I've always believed that the field of advertising is especially fertile ground for crowdsourcing applications: the formats (short video snippets, one-page images, etc.) often lend themselves to amateur efforts and in many cases consumers have a much better sense of how to improve a brand's appeal than do Madison Ave executives. It goes without saying that I'm hardly the only one making this observation. Advertising was one of the first fields to put the crowd to work, and as such the models are reaching a degree of maturity we're not seeing in other fields. Advertising has received short shrift in this blog, an oversight I hope to correct starting now. Fair warning: Today's post runs long (which will hopefully compensate somewhat for my extended Thanksgiving break!)
The genesis of the term crowdsourcing lies in a discussion my editor Mark Robinson and I had about the Converse "Gallery" campaign, which now occupies a sort of mythic status as the grand-daddy of consumer-generated ad campaigns. Way back in the bygone age of August 2004, Converse gave its ad agency, Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, a difficult task: reinvent the iconic Chuck Taylor brand. BSS&P responded by placing ads in alternative weeklies soliciting 24-second spots from budding filmmakers and anyone else capable of wielding a camcorder. The shorts had to somehow convey a passion for Chuck Taylors, but that was it. You didn't even have to to show the shoe. Within three weeks the company had received 750 submissions, a number that has since climbed into the thousands. The best have run on TV, which has driven further interest in the campaign. While Converse won't comment on sales, it's parent company Nike experienced a 25 percent increase in sales in that financial quarter, a rise due in large part to the success of the Gallery campaign.
Apres Chuck, les Deluge
Never ones to scorn a ride on the bandwagon, advertisers didn't take long to mimic the Converse campaign. Companies from Sony to MasterCard to Toyota to Geico (the list goes on and on) have since solicited content, ideas and even final creative from users, and by April of this year even so conservative a brand as Chevrolet got in the action, asking consumers to create mash-ups about the Chevy Tahoe using provided video clips and music. The most popular of the resulting videos subverted the intent of the campaign, characterizing the Tahoe as a gas guzzling leviathan responsible for global warming, the quagmire in Iraq and highway fatalities. Oops. "At first, everyone assumed it was just another case of a big corporation not 'getting it,'" writes Wired writer Frank Rose in an article about the Tahoe campaign in this month's Wired. But gradually, the marketing community (and Tahoe's detractors) realized despite the viral backlash, the campaign was an unequivocal smash, driving vast amounts of traffic to Chevy's site and putting Tahoe on the lips of a whole new class of consumer. The new Tahoe started outselling it's counterpart at Ford – the Explorer – by a margin of 2 to 1.
Now the trend continues to gain momentum. Frito-Lay is bypassing its agency to solicit user-generated spots through Yahoo. The winning entry will debut during the Super Bowl. If there were any doubt before, user-generated advertising has arrived. Fast Company has even predicted "agency executive" to be among six jobs that won't exist in 2016. (This is overhyped hooey – creatives will simply have to exercise a different set of skills – but more on that some other time.)
Yet while an increasing number of clients are now utilizing crowd contributions in their branding efforts, very few agencies or start-ups have built a broad crowdsourcing application to use across the board. In other words, it's still being used on an ad hoc basis. I predict that's soon to change, and here are the harbingers:
• British ad firm TBWA/London's November debut of TBWA/Lab, or what it calls "The Big What Adventure." Professionals within the agency post various projects they're working on to get feedback and ideas from the user. Anyone can submit, and if TBWA uses an idea they'll pay for the privilege. (They'll also keep all the relevant intellectual property, but that's neither surprising nor unfair.) Here's why this is significant: TBWA is one of the largest global ad agencies. A small move by a big player has more serious implications than a big move by a small player (see below), if for no other reason than reach. Secondly, what TBWA/London has done is build a pipe through which ideas, videos and creative of all kinds can flow. It's not dependent on a single client's need. Additional analysis by one of my favorite advertising blogs, The Fruits of Imagination.
• The launch of Holotof, "the creative department of the new millennium." Started by Robby Ralston, a longtime agency veteran in Lima, Peru, Holotof has a network of 900 advertising professionals who will take piecework that clients post on Holotof's site. A few days ago Holotof posted its first pitch, worth $600 USD for whoever comes up with the best idea. (I might have recommended a bid system, a la Rent-a-Coder, but Robby has surely put a great deal of thought into the pricing structure.) How does Holotof work? Here's a lovely graph to answer the question (leave it to an ad creative to make great visuals):
Right now Holotof has one client offering $600 prize for ideas. Okay, so Holotof has a way to go before proving their model is the right one. But I like it a lot. It avoids the mistake I think a similar, and much older, crowd-agency called Adcandy has made including professionals in their network. I think the T-Shirt company Threadless (which I turn to again and again as a highly effective crowdsourcing model) shows that "best practice" in this regard is combined of a hybrid of professionals and amateurs. At any rate, I look forward to following the trend in the advertising field in general, and particularly the kind of experiment in which Holotof and TBWA/London are engaged.