Close-Up: Why MOFILM is adland's version of The X Factor

Johnny Hornby examines the implications of user-generated content on the back of the MOFILM advertising awards.

There's an advertising awards do this week, with no agencies on the guest list. It's not trivial either: it's part of London's Film Festival with its attendant A-listers and glamour, and the work in this competition is TV for household names - Nokia, McDonald's, HP, Visa, the list goes on.

Called MOFILM, the event's not unique to these shores. The international version took place at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where a packed auditorium saw Spike Lee select the winner.

Why no agencies? Because this work is UGC: user-generated content. It's a neat concept - big brands share briefs and invite the general public to submit their own ads. The quality is high - imaginative, often emotive work, executed well. Some you could run tomorrow.

All parties benefit - shortlisted entrants raise their profile, putting their film-making credentials in front of an influential audience. The brands put up big prizes too.

In return, they get publicity and a stimulating new creative perspective on how they present themselves to the world.

The only losers, you might think, are agencies. How does it look when Joe Public - no experience, no budget - turns out work that so-called experts would happily put on their reel? Is this an ominous road to irrelevance, UGC supplanting agency creative departments as the resource of choice? It's an interesting theory, but easily exaggerated.

Most of these films are more PGC (professionally generated content) than UGC. Read the winners' CVs (sample: the "best buy" winner already has commercial work for MTV and Kodak and a music video for The Fray under his belt) and you'll see what I mean. Few have the requisite talent for composition and execution to triumph in these competitions - not a populist view, but true.

That's why we shouldn't ignore them. Simon Cowell understands that The X Factor isn't just great TV, it's an exhaustive national talent trawl, helping him sort the likely global superstars from the chaff. Similarly, all MOFILM Cannes finalists have already been snapped up - these are advertising auditions well worth watching.

Where does this leave UGC, though? Can it still be the democratic, mass-market phenomenon originally envisaged? Of course, we just need to think about it differently. Far from a threat, UGC is one of the most enlivening things to have happened to our industry in years. It's a new challenge for agencies: finding on-brief creative ideas that don't just allow for, but encourage, mainstream consumer participation, taking UGC out of the film school and into the real world.

Pepsi, one of the MOFILM brands, is a good example. Its US positioning is, perhaps unsurprisingly, based on refreshment. It used UGC to take its "refresh everything" thought to the country, literally, when it invited drinkers to film "open letters" to Barack Obama on how he should "refresh" the US. Plenty of celebrities contributed, but it was a gauntlet everyday Americans took up too.

Friends of the Earth made political capital in the UK with a similar UGC-led approach. Participants uploaded films of themselves marching for a new climate change bill. The sheer volume of "virtual marchers" was instrumental in the bill's early adoption.

Most interesting is how UGC's definition can be stretched. Barry Judge is the chief marketing officer of the global consumer electronics retailer Best Buy, another MOFILM sponsor and a CHI client.

When we met him, we were taken aback. A blogging, Twittering ambassador for social media, he was crowd-sourcing everything, from SWOT analyses of his brand, to points of view on casting and rushes of new commercials.

Surely competitors don't need industrial espionage when they can Google your marketing strategy? The closer we've worked together, though, the more convinced we are that this openness is a source of competitive advantage, a chance to add an extra 10 per cent by accessing the collective brainpower of consumers and, indeed, employees.

Which brings me to EGC: employee-generated content. Many companies, particularly in retail and service, have huge knowledgeable workforces, but their expertise remains untapped.

Helping clients leverage this intellectual capital is another great challenge for communication companies.

What if all the financial or mobile phone or book experts on the "shopfloor" at NatWest or The Carphone Warehouse or Waterstone's had the resources and motivation to create EGC - and that EGC was made accessible and interesting to consumers seeking guidance in any of these areas? In an era when advertising as we know it is becoming a debased currency, this is the kind of evolved communications role that will help keep what we do as relevant as ever.

- Johnny Hornby is a founding partner of CHI & Partners.