The New Creative Block: Sites Break Down Barriers

NEW YORK “Change advertising forever.” That modest challenge is the name and tagline of a cleverly animated YouTube video that shows a bored, sleepy TV viewer morphing into a director. The video, advertised in small, creative-oriented print publications, and on Facebook and MySpace, directs users to changeadvertisingforever.com, actually the home of user-generated ad site GeniusRocket.com. Mark Walsh, CEO of the company—as well as co-founder of Air America Radio and an Internet strategist on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign—says when the video was launched some six months ago, it garnered 20,000 responses. Nearly 10 percent of respondents were converted to registered users, giving the start-up a network of ad makers for those seeking an alternative to Madison Avenue.

Genius Rocket is one of a handful of recently launched online companies hoping to capitalize on the popularity of user-generated advertising and viral video. These online platforms, which also include Brickfish.com, launched in February, and XLNTads.com, which went live about two months ago, give companies a chance to receive consumer feedback and cost-effective advertising via branded videos likely to be shared with friends. Participating companies range from small start-ups and nonprofits to Kodak, Nestlé, iVillage, Samsung and Givenchy.

The name of the game, of course, is consumer engagement, and it’s big business. “Seventy-five percent of all content on the Web is user-generated. There’s a big demand for it,” says Reggie Bradford, CEO of Vitrue, which provides social networking tools to online companies. “It’s enabling word of mouth … and allows a level of participation with a brand’s assets on an à la carte basis.”

The 2007 Super Bowl, when advertisers Doritos and Chevy turned their most expensive media buy of the year over to the public, demonstrated that some marketers are interested in user-generated content. Many in the advertising industry dismiss its staying power, but research companies such as PQ Media project that annual spending on consumer-generated media will reach $757 million by 2010.

“There’s an ever-increasing demand for advertising content … for Web use,” says XLNTads CEO Neil Perry, whose background includes marketing roles at McDonald’s and Monster.com. “The days of consumers being enamored with someone [on a commercial] who drives a beautiful car [and] parks it on the cliff … are over. [It no longer] speaks to the masses.”

All three sites attract a mix of users, from enthusiasts and ad students to those who already work in advertising. They also all have applications that allow users to send their videos to friends on and off the site.

Brickfish, the granddaddy of these sites, has a cost-per-engagement model for advertisers, with engagement meaning any ad entry, user review of that entry and the votes its receives. It also offers clients data including demographics. Additionally, each entry has a map that shows how many views each entry has received and where that entry has been e-mailed. All ads posted are viewed by moderators; ads deemed offensive by users can also be flagged.

Brickfish also sponsors in-house campaigns, such as its photography shootout, where users were invited to submit photos (in no particular category). As of press time, the page had more than 2 million engagements, according to a company rep.

Users can win rewards for entries, reviews and votes, and for sharing content online. Rewards, which can take the form of cash, include the chance to win clothes and scholarships.

When Givenchy asked the Brickfish community to create a slogan for its Very Irresistible fragrance last August, it offered the winner a trip to New York for two to meet spokesmodel Liv Tyler. There were 200,000 interactions with the brand during the 45-day campaign, according to a company rep, and a total of 798 entries.

Shahi Ghanem, chairman and CEO of Brickfish, says, “You can see your reach all over the world. … The message is jumping multiple sites all because [the participants] are promoting themselves and the brand.”

Walsh at Genius Rocket says, “Anyone can join” the Genius Rocket community, but notes they made a deliberate attempt to attract people who work at small agencies or recently graduated from art school. “We do have the 16-year-old in the basement with a whole lot of time on his hands, but we try hard to reach out to people who have creative experience,” he says.

Genius Rocket posts what it calls “Requests for Brilliance” on its site—in essence, client briefs and marketing objectives, and offers cash prizes to all winning entries. (Amounts vary depending on the client.) The cost for posting an open brief is $5,000, says Walsh. He adds that the company is floating some additional models, such as a private competition option that will engage only with certain users (chosen by the client); this could cost clients $10,000-25,000. Another is a Genius Rocket consultation service that would pre-select top choices for clients, which Walsh says might cost upwards of $50,000.

Users can work alone or create “launch teams.” Each entry shows how many people are working on the project, how many teams, and the number of ads. The work is “loosely” vetted before going up, according to a company rep; users and friends vote to create a ranking, and the client chooses the winner.

In addition to cash awards for winners, Genius Rocket hands out $1,000-5,000 monthly to the work its “Commissioner of Coolness” finds especially creative. “It keeps the creative community engaged and hungry for cash, so to speak,” says Walsh.

“We benefitted in a number of ways” from Genius Rocket, says Adam Forest Huttler, executive director of Structured Atlas, which supports artist communities nationwide. “All of the Genius Rocket members learned about us. And we got three great videos.” The organization, he adds, had tried to set up its own user-gen contest site, but the endeavor proved too expensive to develop.

XLNTads.com signs up clients with a subscription-base model and three-month contracts that include pre-launch planning and 60 days of live contest activity at a cost of $75,000. Rewards can be as much as $20,000 should the winning ad end up on TV, and $5,000 for each execution used officially online. This week, Nestlé is launching an assignment it hopes will result in a 30-second TV ad for its 100 Grand bar; should there be a winner, he/she will receive $20,000. Clients provide brand assets such as images or jingles for the creatives to use.

For their expense, says Perry, clients have their work pre-screened by the XLNTads marketing team, which organizes the ads so that the “nugget” ideas rise to the top. The site also has “community managers” who maintain dialogues with standout creators in different categories such as animation and long-form video, so that XLNTads can contact them if brands have specific needs. In some cases, the site will even give a creator seed money and a head start so a brand will have something on the site right away that’s reflective of what they’re looking for.

Perry says they have a special interest in budding industry players, from wedding videographers to ad students. “There is tremendous talent in Des Moines, Iowa, or Madison, Wis.,” says Perry. “These are people who don’t have access to major brands, major corporations to get their work showcased. It’s hard to get a job at DDB New York if you live in Des Moines.”

Alan Gerson, president of Vertical Branding, a direct-to-consumer marketer, is launching a contest on XLNTads this week for ZorbEEZ, a super-absorbent cloth currently advertised via infomercial. He hopes he’ll see work he can use for TV and online campaigns. A former marketing executive at the Home Shopping Network, Gerson says, “As president of marketing at [HSN], I learned the most powerful messages were the testimonials. People believe other folks more than they believe slickly produced advertising. [And] we believe in the wisdom of crowds. People who self-select themselves and like this type of product can be a huge research and development engine.”

Ad agency executives are not convinced that the interest in consumer-gen ads will last. John Butler, partner and ecd of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, asks, “Is consumer generated the white seamless of today? [Shooting ads on white backgrounds became popular after Chiat\Day’s Nynex campaign in the late ’80s.] A lot of people are using it as a technique instead of an idea.”

Some participating clients agree that user-gen won’t replace the strategic thinking provided by ad agencies. “That’s one of the trade-offs,” says Gerson. “But what you’re getting is perhaps the consumer perspective and a voice you just can’t hear at big advertising agencies.”

“We’ll have to see how it all plays out,” adds David Lubars, chairman and CCO of BBDO North America. “That’s not the big issue for agencies. [The issue] is how do you keep your clients ahead of their competition. Time will reveal if it’s a credible thing or not.”