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May 29, 2010
Is Crowdsourcing Good for the Ad Business?

“Good ideas can come from anywhere.” How many times have I heard that in my ad career? It doesn’t surprise me that crowdsourcing came to advertising. Crowdsourcing is a way to solve problems by tapping the global community online for answers. What a great idea.

Heaven for clients

Imagine you’re the client with a marketing challenge. You just submit your brief to one of the online agencies specializing in crowdsourcing. In turn, they submit it to the crowd of ad professionals located around the world. The crowd then delivers hundreds, even thousands of ideas. The diversity in thinking and approaches is incredible. Even better, you only pay for the idea you buy. If it’s a bid process, you can choose the lowest bid and hire that ad professional. You’re like the kid in the candy store.

Hell on creatives

There’s just one problem. What if you’re the creative professional who pitches ideas but never has an idea picked, or you have to bid way below any standard hourly rate? Meanwhile, you’re raising a family and trying to pay the mortgage.

Wait, I hear dissention. “Aren’t you any good, Og?” And, “Nobody is putting a gun to your head to do this.” Fair enough. I’ve impressed people with my creative thinking, and I haven’t tried crowdsourcing yet. The fact is, there are a lot of talented creative professionals out there, plus talented advertising students. How can you and I compete with that no matter how good we are? If it’s only about lowering the cost with an open bid, what’s the incentive for participating? My local newspaper has a caption writing contest and offers no prize money. I’ve got better things to do with my time. I can’t afford to work for free.

Quantity, not quality

Does crowdsourcing improve the quality of the creative product? Quantity, yes. Quality, I’m not so sure. In this scenario, everybody is working independently. Where’s the account planner providing insights? Where’s the creative director to shoot down bad ideas and spur you on with the good is the enemy of great speech?

Above all, where’s the art/copy pairing that Bernbach and DDB brought to the advertising that led to the creative revolution? Or the creative shootout between teams that brings out people’s competitive best? Or the synergy in bringing together media, interactive, direct, strategy and so on.

None of the above is required with crowdsourcing for creative. It’s lone wolves or the hot creative team sipping frappuccinos at Starbucks. The premise is the same as it’s always been -- good ideas can come from anywhere. You know what’s funny? Of all the years I’ve heard that, I can’t think of a time when the good idea didn’t come from the creative department.

With crowdsourcing, I don’t even see how the best idea would win. The client decides. There’s no agency recommendation. We’re stuck being vendors and haven’t we been fighting that label for decades?

What’s missing

How did a great idea like crowdsourcing turn bad in my treatment here? Let’s look at the key ingredient of crowdsourcing with examples like Wikipedia and SETI@home. Crowdsourcing is about collaboration. People contribute to Wikipedia. People loan out their computers to SETI@home to search for intelligent life in space. These are collaborative efforts.

With crowdsourcing for creative ideas, mass collaboration is missing. It’s a contest to produce the best idea or the cheapest labor. At best, crowdsourcing is really contestsourcing. At worst, it’s crapsourcing.  

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Mike Ogden is a digital/senior writer based in Kansas City. Ad agency stops have enabled him to create for major brands like American Century, Capital One, Sprint, and USAA. Seasoned and sharp with a touch of gray, Ogden, aka Og, is known for creating and championing ideas. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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