Crowdsourcing: A One-Way Ticket to Blah

Agency types are betting that crowdsourcing will usher in a new type of advertising. They must be crazy.

Genius Rocket

It's come to this: Ad agencies, in a push to get hip with the kids, lower their price points, and produce better ideas, seem to be piling onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon. But can crowdsourcing produce anything more than mediocre work?

Evangelists for the trend say that crowdsourcing opens the competitive field, to talent that would otherwise go overlooked. Typically, you offer a prize, open the gates, and let the best idea win. You get more ideas, so some of them are bound to be good, right?

The list of ad agencies trying their hand at this is growing: As The Times reports, Bartle Bogle Hegarty of London is teaming with TalentHouse; some Crispin alums started Victors and Spoils; there's also Crowdspring and Genius Rocket. Hell, there's even Local Motors, which attempts to use thousands of designers, to create a modular car.which produces cars produced and refined by the crowd.

You can see why ad-pros would resent this idea: These contests usually don't compensate all the participants. For example, when Crispin tried to crowdsource the logo for Brammo, it blew up their faces, with a full-on designer revolt.

Most of these new crowdsourcing ventures think they have a way around this. Genius Roket, for example, is introducing something called Genius Rocket Select. The idea is to raise the award pots, and preselect the participants in a given pitch. That way, everyone can get paid. The rewards will rise as entrants make it to successive rounds. Winners might get something on the order of $15,000.

But can you really get great work this way? Isn't crowdsourcing just a low-cost route for those who simply can't afford an agency, and an outlet for those without the chops to win big accounts? There's definitely a market for that—but in that case, crowdsourcing is less about overturning the current ad-agency model, and more about serving clients overlooked by the system. I mean, do you really think that Nike is going to going to get their next great idea for $15,000? Isn't crowdsourcing always geared to a low-end buyer?

Mark Walsh, Genius Rocket's CEO, says he "violently disagrees," with that premise. He points out that Genius Rocket's pool includes many alumni and employees of brand-name agencies. He also argues that upfront hand-picking and higher payouts will foster better work than plain-jane crowdsourcing (which has usually been very mediocre).

(Crowdsource proponents like to point out the success of Doritos's Superbowl Ads. But the novelty of the process was the main appeal. If this is what your ad agency gave you for a million dollars, you'd fire them. In Crispin's crowdsourced competition for Brammo's logo, you'd be hard-pressed to find entries that aren't atrocious. The winner is professional looking, but its final form was also guided by Crispin. So much for crowdsourcing.)

Walsh does touch on a good point: Crowdsourcing is only as good as the people that participate. If clever people hung around looking for work via crowdsourced competitions, the results could be great. Perhaps some day they will, when ad-agency model collapses. But in my experience, they don't. Not yet.

I know lots of talented ad-industry people. None of them have to find clients this way. Crowdsourcing advocates would counter that there are plenty of geniuses out there, who just haven't been given a chance because they don't live in NYC/London/Paris/L.A. and don't go to the right parties. But that's the thing about top-tier talent: They tend to figure out a way to the top, regardless. They figure out how to make the right contacts and climb the ladder. By in large, that means getting in good with the right ad houses and not lurking around in competitions where the payoff is relatively low, given all the uncertainties.

Does anyone really think that crowdsourcing can produce the next iPhone? Probably not. Products and ideas like those are made possible by singular focus, and gobs of patience; it's not having a ton of ideas that matters, it's having the right idea and having the resources to invest in it. (And on that note, doesn't Local Motors's first crowd-sourced car kinda remind you of that Simpsons episode, where Homer Simpson designed a car with fins that could drive underwater and had a giant cup holder?)

That said, the ultimate goal isn't the iPhone—In Genius Rocket's case, it's simply to create viral videos, which are quirky enough to explode on their own, producing free Internet advertising.

So, maybe the more appropriate question is: Can crowdsourcing create the next Keyboard Cat? As Walsh says, "Creating ten viral videos, throwing them against a wall, and hoping for a 600,000-view event isn't what agencies are about."

But is it what crowdsoucing is about? And even if you do garner a mere 600,000 views, who says those are the customers you're after?

If this sort of small-bore crowdsourcing produces a vid with even 1/20th the views of "Chocolate Rain", anytime in the near future, I'll eat my hat.

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11 Comments

  • leon

    Why would a company trust their private information to people they havent ever met. Not too discreet is it. How about non compete clauses?

  • Matt Murphy

    "Crowdsourcing is great for low-cost work, for low-budget clients. But--no offense to you--I'm still skeptical about the general quality of the output."

    Perhaps... but crowdsourcing is even better for medium-cost work, for medium-budget clients. And when you have a high-budget, look out, because the sharks are coming -- the general quality of the output is proportional to the general quality of the input ($$$).

    It's really unfortunate that the media continues to perpetuate the myth that crowdsourcing is about saving money. It's true that many people have saved a lot of money harnessing the power of the crowd, however that's only because that was their goal.

    Cheap, good, fast; pick any two. This rule will always apply. The true benefit of crowdsourcing is that you get to pull the strings. You are not dependent on any one resource (or even several) to accomplish a goal and therefore at the mercy of their ability to deliver.

  • Jon Mervis

    I've used Genius Rocket twice before and feel like there's two missing components to this conversation. Firstly, every advertiser is not the same, in respect to how "sticky" or appealing the product is to the creatives. I believe FUN is at the core to the success of a project. Artists will more likely take on and produce projects that they actually enjoy. (I've heard several times that our crowdsourced projects are simply more fun than the boring graphic design they do for their day jobs.)

    When we asked the general public to come up with witty one-liners for print ads we were to run in the ONION, we had a fantastic response. We received over 500 phrases, of which 50 were good and 10 were hilarious.
    Therefore, the lesson is that crowdsourcing CAN WORK, but maybe not for your brand if you're a Dentist Association of New Hampshire, or something mundane like that.

    Secondly, the value of crowdsourcing is as much about the process of engaging your target market in your brand as it is about the end result. Even if Nike doesn't receive their next tagline through crowdsourcing, they'd benefit tremendously from the brand exposure and having people actively think about their brand and what it means to them.

    In a world of over-hyped "social media marketing" where advertisers are racing to add twitter followers, I think the benefit of engaging your customers through crowdsourcing is vastly undervalued.

    By the way, our advertising was for

  • Mark Walsh

    Cliff thank you for starting this conversation. Your take on the crowdsourcing industry is interesting and those of us in the industry have always anticipated certain amounts of skepticism on this model. However , there are key points that you have failed to acknowledge in your article.

    You claim that crowdsourcing does not have the capability of producing work that is of high enough quality that larger brands require, but rather it is a model that caters to companies with low-budgets. The points that I think you are missing here are that first, successful ideas do not always require a hefty price tag and second, what works on viral media these days is not what used to work before. Consumers have changed and businesses need to adjust how they reach these consumers. People need to realize that it is just a matter of time before this type of model ceases to be a novel idea but rather the norm. It is like print journalists who say that blogs don’t matter or the network execs saying that Hulu wont impact their business. The creative and online world is changing and companies must change their advertising mediums in order to achieve success.

    You pointed out several GeniusRocket projects that you deemed “mediocre” however, just because a company has a smaller budget does not mean they are willing to accept lower quality work as illustrated by David's comment above. What makes viral media successful is not related to the amount of money put in to creating the project – it is having an audience and knowing what the audience will respond to. The brands that achieve long-term success on sites such as YouTube are the ones that consistently and frequently publish content that has fundamental value for their audiences. Perhaps you are not the audience for some of the projects that you have reviewed recently on either GeniusRocket or some of the other crowdsourcing sites out there.

    I think success is defined by the company and whether we like it or not, the advertising world is changing and companies both big and small will continue to require the same level of service and quality in their advertising needs.

  • David Frankil

    As the sponsor of one of the competitions I feel compelled to throw in my two cents, because (with all due respect) the author is missing the point - it is about the value delivered. It is absolutely true that any individual credit union that wanted to spend a ton of money on a creative firm could develop higher quality ads than we were able to generate with the $6,000 worth of prizes in our competition. But we were able to take the results and empower (at last count) 92 credit unions across the country (> 40 states) to deploy 186 commercials customized for their specific credit union for just $150 apiece.

    The end result was a significantly greater presence in a crowded financial services marketplace for credit unions, at a price point for each individual credit union (and for us) that is impossible to beat.

    Given the decentralized market structure and innately local focus of credit unions a single national ad just doesn't work - but this model fit our budget and the needs of credit unions perfectly.

    Taking it a step further, the designers of our ads were able to generate both initial and ongoing revenue from an initiative in which they would otherwise not have had any opportunity to participate in. Which made this a win-win from a value perspective for all parties involved.

  • Matt Johnston

    There is a vibrant conversation right now about the limits of crowdsourcing. I'm glad you cited Jay Rogers and Local Motors -- he talks often about the need for a "bi-modal" intelligence when co-creating with an active community. In short, behind every successful "crowd" effort there's ALWAYS a smaller team that guides. Think Randy / Paula / Simon for American Idol, or Linus Torvalds and Linux, or the Netflix team. Crowdsourcing is really about modern collaboration -- not outsourcing at all.

    Another ad agency crowdsourcing attempt to watch: http://adage.com/digitalnext/a...

  • Jordan Julien

    Great message from this post: The thing about top-tier talent: They tend to figure out a way to the top, regardless of living in the right place or knowing the right people.

    If jumping through the crowd-sourcing hoops gets you there, if writing post on well known blogs gets you there, or if building your linkedin network gets you there - the fact that you get there (achieve your goal) makes it worth it.

  • Ariel Ferreira

    What if a T-shirt was designed through crowdsourcing and sold better than any other? Threadless is particularly relevant since you are talking about the crowdsourcing of design - and they enjoy awesome success.

    While companies like Threadless and Innocentive are evidence to the benefits of crowdsourcing (or co-creation) done right, the argument against the efficacy of crowdsourcing done right holds little merit.

    But doing it right in a way that is nurturing for community, customers and company is a delicate balance - and one that Local Motors continues to learn every day.

    Suffice to say the current automotive construct of secret design development and top-down silo design decisions has not resulted in consistent success. There is more to be said for the fact that companies like Fiat (Mio), General Motors (Lab) and Ford (open software development) are now following the lead of Local Motors' open development.

    They are following because it works. Because customers WANT to be involved. And because CEOs and design leads are not omniscient gods.

    It is smart to humble ourselves and invite the ideas and guidance of our community and customers. We want to bring cars to market for underserved niche markets, and we know only a small group of people will die-hard LOVE the cars we build. That is the intention.

    The incorporation of co-creation strategy does not mean we cease to run our companies or focus on our goals. For Local Motors there will always be a shared decision making process between company and community.

    Crispin is not wrong to interject and adjust the winning entry. As you stated, they are professionals. They have goals in mind, and a strategy to achieve - collaboration through crowdsourcing is savvy.

    Lastly - Local Motors cares are built like race cars; they feature unique (not borrowed)welded steel chassis spaceframe construction with composite body panels.

    They are NOT modular. They do not have customizable configuration.

    Ariel

    aferreira@local-motors.com
    @LM_Ari

  • Ariel Ferreira

    What if a T-shirt was designed through crowdsourcing and sold better than any other? Threadless is particularly relevant since you are talking about the crowdsourcing of design - and they enjoy awesome success.

    While companies like Threadless and Innocentive are evidence to the benefits of crowdsourcing (or co-creation) done right, the argument against the efficacy of crowdsourcing done right holds little merit.

    But doing it right in a way that is nurturing for community, customers and company is a delicate balance - and one that Local Motors continues to learn every day.

    Suffice to say the current automotive construct of secret design development and top-down silo design decisions has not resulted in consistent success. There is more to be said for the fact that companies like Fiat (Mio), General Motors (Lab) and Ford (open software development) are now following the lead of Local Motors' open development.

    They are following because it works. Because customers WANT to be involved. And because CEOs and design leads are not omniscient gods.

    It is smart to humble ourselves and invite the ideas and guidance of our community and customers. We want to bring cars to market for underserved niche markets, and we know only a small group of people will die-hard LOVE the cars we build. That is the intention.

    The incorporation of co-creation strategy does not mean we cease to run our companies or focus on our goals. For Local Motors there will always be a shared decision making process between company and community.

    Crispin is not wrong to interject and adjust the winning entry. As you stated, they are professionals. They have goals in mind, and a strategy to achieve - collaboration through crowdsourcing is savvy.

    Lastly - Local Motors cares are built like race cars; they feature unique (not borrowed)welded steel chassis spaceframe construction with composite body panels.

    They are NOT modular. They do not have customizable configuration.

  • Cliff Kuang

    Hey there---Thanks for your comment. You make sense, but then again, I'm not sure that what you're saying conflicts with the argument I'm making. Crowdsourcing is great for low-cost work, for low-budget clients. But--no offense to you--I'm still skeptical about the general quality of the output.

  • Individual Designer

    Glad to see this topic get some attention from Fast Company--it's hugely contentious, and creatives know that. But you're missing a few key components and insights about the debate.

    First, the talent hypothesis. It's not all about being the rock star creative who works 15 hours a day. Some of us are designers who have great talent but want flexibility on what we work on and when we work on it. We don't want to climb the ladder. Meet the new talent strategy. And crowdsourcing gives us that. Great clients aren't always the ones working with the larger houses (that can afford to work with a larger house). Many creatives relish having an Intel in their portfolio, but others are happy to share their talents with smaller, up and comers.

    Second, crowdsourcing isn't just a low-cost route. Sure, the low-cost is attractive, but having worked in a large house before I went independent, I'd say that it's just smarter. I can submit my work and eliminate the overhead and I have just as much talent as the in-house guy. I just get to watch my kid and work from home. There are millions of businesses as well who don't need the viral video that will make you eat your hat, as you say. They are looking for creative genius that will help them make a mark locall, or in a niche market. You don't need a million views on You Tube to be successful.

    You can be the skeptic, sure. But you're not the company who needs my talent but also has a shrinking budget. So you don't see why it's good model.