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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