Leo Burnett Malaysia seeks legal advice as film-maker claims idea and script for Petronas ad ‘Rubber boy’ were copied

Rubber boy

Rubber Boy

Leo Burnett is seeking legal advice as it faces criticism from a film-maker who claims the agency’s well-received ‘Rubber boy’ Chinese New Year film for Petronas is a rip-off of her idea.

Using the hashtag #LeoburnettPlagiarism, Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui has taken to social media over the last few days with allegations that, in 2014, she pitched the idea and story for Rubber boy, which was rejected by the agency but used two years later in the film that was shortlisted at Cannes in the film craft category last week.

Tan, a director for Da Huang Pictures, claims that she, together with two collaborators, created the story, wrote the script and also did the casting and location scouting for the film, which is about a poor boy whose mother works on a rubber plantation.

The idea was later used by the agency without her permission, she said, but Leo Burnett has denied any wrongdoing and creative director James Yap and business director Eswara VAN Sharma have taken to Facebook to defend the work.

Tan Chui Mui

Tan Chui Mui

In a first post on Facebook, Tan wrote: “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.”

In the comments Eu Wen Khoo wrote: “Embarrassing for what is supposed to be a top ad agency… Yasmin will be kicking in her grave,” referring to the late Yasmin Ahmad, the former Leo Burnett creative director who became legendary for her festive-period Petronas films.

Tan, who in a second post expanded on what happened, explaining that the story was a childhood friend’s and posting pictures of her original storyboard and script, said she would have complained about the similarities earlier (the film launched in January), but did not want to for personal reasons.

She argued that Rubber boy should have been disqualified from Cannes, and intimated in a later Facebook post that she may take legal action, clarifying that she would do this not to get compensation from Leo Burnett but to “better the creative industry”.

Tan’s claims have been backed by the Screen Association Screenwriters’ Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, whose chairman Alfie Palermo called the incident “blatant plagiarism” and called on Cannes Lions to investigate the matter.

In a post to defend the work, James Yap, the creative director, a former Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi CD who joined Leo Burnett in early 2014, argued yesterday that the idea for the film had come from his own childhood memories, including the embarrassment the boy feels when he’s dropped off at school on a motorbike and the most poignant part of the story, when the boy vents his frustration at his mother for being poor.

Yap said that his agency’s script and Tan’s “bear no resemblance to one another. As my friend would say they are so far apart, you’d have to take a bus to get there.”

The business director on the Petronas account, Eswara VAN Sharma, also defended the work and the agency’s name, quoting Othello and then denouncing Tan’s claims as a “fanciful story from someone who wanted to come along for a ride” in a Facebook post.

Sharma suggested that Tan had been “manipulating facts to bolster their side of the story” and posted a link to two versions of the beginning of the film-maker’s script, the first being the original she had submitted to the agency, the second a different version that Sharma suggests she had doctored to skewer the agency.

Who's came first?

Sharma posted Tan’s original (top) and version posted on Facebook (bottom)

“This is supposedly the same slide, but this was posted by the director on Facebook, purporting to be part of their original treatment. Note how the bicycle in the earlier slide has now become a kapchai. Strangely close to what actually was depicted in the film. Conveniently,” Sharma wrote.

Tan countered by claiming that the original PowerPoint file had been edited. “All the creative workers beware, do not make the same mistake by sending a presentation deck in power point format. Lesson learnt. (how do I proved my version is earlier than the one they created?)” she wrote.

In response to the creative director’s version of events, Tan said that the agency “should just use the part of James Yap’s story, of the childhood memory of wanting more money, and take out my part of story, of a son trying to lift the heavy burden of his mother.”

The allegations prompted an interesting debate on creative originality, with some suggesting that the story idea – essentially a son helping his mother – is so common in Malaysia that it cannot reasonably be claimed to be original.

The boss of Leo Burnett, Tan Kien Eng, who was recently appointed to lead the newly formed Publicis One Malaysia business, told Mumbrella: “I do not condone or endorse plagiarism. Credit is always given, wherever it is deserved.”

“The allegation that Rubber Boy is based on plagiarised material or script is incorrect,” he said, adding that he had reached out to Tan Chui Mui to meet with the writers, and awaits her response. “We are also seeking legal advice,” he said.

The story has made the local news, covered by Malay Mail, The Daily Seni and Chinese language papers including Sin Chew.

Leo Burnett has created the now-iconic Petronas festive-time films for two decades.

The news emerges six months after Malaysia’s top creative awards show the Kancils was hit by plagiarism allegations from a British design student who called out Dentsu Utama, which had been named agency of the year, for copying his work. The agency objected to the claims, but was disqualified. Leo Burnett boss Tan Kien Eng was the chairman of the Kancil jury.


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