There are few topics more contentious among marketing creatives than crowdsourcing. The arguments both for and against are filled with so many bad analogies and hyperbole that it’s almost impossible to discuss civilly with anyone who has been involved in creative services longer than six months. You can only tiptoe through the banana peels so long before you slip and have to run back to an oversimplification to save your argument.
If you boil down the concept behind crowdsourcing you usually come up with something along the lines of “the knowledge of the crowd is more vast than any one person.” It’s one of those statements that’s hard to refute yet, the more you get into the specifics of crowdsourcing in application, the less it makes sense.
Crowdsourcing, in it’s modern form, is driven by the primary desire to cut costs. There are instances of crowdsourcing achieving things that would be difficult for a small team, like the example Don Tapscott uses in his book Wikinomics of Goldcorp tapping the crowd to help them find better places to mine for gold, but the majority of crowdsourcing is used as a seemingly viable alternative to paying more.
The issue has grown a little more complicated as simple bargain creative services, like 99 Designs, have been birthed at higher levels. One such case is the ad agency Victors and Spoils, which found itself on last year’s Advertising Age “Agencies to Watch” list. While there aren’t many marketable designers fighting for $200 logo projects, V&S is competing against larger agencies by crowdsourcing the concepting phase of the creative process (the projects are then handed over to a fairly traditional structure of full timers and freelancers for execution/production). It’s not just inexperienced ad school students and computer nerds from the Ukraine submitting ideas though. I heard first hand that there are art directors from top 10 agencies who regularly work 60+ hour weeks that are also throwing their ideas in the ring, though they generally ask to credited as anonymous. So, in this instance, you’re getting ideas from some of the same people you need a budget of $10 million+ to even ask to take your business.
The emergence of these kinds of companies are driven by problems at the height of the creative pyramid. Hiring a top creative agency that pays top dollar for their creative talent is one of the most simultaneously risky and safest things to do for brands with wallets fat enough to even be in this position. While you could argue that the majority of most marketing initiatives ultimately fail, some of the most detrimental black holes of substantial resources come at the hands of some of the most experienced marketers with some of the best portfolios at some of the most respected agencies. A misfire in a print ad in a local paper probably won’t sink a business but an ineffective Super Bowl spot that does nothing but create negative sentiment for the brand can do lasting damage and often results in the squandering of the only chance that brand will have at that level of media.
On the other hand, no one has ever been fired for hiring the agency that put their competitor on the map. Sometimes it’s easier to defend a colossal waste of resources than it is to defend the decision of taking a chance on an unproven creative entity. This mentality is what keeps the Cannes crew in business and 45-year-old creative directors in expensive jeans.
At this higher level, the argument against crowdsourcing often comes down to the idea that experienced people are professionally cheating themselves by working on spec. They’re devaluing creative work across the board by offering their expertise for free. A good chef wouldn’t prepare three dishes and let you choose which one you wanted to pay for so why would you offer your work for nothing but a chance at getting paid?
This argument is new to the ad world but not to the business world. Venture capitalists have a saying that “the idea is worthless.” Most will say “we invest in teams, not in ideas.” History backs this up as well. There is virtually no marketplace for ideas but companies are routinely acquired for their teams and resources. When Facebook bought Friendfeed, they had no use for the product but needed the team to help them develop the Facebook news feed, which is now the most popular part of the most successful private site in the history of the Internet.
The argument for participating in crowdsourcing ranges from “it’s worth a shot for the prize” to a claim that getting your work produced or applied is the only real reward for a creative that isn’t just working for a buck. As a creative, are you intellectually cheating yourself by not taking advantage of the best opportunities to have your work go into production? Is sitting at your desk pumping out banner ads that do nothing buy contribute to your savings account morally superior to your peers that participate in briefs that otherwise would never reach their desk?
Then there’s the question of quality. Those opposed to crowdsourcing will tell you that “you pay for what you get” and you will suffer worse quality of work if you only rely on crowdsourcing. This seems to be more of a hunch than a fact. In my opinion, Victor and Spoils Dish Network campaign stands up against any broadcast work from a top ten agency this year, though I have no idea who is responsible for the concept. On the other hand, Doritos has really put their creative in the hands of huge consumer creative group and their results are routinely mundane. I won’t even bother to start rattling off examples of expensive ad campaigns that have done nothing but hurt their brands over the past 12 months. You win some you lose some, I guess. There certainly isn’t a formula for creative success.
So I had to find out for myself. Is crowdsourcing really the end of the world as we know it or a democratized process that is a natural evolution for creative services?
On to the grand experiment…
To give this things a run, I committed to allowing the designers of 99 Designs to create a logo for me to put on consulting invoices and a placeholder Web site. Hardly a prestigious honor but the logo would at least be applied in some way. To top it off, there would be a prize of around $200 for the chosen designer, which is less than I’ve ever paid a designer for any project. In fairness, I would treat every submission with just as much attention and feedback as I’d give a dedicated designer and I would answer any questions that came in. I’d basically try to treat it like a normal project with a detailed brief and everything just to see what the bottom of the crowdsourcing pyramid could produce.
This proved to be quite a task when 77 designers submitted work, but I fought through it. Even as many of the designers were obviously ripping each other off.
I then thought I would ask friends and colleagues, most of which touch creative services professionally in some way, to help me narrow it down to eight so I could use the voting tool on 99 Designs to pick a winner.
Boy was that a mistake.
Asking my personal network to participate in a crowdsourcing experiment was met with very long email threads, especially from people that wanted to inquire about this being an experiment that would result in me never hiring them again. While there was one or two instances of positive feedback, the rest was almost universally against the very notion of exploring this concept. A couple people even offered to best the competition for free, which pretty much defeated the purpose. Also, out of about 18 thoughtful responses, most of which refused to vote for a design, only one submission got two votes and it was effectively cancelled out by a specific rant against that design by one of the non-voting malcontents.
So the experiment was cut short with the only real conclusion to be drawn being that the majority of my respected friends and colleagues despise the concept of crowdsourcing creative on almost every level. Some to the point where they could barely articulate it apart from knowing in their hearts that it’s wrong.
My personal experience wasn’t quite as one-sided. I found the people that submitted designs to be just as easy to work with as designers who are being paid $125 or more an hour, although their work wasn’t nearly as consistently good as the people I use directly for client work. Although I wasn’t really paying out of pocket, I still thought that the work was at least deserving of what was being paid. The market for this level of service is probably as flawed as the system itself since a much higher quality of work could be achieved by going to a site like Behance and finding a good designer who charges a fair rate, which would probably only barely double the cost. If you can’t pay $500 for a platform for your visual identity, I probably wouldn’t classify you as a business.
However, my larger conclusion about crowdsourcing as a concept was quite different. I don’t, in fact, find anything fundamentally wrong with crowdsourcing except when the primary motivation is driving costs down, which does, most certainly, drive quality down as well. You do still, in theory, get what you pay for up to perhaps the boutique agency level and then you start paying a premium to keep the larger machine running. I realize that, in a sense, I do a lot of crowdsourcing as a consultant when I “bounce” projects off different people to both gauge their interest, initial impressions and their costs. It may be to a much smaller and more filtered group due to my previous experience with them but it’s far from the blind faith that a brand puts in a large agency that is constantly churning industry talent.
The rise of crowdsourcing can be attributed to two primary factors: good people being out of work and a slow realization that traditional creative hubs aren’t delivering value consistently. An economic comeback will be a huge blow to companies that are hanging their hat on crowdsourcing but an overall evolution of the management and thinking of top creative employers is possibly the only thing that will sink it. Until then, it’s you against the crowd and you’re probably right if you think it’s an unfair fight.