Industry expert and former Director of Strategy and Marketing at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), Thomas Brown explains how businesses can best protect themselves and their ideas.

For any business, trying to protect ideas can be a minefield. Concepts are notoriously hard to keep your own, and there’s no real way of officially protecting them in the early stages of ideation.

Companies pitching for new business are especially vulnerable, conflicted between trying to impress their prospect while not revealing a strategy that could be taken on in-house.

Idea theft is hard to prevent, but not impossible

The reality is, under English law it’s actually quite difficult to protect a campaign idea or a creative concept at a pitch stage. Relying on legislation such as intellectual property rights, copyright and trademark is very difficult.

Unfortunately if the worst does happen, it probably isn’t going to be apparent until it’s too late, by which point both the business and the concepts are lost. All the panel has to do is politely decline the pitch and then set about putting the campaign into fruition themselves.

The sad reality is that there are organisations out there that will try to take advantage of this. Companies have been known to unethically bring people in for pitches with the sole purpose of getting them to solve a defined problem, before implementing this solution on their own.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are measures that can be taken to help protect campaign ideas, even if things like copyrighting the concepts aren’t always possible.

Don’t leave anything to chance: write and date your assets

First and foremost, protect as best you can. Make sure that things are documented: that the creative processes, outputs, assets, concepts and ideas you develop are written down somewhere and are dated. Signing documents is another very simple way of building a bank of evidence. Small details like these will make it easier to avoid grey areas if a case were to be made for idea theft in the future.

Consider taking out a non-disclosure agreement

There are other practical measures you can take out too. It can be helpful to take out either a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or mutual confidentiality agreement with the prospect pre-pitch. This means that if your company is presenting campaign concepts, it’s under the formal understanding that these can’t be taken further by the prospect.

However, this only offers a limited amount of protection, with originality being something that’s very challenging to put rights around.

Avoid providing a finished solution

It’s difficult to make sure you have watertight legal protection for your ideas, so I suggest that companies avoid going into a pitch offering a finished solution without really getting under the skin of the business.

This is because going into a pitch with a fully devised campaign without having got to know the business isn’t particularly credible. While concepts at this stage are good, it may look like you’ve taken a one-size-fits-all approach if you’ve solidified a strategy without any real consultation with the prospect.

Deliver a pitch, not a consultation

A good pitch should begin talking about the prospective company. It’s more appropriate to ask some investigative questions at this stage, and to demonstrate an understanding of what the company wants.

Then you should be giving ideas and examples of how you’ve worked with other clients to develop  projects, but not necessarily giving away what the finished solution would look like.

Make yourself invaluable

Essentially, rather than giving a full blown consultation, you want to impress the client with some ideas that make them feel they absolutely do need you on board. At this stage it’s about demonstrating your expertise, not delivering a service.

When it comes to the world of pitching and being pitched to, nobody wants to be ripped off, whether that’s by being mis-sold a service, or having your own campaign stolen. Yet when competition is rife, it would be naïve not to accept that a level of idea theft does go on.

That’s why I advise you to cover your back, and ensure you don’t reveal your full hand at pitch-stage. A little precaution can go a long way, and might just help keep your winning ideas your own.

For more information on the Chartered Institute of Marketing, visit CIM.

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