Judy Hu, GE's global director of advertising and branding, on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last week, discussed a new effort by GE to crowdsource ideas for how to "avoid the lame and embrace the awesome" in digital media. Over the next four days, GE collected 60 suggestions, ranging from ideas for ad campaigns to product concepts.
The effort is the latest example of a worldwide brand testing the crowdsourcing waters. The move has put the spotlight back on the ongoing debate about the value of such efforts -- including to creators.
For several years now, companies large and small have experimented with using the wisdom and labor of crowds for creative services from ads to logos to product ideas. To its proponents, these are merely early efforts at using far-flung digital collaboration to democratize the marketing world. But detractors see a wolf in sheep's clothing as companies seize an opportunity to get spec work done on the cheap, along the way commoditizing the backbones of the ad world: creativity and ideas.
"At [its heart it's] a very powerful theoretical concept," said Shiv Singh, social media lead at Razorfish. "It's driven by the proven concept that a large group of people is better than a single expert."
Companies like Dell and Starbucks have set up sites for collecting product and service ideas from customers. Netflix last year offered a $1 million prize for the development of a better collaborative-filtering algorithm for movie recommendations. On the advertising side, PepsiCo's Mountain Dew let crowds design packaging, select agencies and determine media placements.
More commonly, crowdsourcing has been used for specific creative output.
Companies like Crowdspring and Zooppa have sprung up to organize communities of creators willing to compete for work. General Mills recently crowdsourced to get creative for its Pillsbury Crescent Rolls product, challenging Zooppa's 63,000 members to create broadcast-quality 15-second videos that would inspire moms to make "crescent dog" snacks. The winning video, out of 80 entries, "Ninja Mom," depicts a mother transformed into a ninja who whips up a tasty lunch for her daughter. The creator, Peter Macomber, got $10,000.
These moves have convinced some that the agency world needs to change, too.
Victors & Spoils launched last fall to capitalize on the crowdsourcing phenomenon by organizing these activities for clients. It recently added Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners' vet Jon Bond as a strategic partner , who after being hired compared traditional shops to the Titanic and V&S to an iceberg about to sink their businesses. V&S, which has a network of 750 creatives, does work for Virgin America, Dish Network and General Mills, among others.
There's an opportunity for new shops to apply strategy to a field that's been very tactical to date, said Karl Long, founder of crowdsourcing consulting firm called Tiny Levers. "I don't think people realize how powerful the crowd can be when engaged on working on a good idea," he said.
Yet crowdsourcing rubs many in the creative world the wrong way. Companies like V&S, they say, commoditize the creative product. Leaving aside the mere $10,000 fee Macomber received, General Mills got 79 other creative concepts for free.
And GE only states it will "work out an arrangement" with those who submit ideas that pique its interest, while warning there's a good possibility it was already developed by others, i.e, no payment is coming.
"It's the equivalent of discount sushi," said Scott Belsky, founder of the Behance Network, which matches creatives with projects. "At the time, it seems like a good idea. They do it a couple of times and they don't do it again."
To Belsky, these crowdsourcing initiatives are just another term for "spec contest." Doing spec work, while sometimes necessary, is a one-way ticket to commoditization and a race to the bottom on prices, he said. Behance does not run creative contests, according to Belsky. Instead, it puts creative portfolios on its site and elsewhere, like MTV and the Art Director's Club, with the goal of fostering direct connections between clients and creatives. That's the requirement for good work, he added.
"So far, it's been one-sided," he said. "It's the companies realizing they have the opportunity to capitalize on the masses. It blatantly disregards the value of relationships."
Those at crowdsourcing companies disagree, of course. Crowdspring has 63,000 graphic and visual designers on its platform, with clients frequently using it to get logos completed. CEO Ross Kimbarovsky said he doesn't shy away from the spec-work charge.
"It is speculative work," he said. "We've been very open about that." Yet Kimbarovsky holds that spec work is the foundation of many businesses, including design. His logic: would designers rather spend time responding to vague RFPs or actually doing their craft? On average, 50 percent of designers used through Crowdspring do subsequent work for the same client, he said. Small businesses he added, are using such services when previously they couldn't afford or didn't have access to such creative.
"It's cost-effective, but that's not why they're doing it," said Wil Merritt, Zooppa's CEO. "They're doing it because it's fresh thinking and they're getting lots of good ideas."