We live in a time where creative ideas are no longer uniquely creative, be it due to the fact that ideas are often reused, or a result of plagiarism.

Earlier this year, local advertising agency Dentsu Utama was accused of plagiarising a 21-year-old European design student’s work for a WWF ad campaign titled “Cross River Gorilla” which went on to win a Silver Award for “Outdoor Advertising” at Malaysia’s Kancil Awards.


This was followed by an investigation by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia (4As), which resulted in the disqualification of a number of Kancil Awards won by Dentsu Utama. The fiasco ended with Dentsu Utama and its representatives resigning from the 4As and also returning all 71 Kancil awards including “Agency of the Year” (AOTY).

Now, another incident has been brought to light by independent filmmaker Tan Chui Mui of Da Huang Pictures.

After it was announced that advertising giant Leo Burnett Malaysia’s Petronas Chinese New Year (2016) ad titled, “Rubber Boy“, made it to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (a global event for those working in the creative communications, advertising, and related fields) and the only Malaysian entry to have been shortlisted, news emerged that the festive TVC was plagiarised.

Petronas Rubber Boy
Source: Twitter

Tan revealed via several Facebook posts that she and her team had originally pitched the same story to Leo Burnett back in December 2014.

In her first post, she claimed, “For many months I was just keeping quiet. As I do not like to waste time complaining. But I can’t believe how an Ad Agency like Leo Burnett can just use the story I had pitched to them without asking my permission. And when my team Bea Meow and We Jun met them, their lawyer told them that Malaysian law does not protect idea. And the creative writer said they had only used two of the major scenes, not the whole story.”

Tan Chui Mui #LeoBurnettPlagiarism
Source: Tan Chui Mui’s Facebook profile

As seen in the screenshot above, Tan’s Facebook post has been shared over 500 times.

To add on to her claims, Tan said her team invested a lot into the pitch, including location-and-cast scouting and research for visual references, before submitting the script. She also uploaded several screenshots as proof of her work, including the presentation slides and the initial discussion with Leo Burnett (via a Facebook Message group chat) when they contacted her back in December 2014 for the pitch.

Tan Chui Mui Petonas CNY
Source: Tan Chui Mui’s Facebook profile

In speaking about why she chose to voice out now, Tan said that she was triggered by the “Rubber Boy” Cannes Lions nomination, adding that Leo Burnett did not pick her idea initially because they said that it was a “common story” and not original. However, it was not only plagiarised but also submitted to Cannes Lions.


Her posts have garnered some heated response from the creative industry, with many cheering Tan on and voicing their support for her to fight back, as well as calling the act (of plagiarism) out to be disgraceful for an agency of Leo Burnett’s standing and demanding for an explanation.

And respond, they did.

In reply to Tan’s accusations, Leo Burnett’s Creative Director James Yap took to his Facebook to respond with his side of the #LeoBurnettPlagiarism story. His post detailed the conception of “Rubber Boy” and explained that it came from a personal family story. You may read his post in full below:

Amongst the many comments that emerged following James’ Facebook post, one netizen said, “Subject is the same but the story is completely different. How is that plagiarism? My grandparents were rubber tappers. Growing up, I lived in a rubber estate in Kluang called Coronation Estate. I too can tell dozens of my stories from the same subject matter.” while another stated, “Again, which part was stolen? Boy growing up in a rubber estate or the part the parents cannot afford to buy a new toy or the part that the mother/father had to work so hard for his education. Sounds too generic to make any claim.”

The debate is ongoing as at time of writing, and James’ post is quickly gaining traction.

On top of James’ response, Leo Burnett’s Business Director Eswara VAN Sharma also responded to Tan’s claims. Eswara uploaded side-by-side comparison photos of Tan’s presentation slide and the treatment that was received by Leo Burnett, and urged netizens to “see both sides of the story before you judge for yourself”.

Eswara VAN Sharma Rubber Boy Treatment
Source: Eswara VAN Sharma’s Facebook profile

Eswara’s post showed that there was a significant difference between Tan’s presentation slide and the treatment that Leo Burnett received.

This was quickly debunked by Tan, who said that her original PowerPoint presentation deck was edited. “All the creative workers beware, do not make the same mistake by sending a presentation deck in power point format,” she added.

Tan Chui Mui Rubber Boy Treatment
Source: Tan Chui Mui’s Facebook profile

Meanwhile, on Twitter, several Malaysian netizens have voiced their opinions, from budding suits/creatives to the bystanders who are following the #LeoBurnettPlagiarism story as it unfolds.

“If Yasmin Ahmad was still alive, she wouldn’t have let this fly #LeoBurnettPlagiarism” read one comment, while another said, “I’m so sad to hear about #LeoBurnettPlagiarism as this company is on the list of my dream company later if I have an Advertising degree :(“

rubber boy.

Leo Burnett’s Chief Executive Tan Kien Eng has since asked to meet with Tan over her claims. He wrote on Facebook, “I do not support plagiarism. I contacted my team after being informed of the post here and the Leo Burnett writer has explained his side. I would like to meet both parties to fully understand the situation before taking any action.”

UPDATE (27th June, 3pm):

Leo Burnett Malaysia has released an official media statement with regards to the above issue. In their statement, they stood their ground that the “Rubber Boy” TVC was not based on plagiarised material or script, and explained that it was from their internal pool of talent at the agency.

Read the statement in full below:

“Leo Burnett does not condone or endorse plagiarism of any kind. Credit is always given, wherever it is deserved. The allegation that Rubber Boy is based on plagiarised material or script is incorrect.

The creative team at Leo Burnett that worked on Rubber Boy for the Petronas CNY short film has affirmed this and we stand by their version of how the Rubber Boy story and script were developed.

The Rubber Boy story is based on an idea that our internal pool of talent at Leo Burnett, in close collaboration with our client collectively worked on.

As part of the creative journey from idea to shooting script, the client-approved script is shared with the prospective directors, and we guide them to evolve a treatment of our script. The purpose of this treatment is to add details and nuances to the script. Key elements such as the setting in the rubber estate and the character of the child and his motivations and circumstances, along with the key message, are always in the agency script that was briefed to all the directors involved.

During this process, many suggestions are exchanged back and forth, and the treatment is evolved under the close guidance and supervision of our creative team.

The final decision is accorded to the treatment which best meets our and our client’s objectives. After this, we work closely with the chosen director, from the actual shoot to the post-production process, to ensure the best possible outcome.

As such, we reiterate that the allegations of plagiarism are baseless.

Nevertheless, we have reached out to the party making the allegations and await their response.”

The 5-minute long Petronas “Rubber Boy” TVC on YouTube, a heart-warmer and a tearjerker all at the same time, centres on the struggles of a poor schoolboy and his mother. It recently bagged a gold at the inaugural Appies Malaysia Marketing Congress 2016 (The Appies 2016 Malaysia). To date, the video has had over 3 million views.

Our opinion?

To take it from the top again, after all things said and done, it’s rare to come across uniquely “creative ideas” anymore in this day and age. Most ideas are often rehashed with added “value” or “flavour” and reused. This does not only apply to advertising but also movies (remakes, reboots), music (remixes, covers), fashion (cycle, evolution), trends, etc.

What are your thoughts on the #LeoBurnettPlagiarism fiasco though? Let us know in the comments below.

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