative team overstepped the mark between inspiration and copying.

    Look – I work with clients in an agency. If a creative on my team suggested to me that we present a piece of work to a client which was a shot-for-shot rip off of something they’d found on the Internet, there is *no* way I’d present it to the client. It’s just lazy. It’s not clever, it’s something anyone can do – and that’s basically ripping off the client.

    What’s more, if I was a client and found out that an agency had charged me a lot of money for a TV campaign which ripped off someone else’s idea this closely, you’d be pretty sure that agency – or at least, that creative team – would never work for me again. It makes the client look stupid, and there is nothing a client hates more than looking stupid.

    Agencies who pull this kind of shit aren’t just showing themselves to be lacking in creative ideas. They’re also showing disrespect to the clients, who are paying their wages. If you can’t even take an existing idea as your inspiration and put some additional work into it, you really don’t belong in an industry that needs to be creative to thrive.

  14. I assume no one would buy Horlicks because of that single shot, so I would say it’s not corporate evil just another team of unimaginative, lazy creatives.

    I would say it is similar to people who tell a joke they’ve heard from someone else and then passing it off as their own.

    An apology, maybe. An invoice, never.

  15. I really don’t see how you can call this copyright infringement. I don’t think you are the first person to think of someone holding up a printed face in front of their own face and/or photograph it. How can you copyright the idea of it? Someone actually using your picture, fine. Someone using the same idea – good luck to them.

  16. @ian, @meg

    Have you spoken to anyone at Grey before making the posts in question? There might be an explanation for this that is neither evil or lazy. Perhaps the client even suggested it.

    Sorry for harking on, but I think that it’s easy to call someone up for something on the internet (which is a public forum) without giving them a chance to have their say. Maybe they have a reasonable explanation, perhaps they will apologise, perhaps they will even offer to pay for the rights to the image. Who knows?

    Because this story has been sent around, reblogged, retweeted and so on, it now actually appears as the 5th result in google for ‘Grey London’. This could be damaging for their business.

    And finally, just FYI I am not affiliated with Grey in any way, nor do I know anyone who works there.


  17. Did I call this copyright infringement? No.

    Did I claim to have invented the idea of someone holding up a printed face in front of their own face and photographing it? Again, no.

    There are too many similarities in the setup of their shot to imagine that it wasn’t at least based on my original work. Perhaps someone saw my shot and it got sketched into an early storyboard and then came alive from there, several steps removed from the origin, but clearly influenced by it?

    I think that it’d be nice if ad agencies acknowleged (publically, if not financially) their influences. That’s all.

    (it is possible to do that: see Smooth Radio and Sleeveface last year)

  18. Let us know what spin on B#$$ S!@# they come back to you with. Better yet post it in its entirety. Please don’t let them get away with it yet AGAIN. First the Toshiba Chair, now this.

  19. I doubt they even know this is going on. I remember Simon White, their head of planning saying “We don’t read blogs, we read books”

    Seems quite ironic now.

  20. Marcus…

    “Sorry for harking on, but I think that it’s easy to call someone up for something on the internet (which is a public forum) without giving them a chance to have their say. Maybe they have a reasonable explanation, perhaps they will apologise, perhaps they will even offer to pay for the rights to the image. Who knows?”

    As you say, it’s a public forum – which gives Grey just as much right to respond as we have to state our own perspective. They have every opportunity to respond, publically.

    “Because this story has been sent around, reblogged, retweeted and so on, it now actually appears as the 5th result in google for ‘Grey London’. This could be damaging for their business.

    No, no, no. What was “damaging for their business” was allowing creatives to simply lift an idea wholesale from someone else’s work. The idea that pointing this out is the bit where the damage is done is a classic case of shooting the messenger.

  21. Pingback: Grey London "borrows" idea for new ad from Flickr | Technovia

  22. The Horlicks advert reminds me of the drug taking scenes in the film Requiem For A Dream.

    A reference to coffee and tea habits no doubt.

    It’s a rotten film if you ask me, this gives you the general idea if you haven’t seen it.

    We’re in the age of obscured faces. One day we’ll look back and relate it to Magritte’s bowler hats and Brecht’s fourth wall. Also, Karl Lagerfeld has done a bag design for these times.

Comments are closed.