Unilever goes creative crowdsourcing

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more depressing advertising story. I want to be outraged, but the problem is that it’s just so overwhelmingly logical from Unilever’s perspective.

Unilever has announced that it will use IdeaBounty to generate its next campaign for Peperami. It’s fired its agency, Lowe London, because according to Matt Burgess, managing director of the Unilever division that owns Peperami, “Lowe has done great work on the account over the years. They’ve created a strong creative vehicle that’s extremely well-defined and very portable. But their great work has created a problem for them, because it makes Peperami the obvious candidate for crowdsourcing.”

The agency’s done such a good job, they’re not needed any more. I want to be outraged, but they’re so obviously right.

Because we do exactly the same thing ourselves. How many times has an agency used a senior team to crack a ‘big’ idea, produce the first couple of executions that establish the framework, then handed it on to juniors to roll out? We do it all the time, and we do it proudly. It’s responsible business and efficient use of resource. And so, unfortunately, it is for Unilever.

There’s more.

“We want to get the creative back from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ again. The best way to increase our chances was to increase the amount of creatives exposed to this brief. This is the overriding driver.”

Again, I want to be outraged. The problem is that there aren’t enough creatives exposed to the brief? Surely only a client could think quantity more important than quality when applying creative minds. But, once again, we do it ourselves. How many times have we stood before a client in a pitch, or even just a significant presentation, and told them that this is such an important/interesting/last-ditch project that we’ve put ‘all the agency’s resources to work on it’? We say it all the time, believe it to be true, and so teach clients that more is merrier.

But we cling to the belief that it doesn’t happen in other ‘professional’ industries. We like to point out that it wouldn’t happen with doctors. You might get a second opinion, maybe, but the key to arriving at a diagnosis isn’t just throwing more doctors at the problem. Which surely proves that the focused eye of experienced experts is much more valuable than just randomly having more people look at it (whether it be a medical or an advertising problem)?

But it’s a different issue, because when diagnosing an illness you want the right answer, of which there is only one (and, importantly, one that can be proven to be right). But when you’re developing a creative idea you want the most interesting answer, of which there will almost certainly be many (none of which can be proven to be right). So the parallel is flawed.

But the real issue is time and cost. The reason you wouldn’t get a dozen doctors to diagnose the cause of your sore throat and shortness of breath is that it would take too long and cost too much. You’re in some discomfort, you want someone to tell you why and give you something to make it stop. So you go to a doctor you trust, pay them for their expertise and do what they tell you because it’s reasonably immediate and reasonably affordable.

But if it were practical to get twelve doctors in one room, all listening to you describe your symptoms, all being presented with your vitals and then all giving a diagnosis, well that would work. You’d get access to a broad range of experience, a good chance of someone having dealt with your issue before and possibly even the confidence of seeing that the majority of doctors are all of a similar mind. And getting that diagnosis wouldn’t take any longer than visiting your regular GP. Getting treatment started wouldn’t take any longer either. And if as a bonus you only had to pay a fraction of what you currently pay your GP, then that’s a win/win/win.

And they’re the two barriers that crowdsourcing services remove – time and cost. You’ve got the same timeframe, reduced cost and more ideas. How could a Unilever not see this is a good thing?

We also throw up the argument that to develop great work you need people who are intimately familiar with the brand, and to whom the brand’s language is second-nature. This closeness, we argue, is what enables these people to deliver consistently outstanding work. But then in a completely contradictory stance we argue that the essence of any great brand should be able to be distilled to one word, any great idea captured in a simple statement and any decent brief distilled to a single-page. Which really means that any strong creative mind should be able to develop good work for such a brand. So again, you can see the client’s logic for a crowdsourced solution. They’ve defined the brand, established the campaign idea and have a clear brief for the execution. You don’t need familiarity with the brand, which means you don’t need an ongoing relationship with a good agency.

I also don’t believe we can claim any great surprise. Clients have been building towards this for a long time. I’ve been in the industry 20 years and most marketing departments have been crowdsourcing for at least that long.

Because for most clients, crowdsourcing is what focus groups are for. Put eight people in a room, give them a half-baked new product idea and ask them to redesign it. Then slavishly do whatever they suggest because it’s ‘what consumers want’. Change the format, the flavour or the font. Ask them what the packaging should look like, what cause the brand should support and who should be cast in the ads. Ignore the opinions of the experienced professionals and take guidance sourced from the interested amateurs. That’s crowdsourcing.

And unfortunately, this may give us the strongest clue as to how this will evolve. I’d suggest that just like the research industry, we have two choices available to us. We either become ‘coordinators’ or ‘sages’.

The ‘coordinators’ will basically be agency structures that provide a framework for producing stuff. Help establish the task, source a few ideas, get told what to produce and get on with it, much like the research companies that do little more than book the room, make sure the sausage rolls are warm, put the consideration in the envelopes, summarise the verbatims, bind the document and find the amusing clip art for the powerpoint presentation.

The ‘sages’ will be the agencies (or individuals) that help clients make sense of complexity and deliver ideas that generate great leaps forward. These agencies will be at the heart of defining the problem, identifying the opportunity and create the work that changes fortunes, much like the researchers who help clients makes sense of the world, delivering clarity, insight and actionable opportunity.

And of course the ‘sages’ will have value and get paid adequately. While the ‘coordinators’ will be commoditised and have to fight for every dollar.

Which unfortunately, once again must make perfect sense in the Unilever world. As a client, why wouldn’t I choose between these two options as the situation warrants? I want to be angry and rail against the injustice, just as I want to be able to mount an argument that suggests the whole argument for creative crowdsourcing is flawed. But I just don’t think that from a client perspective it is.

I don’t believe that crowdsourcing is likely to deliver a great, fortune-changing idea for a brand. I do believe that working closely with a collection of smart people (possibly within an agency) might.  Because that’s been my experience.  But I just can’t find a way to explain to a company like Unilever why that’s the case.

Unilever goes creative crowdsourcing

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