Crowd Control

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Crispin Porter + Bogusky recently ignited an online debate and protest campaign on Twitter when it crowdsourced the design of a product logo for Brammo, an electric motorcycle start-up. Criticism mostly focused on the high-end agency taking such a low-cost route, as well as its putting creative into the hands of outsiders when experts were not just available, but the very ones passing it off.

For Brammo, crowdsourcing was more than just a way to stretch its budget. “We wanted to blur the line between [who works for Brammo] and [our] products,” says Brian Wismann, the company’s director of product development. “And it created its own buzz.”

Crowdsourcing creative — which includes user-generated contests, and receiving input on briefs and designs — is an increasingly popular option for marketers that want to add a consumer-engagement punch to their campaigns. It’s also controversial. Detractors call it gimmicky, say it encourages low-quality creative, and eschews strategic thinking and relationship management. But love it or hate it, this much seems clear: Not only is crowdsourcing here to stay, it’s picking up steam.

HP, for one, recently doled out $300,000 in prizes for its You on You Project, which asked participants to create Web videos in the style of its campaign, “The computer is personal again.” And Microsoft, pushing the idea that its users contributed to the development of its Windows 7 operating system, is asking for 7-second video demos for a Web series highlighting its features. Gayle Troberman, gm for advertising and consumer engagement at Microsoft, says, “The masses are the best way to deliver a message.”

But ad professionals who view crowdsourcing as a gimmick say these exercises are nothing but sweepstakes for the digital era. And because they’re driven by a desire for consumer interaction, they note, they’re more about the process than the final product.

“I’m interested in the high end of marketing creativity and production, and don’t think you can get anything high end” with crowdsourcing, says Benjamin Palmer, co-founder of The Barbarian Group. “By definition you’re asking people [to contribute] who are not at the top of their field.”

Some, however, believe creative does not have to suffer. Last month, Unilever, after working with Lowe London for the past 15 years on Peperami, decided to turn the brief for its next campaign over to members of “We felt we could get … even better content by opening up the brief to more people than we would typically get from an agency or agency team,” says Matt Burgess, managing director at Unilever U.K. So far, he adds, they’ve received 1,200 submissions.

Others point to Frito-Lay’s Doritos consumer-generated ads for the Super Bowl — the last one of which topped the USA Today poll that many marketers use as a metric of game-day success — as an example of crowdsourcing that delivers if not quality creative, qualitative success.

Economic motivators may certainly help drive the growth of crowdsourcing. For a brand like Brammo — which gave $1,000 each to five winners of its contest — crowdsourcing meant the agency could provide a service the client might not otherwise have been able to afford.

Burgess says Unilever sees huge cost savings with crowdsourcing. Ideabounty, he explains, told them to “put up $10,000 … as the appropriate reward, which is well below what you would pay an agency for their idea.” Unilever will produce the winning idea with a production partner.

“We would not have done this just for commercial reasons alone,” Burgess adds. “It’s to get our advertising from good to great.”

Not everyone claims savings: Doritos’ director of marketing, Rudy Wilson, says, “At the end of the day, we’re spending money to get awareness of this program out. The money we’re saving is being repurposed.”

Steve Simpson, partner and creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, an agency whose clients include Doritos, HP and Netflix (which also has done consumer-generated content), says crowdsourcing is slowly maturing. “As crowdsourcing [grows] from being a gimmick, a big sloppy hug of Web 2.0 openness, the products and the process will become more professional,” he says. “The crudity of the pioneers will be scorned and the work will begin to show more finesse.”

A few ex-Crispin staffers are so confident in the wisdom of crowds that they’ve just launched Victors & Spoils, a shop based on the principles of crowdsourcing. On his blog, co-founder John Winsor describes the creative department as being staffed with traditional art directors and copywriters as well as “a global digital community.”

Of course, the more crowdsourcing grows in popularity, the more the “crowds” may demand more than a stack of cash for their contributions.

“Who knows how many of the ideas that don’t win prizes nonetheless influence a company’s thinking down the line — without payment to the contributors,” says Simpson. “Crowdsourcing is here to stay, but expect both parties to it to begin to cast a colder, more businesslike eye at the other.”



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