Crowdsourcing a Discussion on Crowdsourcing: Agency Nil, Anomaly and Victors & Spoils

Occasionally a topic comes up that inspires a longer post with commentary and viewpoints beyond my own. With so much talk recently about crowdsourcing it seemed like a good time to really tackle the issue. I’m positively thrilled to have input from some of the top minds in advertising and marketing communications contribute to this post. I want to thank Johnny Vulkan, Cliff Lewis, Evan Fry & Aaron Bateman who provided thoughtful commentary to this post as well as those who I have linked to for adding their insight to the discussion. I encourage you to print it out, bookmark, and of course share it with others.



It's all his fault

It's all his fault

If it seems like you’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately, it’s because you have.  Crowdsourcing is one of those buzz words, like synergy or viral that people are throwing around now to cover just about anything.  According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in a June 2006 Wired magazine article by Jeff Howe.

My first experience with the concept came when I participated in The Beast, the Alternate Reality Game tied to the Steven Spielberg movie, A.I., back in 2001. As a member of the 6,000+ strong  Cloudmakers group, I joined fans from across the world to solve puzzles and interact within this fantastic fictional world. We worked together to create a ‘collective detective’ that competed against the puzzle makers, not against each other, and it was brilliant.

And now crowdsourcing is very much in vogue. Howe took the concept and ran with it, turning it into a book, as did James Surowiecki with his tome, The Wisdom of Crowds.


Crowdsourcing is gaining steam within the advertising agency community at the same time as another issue becomes more pressing – the broken agency business model. Shops big and small, from a variety of industries (ad, PR, digital) are all looking to do things differently. Earlier this year Agency Nil took a bold stand with their “Will work for all it’s worth” manifesto. That was followed by the recent launch of Victors & Spoils, which somewhat boldly bills itself as The world’s first creative (ad) agency built on crowdsourcing principles.

PSFK has more on Agency Nil here, and George  Parker sounds off on Victors & Spoils via PSFK here. Other great takes include Amadeo Plaza of Crayon on V&S and Contagious takes a look at V&S here. BBH Labs on Agency Nil here and here. You can read my interview with Alex Bogusky of CP+B and Hank Leber, founder of Agency Nil, here regarding agency business models. The Proffesional Artists League is taking a pretty strong stand against Work-for-Hire which can be interpreted as crowdsourcing. Take a look at their POV here.

AdAge is currently running a poll (through Nov. 6) asking if crowdsourcing is a threat to agencies.


I’m excited to see really smart people like the ones at AN and V&S make bold moves like this. Creative industries need this sort of thinking to keep them from stagnating. But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re going to crowdsource, why does the client even need a middle man like V&S? Mountain Dew seems to have asked that question and come up with the answer: They don’t.

As part of their Dewmocracy campaign, the fizzy beverage is crowdsourcing their new TV ad. From the website:

Mountain Dew asked their biggest fans to band together and create the next DEW, from the flavors to the TV ads. Now’s your chance to get involved.

1) Create A DEW Spot
Direct, shoot and edit a 12-second DEW spot that shows off your skills.

2) Upload it
Your 12-second video must be submitted here by 11.30.09

3) Cross Your Fingers
Approved videos will be added to the gallery to be voted on by DEW fans. When voting closes, the six leading submissions will be revealed. In the end, three finalists will be selected to receive funding for a :15 TV DEW spot.

Once again the indespensible PSFK has more here. From the PSFK piece:

The brand insists this initiative will not impact its relationship with agency of record BBDO Worldwide, who has been involved with Dewmocracy from the start and will continue to play an important role in the process.

I don’t think this is a threat to BBDO, but is it a threat to V&S?

Apparently this whole crowdsource thing is a big hit with the junk food crowd as Snickers is in on the action as well. [Disclosure, my agency, Taylor, does some work with Mars, but is not involved with this project]. Another crowdsource effort comes from Genesis Today, who will award $10,000 for a good Social Media idea.

After the jump, insight from principals at Agency Nil, Victors & Spoils and Anomaly as well as agency biz model gadfly Agency Future.


Here’s what Cliff Lewis, Executive Producer and Creative Resource Director at Agency Nil, had to say about crowdsourcing:

“Crowdsourcing” is the new creative mantra, the “curator” the new CD. The

The Agency Nil mantra

The Agency Nil mantra

perception is that the crowd will give you the answer at a fraction of the cost. That may well turn out to be the case – occasionally and for the right task. I don’t believe the crowd will always get it right but I do think the crowd has an important role when used correctly. It forces agencies into a new era of real collaboration and to re-evaluate their process and their value.

Established agencies have to come to terms with giving up some territory and realise that actually, the crowd is an extremely attractive resource.

Shops like AgencyNil are well positioned with fluidity and access to quality talent. With clients attracted to their low overhead value proposition, they may find themselves affordable brand “curators”.

Agency Nil is looking to utilize crowdsourcing themselves with a call to action for an agency manifesto video.

 Evan Fry, CCO of Victors & Spoils, shared his thoughts as well:

My fave from V&S's crowdsourced logo contest Question: How does crowdsourcing directly by brands affect established agencies, and how does it affect shops like V&S?

 Evan Fry: A brand going straight to the crowd with a given marketing assignment is exciting for everyone. It’s exciting for established ad shops because it’s interesting and fascinating to see what the community is going to come up with. Ideally it’s not a threat to established shops because they realize that their strengths lie in strategy and wholistic brand handling and product solutions, the whole thing.

But if what the crowd is coming up with is satisfying for the brand and it’s costing less, then it could probably be stressful for established agencies if a given brand decides to crowdsource everything and pull an account. As far as V&S is concerned, brands going straight to the crowd fascinates us too. If they do it to a point where they feel 100% satisfied with their crowd’s output, they wouldn’t need us just like they wouldn’t need an established shop.

Because we too have strengths in strategy and complete brand/company guidance. But for us right now it’s testament to just how compelling it is. The more brands that do it, the more we think crowdsourcing’s current pluses and minuses will be exposed. We believe we can minimize the minuses while plusing the pluses.

Eyecube: What role can a shop like V&S play in collaborating with consumers on behalf of brands?

EF: We offer the role of feeling just like a regular ad agency for their relationship and points of contact. We feel like an ad agency. But we work with the crowd, guide the crowd, keep them on strategy and on brand for the client. And deliver to the client a shaped crowd solution. So we play the role of the familiar trusted agency partner for the brand. While using the power of the people and the magic that can bring to deliver the most relevant solutions where their customer base and culture at large feels ownership and love because they helped make it.

Eyecube: Does crowdsourcing directly with the public work better for some aspects rather than others? For instance, are you more likely to get better copy or art from consumers?

EF: I think it’s too early to tell. And as we adapt and evolve the early interpretations of how crowdsourcing currently works we can build in ways for anything to work really smoothly. Right now, the existing models seem to work best when you carve up tasks so that they are fairly straightforward. Those kinds of things can work pretty well. If it gets to multiple levels with a complex task, you have to have someone with the vision for the project and the brand wrangling it all and making sure each piece fits seamlessly.

So right now, things like logos work pretty well. Or really pointed tasks such as name a car color or code a simple website can work great. Putting together an entire product launch or something like a pitch or helping a company “get into social media” requires shaping and direction. But we’re figuring this all out as we go just like everybody else. We hope to help it all evolve and help the whole thing be better understood, better used and better leveraged.


New Biz Model Vets

Johnny Vulkan of groundbreaking agency Anomaly  is no stranger to unique business models. Here he shares his thoughts on crowdsourcing as an agency model:

I think it’s an exciting experiment and the calibre of the people involved is great so I expect good things. As a company who launched with a desire to test new ways of working, creating and making a business from that I obviously instinctively commend any group of people who do the same.

[Eyecube: Can crowdsourcing work as a business model?]…the very honest answer is I don’t know. I think crowd-sourcing as a behavior is a wonderful by-product of what technology has enabled us to do. As a continuous feedback loop ‘the crowd’ provides insight, data, and a vocal audience for any company to be accountable to. It’s raising the bar on everything and that’s a good thing. Smart businesses and their brands are already harnessing that by conversing in an open way, modifying their take on customer service and feeding that back into the products and services they make. There have also been examples where crowd-sourcing has been used to create communications back to the crowd – Doritos being the most written about. 

I don’t think it works for everything though and curation, editing and definitive personal opinion are vital. I think the recent ‘elect the jury’ concept is a case in point. Jimmy Wales and Clay Shirkey were languishing in the lower leagues while the top few names on the list were Global Creative Directors of large networks the last time I checked. Is this the wisdom of crowds or a response to company all staff email that creates that effect? Things get gamed and in the process some bits of genius may get overlooked. The future of the communications industry may be a more interesting one if people like Jimmy and Clay got to voice their opinions in that forum but that will take an individual decision to elevate them if they are unwilling to use the front page of Wikipedia or the NYU database to help them.

There have been experiments with co-written books, co-written films and co-written experiences that have sourced widely but they are yet to beat the creative vision of ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Shawshank Redemption’ or even ‘CSI’. We will see something soon I’m sure but it will be a rarity rather than a normality.

I realize this isn’t the ‘crowd sourced’ agency model but I think it is a watch out. Volume doesn’t always equate to quality and you are frequently faced with the overwhelming paradox of choice. There are also legal mine fields to navigate. For example at Chiat if someone sent in an Absolut ad idea it was immediately returned as if a concept ran that was similar there was a chance of legal action. You can say that is not ‘open’ and short sighted – but while the communications industry has embraced open source the legal industry is still a little way further behind.

It’s also hard to do with clients who require NDAs. We have several in place covering everything from new beverages to new technology… we can’t even tell everyone in our own office, let alone take the conversation broader.

But, it is going to be right for some people and for some occasions and if there are enough of them it is going to be a great business. We’ll use it, as will others, but it won’t become a default option. The future is not about absolutes. There are going to be many models, many paths and many businesses. There is no one size fits all but I do think the latest ventures are fascinating ones and they have the talent and will to succeed so I suspect they will.

The CEO of Agency Nil, sees things through the lens of his time at P&G:

People seem to be wowed about what Mountain Dew are doing….but isn’t this process what marketers have always done?

Consider this….P&G poll consumers in huge numbers, have focus groups, have fictitious products in baskets of goods, show different ads to would be consumers, use data in multiple ways in an effort to get into the purchasing intent and likely demand of would be consumers…and to create the best product, packaging, commercials, smells, flavors…you name it….they plug into consumers throughout the process….it starts at the concept stage and rolls all the way through from packaging to consumption….they have ALWAYS done this….

What is Mountain Dew doing that it hasn’t done before? There seem to be three key differences – 1) they are using more consumers than usual while calling it ‘crowd sourcing’ instead of marketing….2) they are making the process public….and 3) they are paying an agency to produce the creative for the crowd sourcing Dewmocracy angle instead of the creative work for the new product itself….is there a difference?

Aaron Bateman runs the Agency Future blog and works for Advance. He’s a student of agency business models and is an astute observer of the changes taking place in the industry. Here’s what he had to say regarding crowdsourcing and agency models:

Eyecube: Should we judge V&S and Agency Nil based on their success, or should we simply applaud them for having the courage to try something new?

Aaron Bateman: Both, I say. It takes guts to do what they’re doing. Not to mention complete conviction. But the litmus test is if they’re still around in a year, two years etc. My personal feeling is that they are agencies for the here and now. I have reservations about the longevity of the model, but if they get the business basics right they’ll probably be able to stick around.

Ultimately the best agencies – the ones that endure societal and economic fluctuations – are those that can adapt to their environment (to paraphrase someone a lot smarter than me). The closing of Cliff Freeman perhaps demonstrates what happens to agencies that capture the zeitgeist but then maybe don’t evolve.

 Eyecube: What’s the one problem with crowdsourcing that people aren’t addressing?

AB: I have a very personal opinion on this that is at odds with most of the people I’ve talked to about the subject. Essentially, I wonder where genuine visionaries fit in in a crowdsourced future. I think there’s a danger that an over-reliance on the crowd can be detrimental to the careers of genuinely truly creative souls.

When faced with thirty creative solutions that riff around the same idea, how many ad buyers would be brave enough to pick the one that’s completely off the wall? I guess I’m saying there’s a risk of some kind of collective groupthink that marginalises the real talent.

Eyecube: What do you think about Mtn Dew and Snickers going straight to consumers to crowdsource commercials, skipping agencies altogether?

AB: A great way of generating one-off ads/campaigns that cut through and generate buzz. My question is what happens next. Do brands crowdsource strategic partners too? I wonder if there’s a danger of a brand losing a sense of direction in some kind of constant quest to be flavour of the month. Of course, the idea presents a challenge to agencies already under pressure to justify their fees. If it helps sort the wheat from the chaff, then great.

Here’s a great little piece over at Gizmodo which illustrates the benefits of a strong client-agency realtionship. Steve Jobs thought the name iMac was horrendous, and in fact had come up with his own idea for a name that apparently was so bad, the entire universe would have collapsed in on itself had it been used. But ultimately Jobs trusted TBWA/Chiat/Day and went with iMac. I just don’t think crowdsourcing is going to achieve that level of trust.

For my money, crowdsourcing is an exciting development, but as noted above by some of the contributors, it’s not a magic bullet. I think it can be used to engage consumers effectively and if costs are an issue it can help there. But I think it will be very difficult to crowdsource brilliance. And of course the flip side of that is that brilliance may be run over by the ‘wisdom’ of crowds as genius is rarely seen as such by the majority when they are first exposed to it.

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  • Edward Cotton

    Can the crowd be brilliant?

    It’s a great question, but there are so many variables, it’s a tough one to argue.

    The Doritos Superbowl spots done by the “crowd” ranked no 1 on the USA Today poll, were they brilliant? Perhaps to a poll of creative direction they weren’t but, according to the “crowd” they were!

    If the incentive is high enough and you carefully select the participants in the crowd, there’s no reason why brilliance can’t emerge.

  • Rick


    It’s a fair point, and in the ‘million monkeys typing for million years produce Shakespeare’ philosophy I think you could get great stuff from crowds. But you’re going to get great stuff more consistently from really smart, focused individuals.

  • Fergus

    Can’t individuals within crowds be “really smart and focused”

    The crowd for me doesn’t change much other than the size of the resource. You still need account management, someone to steer the party and to make final decisions. I like what V&S are doing. Think they have it right in that brands still need to manage campaigns. Agencies are the value add. It has been happening in the tech world for years with site like elance. You can use them like a tool but you still need people to engage directly with the brand and manage the team (the crowd)

  • Rick


    I think the potential problem is that a really sharp idea gets dulled by the crowd. Ideas start to coelesce around an idea and it gets harder to come up with a radical solution.

    For instance, V&S are crowdsourcing their logo. I saw some great stuff, but the designs were starting to look the same. Now, maybe that’s based on the brief, but once one idea is out there, you start to get variations on the theme rather than more original work.

  • PatsMc

    Great post, it’s rare to find so many genuinely nuanced and balanced angles on crowdsourcing when there are so many passionate opinions for and against. What the various responses brought home to me is that there is a huge spectrum of ways in which agencies can embrace “crowd-sourcing” from simply being more open to external voices and partners (something we could all be better at) to co-creating with the crowd (Purefold from RSA is a fascination model here) to shaping and airing crowd-created content.

    My personal wish with crowd-sourcing is that somehow we find ways to make it more than just “mass-sourcing”-giving ourselves hundreds and thousands of options. I’d like to see more initiatves that allow the crowd to co-create a fascinating, ever-evolving whole rather than lots of, to your point, variations on a theme. But that seems to happen most when someone has the individual brilliance to design the software, conceptural framework or data mining exercise that brings multiple voices together in new ways…

  • Rick

    Great point Pats. To me the exciting opportunity with crowdsourcing is finding several people who are geniuses at one thing, then stringing them together to create an amazing whole. Far more interesting that a boatload of average options to sift through. Thanks for your comments.

  • Conrad Lisco

    Great post Rick. Agree with Edward, that brilliance can emerge. But his qualification is the right one – “carefully select the participants in the crowd.” I think we’ll see very quickly that there are things great for crowdsourcing and things that just aren’t. Very curious to see how folks like Nil and V&S fare.

  • David Wiggs

    We have a tendency in this business to label everything. (After all, the advertising business was built on “New & Improved!) Absolutes rule. Digital will kill Traditional. Tivo will kill TV. Crowdsourcing, as the new shape-shifting killer app, whiz-bang, thing-a-mafloppy will kill the ad biz.

    The new thing for advertising should be to focus on solving the client’s problem and quit worrying so damn much about how to label, tag, compartmentalize, catalog and write a book about every new ground-breaking thing.

    The echo chamber is deafening.

  • Rick Liebling

    Conrad, you’re right to emphasize that point, I agree with you (and Edward)

    Well said David.

  • Fisher

    We’ve all heard the ‘Infinite Monkey Theorem’. The basic idea being that if an infinite number of monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters – one of them will ultimately produce Shakespeare. I believe that the same holds true for this concept of relying on anonymous contributors to create communication solutions. If you bring enough people into the process, you might get lucky and stumble on something that can be used as a creative solution, but I would strongly argue that there is absolutely no genius to it.

    When the job pays peanuts, you get monkeys.

  • Charles Frith

    It’s too early to tell isn’t it? However my gut instinct tells me that crowd sourcing feels like an indispensable part of the creative marketing mix. Mash ups with agency produced work, remixed, integrated, stand alone whatever it takes but to ignore customers who are predisposed towards a product and are prepared to put some creative effort in feels like neglect. What remains to be seen is if the production and creative skills for crowd sourced ideas will improve over time.

    Again, everything points towards the answer being yes. It’s not either or is it?

  • Fergus

    Rick a fair point.. You see it in psychology too. Ask chickens as individual to find ways to search for seed and they all have there own method.. ask them as a group and they will follow one path. I guess it’s just tribe mentality

    Plug – At wooshii we keep all pitching closed so you can’t see the what the crowd is thinking.. I guess inadvertently we have taken on your point

  • Fisher

    I really can’t see the benefit of this model to the advertising industry. If Crowd Sourcing Creative is going to be used as the platform for creative concepts in the future I immediately see come glaring pitfalls.

    The sad and most obvious outcome will be mediocre creative with sub-mediocre execution. You think consumers hate advertising now? Just wait until the status-quo is lowered to the bottom rung. Have a look around at some of the advertising that has been done through crowd sourcing, and you’ll see what I mean.

    Philosophically speaking, Crowd Sourcing Creative may sound very egalitarian and idyllic to some, but in practice I see that it being more like an industry chopping of its left and with its right.

  • BW

    Of course there are exceptions, but I generally believe individuals produce better ideas than groups. The great paintings, the novels, movies, etc. Even the best ads, at the end of the day, get started by one person saying something really smart.

    So will one person in a crowd have a great idea? Sure. But is that creative or math? If a client has a good creative team on their brand, people who are passionate about advertising and live and breathe the product, you should get great work. If you don’t, get another agency.

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  • akrok design

    all they are doing is shooting them self in the foot. in the long run, this really a bad way to go. the agencies are suppose to be the experts, instead they turning the table around. the client(s) will no longer need them. as the agency are not doing the job anyway.

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  • Jonny

    As a freelance graphic designer, crowdsourcing concerns me.
    Already people do not put enough monetary value on creativity. They know there is someone out there, a student maybe trying to just produce work for their portfolio – who will work for free.
    The more we encourage people producing work for free – the more we (as designers) devalue our own work.
    I put my hear and soul into every design job. I can’t do this if I am producing work for free hoping it will be chosen.

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