Close-Up: Are user-generated ads worth the investment?

Can agencies and clients maintain a creative dialogue with the public in their search for fresh ideas? Noel Bussey reports.

Last week, the US showed its love of physical slapstick comedy by voting an ad featuring a man getting hit in the crotch with a snow globe as the best of Super Bowl XLIII - the annual battle for supremacy between two American Football teams and a host of advertisers.

Maybe this is not a huge shock, because someone being hit in the crotch is generally funny. The twist is that the spot was created by two out-of-work brothers who entered a competition run by Doritos to create an ad - and ended up walking away with $1 million.

Though not a new concept, there has been a flurry of user-generated content recently, with some that has not only been successful, but intelligent as well. For example, CHI & Partners' "forever story" saw consumers writing a book for Talk Talk, and the Walkers "do us a flavour" campaign invited the public to create crisp flavours.

Paul Brazier, the executive creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says: "UGC is the social norm now. People are using the tools of UGC in their daily life, to chat with their friends and family, and to keep in touch with work and home. In fact, instead of referring to it as 'content', it's probably more practical to say that it's about conversations now."

One of the main benefits in the eyes of clients and agencies using UGC is its ability to form a two-way conversation with the consumer while giving them some ownership of the brand.

Peter Charles, the brand manager at Doritos, who has just re-released "tribe", a user-generated ad that was created last year, says: "We have a strong creative flair in the UK. People like to talk about the brands they love."

However, there is a still a huge amount of cynicism surrounding the area, especially in the creative community. Many believe the work to be, on the whole, poor quality, with no real link to the brand.

Jonathan Burley, the executive creative director of Leo Burnett, says: "The public often has a cliched idea of what advertising is about, and so the end product can often just be a copy of ads that have gone before. But UGC levels the media playing field by giving the people a voice, and the great stuff isn't briefed by a client. It has an authenticity that would be corrupted by a brand's involvement."

An unnamed creative also adds that although the "forever story" was a great advertising idea, the actual narrative created by the public was "very poor". Some also question whether a two-way dialogue can ever be achieved while giving a cash prize to entrants.

The Super Bowl-winning ad for Doritos was the snack company's third attempt at topping the prestigious USA Today Ad Meter (it reached fourth on its first two outings, when a $1 million prize wasn't on offer).

By deciding to hand out such a big prize, it made a statement of intent about its desire to top the poll, but left some people questioning the consumer value in the work.

Ewan Paterson, the executive creative director at CHI & Partners, says: "If you have to pay so much for something, then it's not quite a two-way relationship - consumers aren't doing it because they like the brand, but because they are trying to win money. It only really works if there is a real benefit to the consumer."

It would seem that, whether the creative quality is good or bad, more clients are taking UGC seriously, while agencies are trying new and inventive ways of keeping the idea fresh and creative.

However, if the work ends up costing more than a campaign from the client's own agency, then it can start to take on the form of a cynical stunt that has as much subtlety as a snow globe in the crotch.


Nike - 'Chain'

Flo Heiss, creative partner, Dare

I have to come clean, and this may surprise you coming from a digital old man, but I'm not a big fan of consumer-generated advertising (I'm not even sure such a thing exists). To get people doing something great is difficult to pull off, and often such activities masquerading as UGC are confused for "doing something cool" in a "digital channel".

Nike "chain" is the only ad I can think of that features consumers and turns them successfully into participants. Unfortunately, it was responsible for all the upload/download dross that followed. Thankfully, the microsite died in 2008, and we can leave all that business to Flickr and YouTube. Nike "chain", however, for its brilliance and simplicity, is such a joy to watch after all these years. I just wish it was 1999 and we could do it all over again. Damn you internet, I love you.

Magic FM - 'good mood film'

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, JWT

There's a decent idea in this, which is quite engaging. You provide the pictures, we provide the music. It's very simple and uses UGC in a relevant way. The pictures uploaded by the public have a witty and charming look about them, which makes you feel warm about Magic FM.

They've let the pictures and music do the talking. I guess the trouble with this approach is that most user-generated pictures look like this. Comic juxtapositions of people doing funny things. I've seen pictures like this for the Nokia "connecting people" campaign, for instance. Magic FM and Nokia, and the other companies who have got in early, stand out. It won't be long, however, before there are so many of these user-generated campaigns that they'll all look the same, whatever client they're for. For now, Magic FM has got away with it.

Doritos - 'Free Doritos'

Danny Brooke-Taylor, executive creative director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

Last week, some viewers of Super Bowl XLIII in the US were shocked to see a brief but colossal cock-up when the feed disappeared and up came some hardcore porn. But enough of that. The Super Bowl is the home of the ultimate commercial break, where uber-brands contest their own sport within a sport.

This year's winner was Doritos. It offered up $1 million to the creators of a consumer-generated spot. Joe and Dave Herbert were the successful writers. This pair of Herberts created an ad where a guy throws a snow globe into a colleague's crotch. Doritos claim the ad received the most posts online in the hours after the game, and 90 per cent were positive. The other 10 per cent were from me. I thought it was a pale imitation of the Skittles work. But I'm just jealous because they don't have research groups and the BACC. And they got a million bucks.

Walkers 'Do us a flavour'

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman and executive director, Ogilvy Group UK

This kind of crowd-sourcing isn't new. Its spiritual father was a San Francisco copywriter called Howard Luck Gossage (may his name be praised). Back in the 60s, for his client Qantas, Gossage created a competition to name the New Super Constellation Airliner, the successful entrant of which would win a prize of a live kangaroo.

It was eventually won by a small girl in New York called Dena Walker Seibert, who proposed the name "SAM". HHCL were also masters of this idea - that engagement trumps mere attention - as was a young Chicago lawyer called Barack Obama, of whom some of you may have heard good things recently. How can you not like the approach? In an age where most things are researched to the point of narcolepsy, the Walkers idea seems to create what Gossage's friend David Ogilvy called "The Burr of Singularity". More please.

Talk Talk and Treehouse - 'Forever Story'

Ben Walker, creative director, Wieden & Kennedy

The website is a bold attempt to raise money for children with autism. The idea is that for one pound we can contribute our own paragraph to a story kicked off by Nick Hornby.

The idea is good in theory. But in practice it falls down because the content generated is pretty much all over the place. And why wouldn't it be? Great content is created by clever people who have a talent for crafting wonderful stories. They hone their skills for years and are paid handsomely for it. But when 8,000 or so ordinary Joes give it a try, they just create a big old mess. A quick read of the first few paragraphs confirmed my fears, and realising that any contribution from me would only muddy the waters further, I left the story mercifully free of my ramblings.