Crispin Porter + Bogusky's Crowdsourcing Experiment Backfires

Designers revolt after the ad-agency solicits a crowd-sourced logo for Brammo Motorcycles.

Brammo logo

Crispin Porter + Bogusky's always rattling the ad-industry's cage—whether through disturbing ads for Burger King, or roundly lambasted ads for Microsoft. But recently, they just lost the Volkswagen account—one of their marquees—while Burger King franchisees are blaming Crispin for flagging sales. And their latest experiment may have overstepped the line with designers, who usually pay them a grudging respect.

To create a logo for the electric motorcycle start-up Brammo, they're crowdsourcing the design, for a reward of $1000. The winner will be announced in six days, and over 700 people have submitted work. But no matter: To many professional designers, so-called "spec" assignments—that is, exploratory work, done for free—is taboo. Many designers think it undercuts them, and denigrates the profession. was among the aggrieved, and they've started a Twitter campaign (#nospec) against Crispin.

So what? The funniest part is that one of Crispin's other experiments has been an open-ended homepage which broadcasts unfiltered Tweets and news stories about the agency. As you can see now, the site is filled with over 200 tweets declaring, "Crispin Porter + Bogusky has no integrity for design." Whoops! explains what stoked their ire:

Let me explain to CP+B why spec work and design contests (or the bullshit term "crowdsourcing") are detrimental, not just to the design industry, but for your own clients. And I'll keep it simple since you're most likely distracted by all of the money that Brammo is paying you to do practically nothing. When participating in such nonsense, designers work for free in hopes of getting paid or winning a prize. It completely devalues our work (maybe some designers are finally realizing this?). It does clients a disservice in compromising quality of work by completely skipping the research and development stage. Instead of using your interns or crowdsourcing students and amateur designers, you could have hired a professional designer who would be able to work closely with your client and mostly likely produce better work. But no, you were trying to get media coverage which distracted you from the brand development. I'm sure that was the entire point, but what a terrible idea.

They even produced this logo for Crispin's consideration:

brammo logo

Most of Crispin's clients seem rather pleased to stir up controversy. And this article is proof that their campaigns get attention. But a new company like Brammo can't be terribly pleased that right out of the gate, they've been accused, by association, of being anti-design cheap skates.


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  • Kevin Ohannessian

    If the product is better, then kudos for innovation. If not, Crispen will lose out. Being a marketer is not a right. This is the same argument that the music industry used against itunes, and every other fledging industry uses against progress. For the life of me, I don't understand it.


  • Rory Kelly

    Well, well, well. I guess its not enough that the American economy is in the crapper, now it looks like one it’s hopeful captains of industry is poised and ready to flush. It’s already a tough enough battle to create and sell work as it is, to any client, whether they be incumbent or otherwise.

    What crowdsourcing would do is make this job even tougher – that is, if the practice takes off and does well. Some things are tough in a good way. To design and sell great solutions to a client is tough sometimes…but often in a good way. The toughness of this process forces creatives to produce brighter and better design solutions for their clients. It forces the strategic process that informs the creative process, to be smarter and more insightful. Its also part of what drives the hardworking mentality in the advertising and design industry. This process is part of what keeps many (or most) people who choose to work in the advertising and graphic design sector working hours that tend to be longer than the usual 9-5 grind (yes, many advertising and design creatives “live to work”). And that’s okay, because they get paid for it.

    What I can’t believe is that business owners are actually buying into this. I wonder if the people at Brammo would like it if – during the entire research and production phase of their electric motors – all their designers and technicians weren’t paid a red cent. Nope. Not a penny. Not through what might be long hours of challenging work, no one was paid for their labour. I wonder how laywers would feel if they were asked to do the same. Nope, no pay until the case is won. How about doctors…no dough until the patient is cured. Or contractors and builders… sorry, you won’t be able to pay the bills, feed the kids and feed yourself until that lot of 50 homes are built.

    The fact is, its a stark and undeniable reality that people work not only for the thrill and zest of the particular challenges their jobs present, they also work to survive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an art director in the ad industry and I love what I do. I also love to be alive. And I need to eat food and drink water and have a roof over my head to be alive…you get what I mean.

    Sorry, but ultimately the idea of crowdsourcing degrades any amount of professionalism and experience that can be brought to the table in the creative and productive process. It also pretty much eliminates one of the key incentives to go to work in the first place.

    To Sean Mulholland, sure, there’s no doubt that you put dozens, even hundreds of man hours into work that never sees the light of day. If you work in advertising, it happens all the time, its a quirk of the industry. The thing is, you still get paid for all those hours you worked on the un-sold material. If you’re crowdsourced for that same work, you won’t.

  • Allison Manley

    John Chen: well said.

    As for my own business, in the early days we would accept projects for little or no money in the hopes that we would get better work down the road, or build up our portfolio in the meantime. We quickly discovered it was better to fight for what you are worth and get clients who appreciated the process and time that goes into it. Not only does it help our bottom line, but we have better client relationships and can do more good (and ethical work) for our clients.

  • david conover

    i love this discussion because it's such a personal one (and one, hopefully that supplants the healthcare argument, — sorry ze — for at least a moment or two). spec is wrong only if you think it is. not because aiga thinks so. not because someone thinks you shouldn't. i bet you that very amount (awarded for the blammo logo) that nearly everyone in creative fields, early on in their career, has speculated something. whether it be an obscenely small amount for a fledgling shoe company (the designer who apparently was secretly well-compensated years later; good for them both) or a creative brief crafted with strategy to garner interest from the owners of a soon-to-be popular frozen yogurt chain ( i personally heard this story revealed last spring) or a contest for a stunning monument in washington dc that catapulted the career of a then young architect. the point being, again, your choice. your choice to not only define the word "spec" but to define whether or not you want to speculatively risk something that you deem worth the hopeful reward.

  • Shaun Abrahamson

    I am not sure why designers are suckers.

    Those who stay away from contests surely benefit from not working for free. They get to regularly pitch for work and win sometimes or alot, if they have a great portfolio. No suckers here.

    But what if I am working on my portfolio?

    Or what if I simply like the project and this is a way for me to be involved? I didnt land the account and I dont work at CP&B.

    What if I am doing design in the evenings and dont have time to pitch?

    What if I win? I might not have to wait to build out my portfolio...

    Why the focus on $1000? Does everyone do design work for the money? Are their people simply practicing or doing something they enjoy? Maybe they have an inspired idea and just want to bang it out because they can. Seems like their are some other possible value exchanges going on here.

    Are their some people who don't know the value of their work yet? Probably, but isn't this a good way to figure out how good you are?

    And why is CP&B the demon here?

    It looks like they are trying to figure out what parts of the creative process they need to be involved in more directly and where they can get help. Certainly its not free - they have to review and manage the process. And they have to live with this if it doesn't work.

    I think to give them a fair shake, just look at the conversations of someone like CP&B's @jtwinsor who is actively involved in thoughtful dialogs about crowdsourcing, far beyond just design and logos. They're trying to figure it out, just like many of the designers entering these competitions.

    I don't see where the suckers are. Just people trying to figure out new ways to work together.

    BTW - why is everyone taking the time to share their comments for free? Arent we being exploited by FastCompany :)

  • Tim Johnson

    John Chen, yours are some of the most prescient comments on this subject I've ever read. Kudos! Great job. Spot on.

    Throughout the design industry, so-called designers have been screaming that certification would require them to prove "creativity" or "talent," while profession after profession develops certification standards that support their value and prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening.

    Accountants, lawyers, INTERIOR DESIGNERS. Even recruiters have certifications available to them. WHY? To demonstrate they have some minimum level of professional competency in their field.

    If we had certification in the design profession, we wouldn't have this problem. I'm speaking to a class of design students on "brand design" this afternoon. Your comments have really inspired me, and I'll certainly reference them later. Hope these young skulls full of mush will get it.

    Tim Johnson
    Coactive Brand Lab

  • Terra Wilzlow

    I don't see what the problem is. Designers are not forced to enter the contest. A lot of designers I'm sure just enter for any rate I have used with amazing results. It's setup and run a little different from crowdspring but the same concept.

    If Designers are willing to spend time to enter these contests I see no problem. Just my 2 cents :)

  • Edward Boches

    So, how much did Crispin pay you to write this article? It's exactly what they and Brammo wanted. More credit to them, not only for a masterly use of crowdsourcing but for another brilliant PR move. To me friends Alex, John, Colin and company, nicely done, once again. BTW, if you want to read something with a little more perspective, check this out.

  • John Chen

    We all know this sorta stunt has been around forever. Group A knows Group B's weaknesses, and takes advantage of them. Group B is dysfunctional enough to fall for it every time and whines about it. Lucy, Charlie Brown and her football, right?

    Kudos to CP+B for tapping an industry of suckers who think too much of themselves, yet cave at every slim chance to have their delicate egos affirmed.

    If someone were to crowdsource for a doctor to treat their stubbed toe for a chance to win $1,000, would +700 physicians respond and treat at no charge?

    If someone were to crowdsource for an accountant to do their taxes for a chance to win $1,00, would +700 accountants respond and do the work at no charge?

    If someone were to crowdsource for a plumber to move some plumbing for a chance to win $1,000, would +700 butt-crack-presenting plumbers respond and move the plumbing at no charge?

    (I won't try this with lawyers)

    But designer would. Why?

    In my opinion, the fault is with the design industry (not profession), and it's lack of self-respect. It's like the guy we all know who falls for a girl out of his league and puts aside his self-respect to do anything and everything, just for the slim chance of winning her affections. (I know that guy pretty well)

    Also at fault, I think, is with how design education turns out designers. Rather than teach design as an integrative way to solve problems and bring about innovation, many design educators continue their dis-service by teaching "Design" as simply another term for their holy-grail: artistic self-expression. The result: Fresh graduates in a tizzy for decades, frustrated as to why their clients are so rigidly business-focused, and not behaving more like appreciative patrons of their art and artistic genius.

    Rather than equipping design students with the wherewithal to solve problems via a framework of proven facilitative methodologies and analytical tools/thinking, developing both left and right brain expertise, many faculty continue the decades old tradition of freeform, loosie-goosie, artsy-fartsy, undisciplined, when-inspiration-strikes, serendipitous, hipper-than-thou, ego-/drama-driven approach that is hit-or-miss at best, annoyingly mystifying to clients and non-designers, mostly self-serving self-therapy masquerading as stylistic exercises at best; ultimately, and sadly not the stuff of a respect-earning and self-respecting disciplined understandable profession intrinsically relevant and valuable to a business, market economy and ad agency (ie CP+B).

    There's a very attractive consultative role for design and designers. But too few designers know about it. Too few care. Too few are willing to do the work to add consultative skill-sets to their offerings, for fear of violating their "artistic/creative integrity." And the career path isn't clear.

    For those who are inclined: Architectural design programs have been around for centuries. Graphic design programs have been around for less than a century, if that. Web design, a decade? The latter 2 programs ought to consider a page out of the centuries-tested architecture schools, and adopt a 5th year, dedicated to Professional Practice. That's what it's called, and it's the lack of awareness of this matter and its application that allows the likes of CP+B to get it's kicks and succeed w/ it's PR stunt. I know another year is a lot time and dollars and student loans. (But med students pay their dues, earn their competence and creds with internships, residencies and even more. Suck it up, earn your relevance & respect, and you'll find your self-respect, and perhaps a career free of giving away your intellectual assets.)

    Don't tell me architects participate in contests all the time, and that it's the equivalent to CP+B's logo contest. When the logo design winner is selected, the $1k is mailed and that's the end of the designer's participation and relevance. (No one's going to think you're all that when they see that on your resume/portfolio.) When an architect's design is chosen, they're actively engaged and further compensated for what can be a multi-year series of phases, from further design development, to engineering, to construction (politics aside). For architects, the "contest" is the start of a consultative design relationship/partnership (again: politics aside).

    And guess what: consulting firms, like McKinsey, are PAID for their proposals. These folks have credibly established the relevance and value of just their thinking, analysis and discovery process; all without having to push a pixel in Photoshop.

    There's a place and time for anything and everything. There will always be artists, as designers, who give their logos away to the likes of CP+B in hopes their handiwork/work-of-art will hang on the refrigerator at CP+B. More power to them.

    But I'm personally hoping there will be more designers, who know better, value what's in both their hearts and noggins, roll their eyes at the CP+B's and focus their hearts and souls on solving problems for clients who understand, value and pay for design services... even design thinking. I'm hoping design schools will crank out more kindred spirits like these; it's a wee lonesome at times.

  • Sean Mulholland

    I see the idealistic reasons behind the backlash, but what about the other side of the coin?

    Many aspiring designers would kill to have their work seen by CPB and the possibility of attaching their work to a sizable brand. Sounds to me like the established pros are being a little protectionistic, and using their anti-spec rhetoric as a moral high-horse.

    In other industries such competitions are commonplace, even expected! Agency reviews / pitches for example - we may sink dozens, even hundreds of man-hours into a potential assignment only to lose out. I'd love to see an agency try to assert with a potential client that its time is too valuable to spend on anything but a cookie-cutter "about us" & case studies.

  • Brent Frei

    Josh and Mark,

    If it was logistically possible to have 100 designers interview for the job of doing a logo design, and then award the contract to best of them, it would be eerily similar to the situation above. The designer would invest time and effort in 'selling' themselves to win the business and in the end, 99 of them would not get paid for that effort and time spent.

    In the example above, the designers get to sell themselves by doing the part of the job they are passionate about - design, rather than the part most would prefer to avoid - selling. Coincidentally, I also posted on this perspective a few weeks ago:

    As for whether CP+B's clients are getting their money's worth from the $1,000 crowdsourced approach, that's up to the client to decide. Forgotten in many of articles on this topic are that it's a free market. Designers can choose not to invest time in competing for this type of business, and clients can choose not to engage firms that source work this way.

    -Brent Frei

  • Josh Taylor


    - $1000 is good compensation, perhaps, for a single designer. It is not good value when you've hired an agency with the credentials CP+B has. If 100 people enter, it's also far short of the "$100,000" worth of work done.

    - It's nothing at all like "home sale" transactions that you do yourself. Because you don't do it yourself. It's more like putting it out there and getting 100 people to make an attempt at creating your portfolio and paying the person you think has done the best. Those other 99 people do not get paid for their time.

    - You bring up the point that it's a contest, but you also seem to want to drive the market that way. If the entire market goes to an award system, you're chances of getting paid a salary go down to .7%.

    - Paying people for their work is not an "inefficiency". Look at the way software developers for Linux work. They still get paid because they provide technical support for their product. Designers provide that at the front end. They act as consultants as well as production artists. What you are looking for is a production artist.

    - If you want commodity graphics, they are freely available from many stock houses. There's a system already in place that doesn't violate ethical standards.

  • Marc Stress

    $1,000 for a single logo concept may be a fair price to be paid to a single person for their efforts. The outcry from the design community is that dozens of people are being asked to compete for that same $1,000, effectively reducing rates to pennies/hour. Further, the "sourcedcrowd" that doesn't win doesn't get paid. If hundreds of people are doing work for no pay, how does that help the market?

    This larger conversation isn't about the efficiency of the creative process, it's that the individual is compromised along the way.

    There are plenty of other options to purchase great creative work while respecting the individual no matter what your budget.

  • Brent Frei

    Getting $1000 for a logo concept seems like good compensation to me, particularly considering that the typical cost of sale to a designer to win the account in the first place will exceed the revenue from a single logo concept. Besides, most wouldn't have been invited to compete anyway.

    It's worth repeating a post I wrote 6 months ago.

    It seems that no matter how many times history plays out the hand dealt to inefficient markets, the next inefficient market to be assailed wails in protest. Jeff Howe’s article on Crowdsourcing in graphics and design, discusses the reaction from many designers to this discount approach to their core business. What I take from the group of designers who’ve formed the group called NO!SPEC, is that they would have resisted stock trading through anything but a paid broker, or insisted that home sale transactions always be charged a 6% realtor fee rather than have the option to get similar services for less through a website.

    It’s crazy that folks don’t look at the markets that bloom around the growth which happens when inefficiencies are eliminated. Turns out that stock brokers didn’t go out of business, but rather provide value added services to a market of American investors that is 10 times the percentage it was pre-online trading (less than 5% to over 50% of Americans). This huge increase in the market and volume has increased the need for professional help.

    As a startup software company, our limited budgets at the beginning only enabled us to pay for ‘logo’ work rather than the real design overhaul that only a professional can deliver (doesn’t do much good to have a professional design if you then can’t afford to the production graphics work to execute on it). So, instead of getting this seriously value added service, we paid through the nose for a few logos that in the end did not really coalesce into a nice U.I. Now, we can simply Smartsource* that kind of work out for a few dollars apiece once the pros create our branded design and layout. We’re paying the high margin fees to those folks that actually have differentiated talent instead of pittering away lesser fees on one of the graphics-space saturating multitudes.

    There is no need for graphic designers to panic. By making the access to truly commodity graphics services very cheap and efficient, the budgets available for the skilled work that can never be commoditized will increase. That’s all good.

    -Brent Frei