Opinion: Perspective - Crowd-sourcing can't replace agency knowledge

We haven't seen the work yet, so it might be wise to withhold judgment. But sod it. I'm increasingly sceptical about this whole crowd-sourcing approach as anything other than an occasional - and cheap - ad fix.

Unilever has just paid two creatives a total of $15,000 for the "big idea" that will become Peperami's next TV and print campaign. And that's not good news for ad agencies. I'm not sure it's good news for Unilever, either.

Crowd-sourcing is a very smart concept. Throw your ad brief out into the digital ether and invite anyone and everyone to come up with a brilliant creative solution, in return for a one-off payment for the idea.

The Peperami pitch process was handled by Idea Bounty, which recently appointed the former SAB Miller group marketing director Mark Sherrington to help oversee the evaluation of submissions, so you can't say they don't know what they're doing. And they've clearly touched a nerve: 1,185 ideas were submitted to the Peperami brief.

As I said, we don't know what the ideas are yet, and we don't know whether they will be translated into the sort of iconic work that Peperami has put its name to in the past. I'm doubtful, but Unilever is clearly confident that it's come out ahead. Noam Buchalter, the marketing manager of Peperami, says "our biggest challenge was picking a winner from such a high calibre of thinking ... we couldn't be more happy with the process and outcome and look forward to sharing the campaign with you in 2010".

Hmm. Unilever (for now) has every reason to be happy. It has sourced two creative ideas (from the London-based copywriter Kevin Baldwin and from Rowland Davies, an ex-creative director from Munich) for a tiny fraction of the cost it would have had to pay to a retained agency.

Admittedly the economics are misleading. The brief is to build upon the existing Peperami Animal character and advertising approach. The hard slog of creating a brand icon with cut-through has already been done (by Peperami's old ad agency Lowe). All the crowd had to do was come up with a new idea built around Animal.

Could Peperami have found a completely fresh advertising strategy (complete with all the necessary account planning thought and consumer insight) or even launched a new brand to consumers using crowd-sourcing? I doubt it.

What's beyond doubt, though, is that Peperami will be able to knock out its next ad campaign at rock-bottom cost. So you can bet plenty of other advertisers will be watching carefully.

My gut tells me the end result for Unilever will be unremarkable beyond the nature of its inception. The best ideas in the world are only the starting point for a great ad campaign. Nurturing the idea through the entire production process is vital, and surely best done by the people who gave birth to it. Advertising is not a linear process where each part of the machine has a clearly defined and isolatable function to perform.

And with crowd-sourcing, advertisers miss out on the tangible benefits of having a professional ad agency as a long(ish)-term business partner offering advice and solutions from a position of real knowledge.

Where crowd-sourcing does have an edge over the traditional agency model is in allowing time for creative ideas to form. Crowd-sourcers typically have several months from the posting of the brief to the submission date in which to hone their ideas. Plenty of brands will not be able to tolerate this luxuriously leisurely approach, but plenty will and could find a rich seam of ideas as a result.

So WPP has emerged triumphant in its 18-month legal proceedings with Adam & Eve. Reparation has been made, pain has been felt and WPP has underlined the imperialism of its employee contracts. And crucially it was all settled outside the courts. Time to move on.

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