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Crowdsourcing the creative

For Wired UK's "Work Smarter" issue (just released), I had the pleasure to speak with John Winsor, co-founder and CEO of Victors & Spoils (V&S), the world's first creative (ad) agency built on crowdsourcing principles.

David Sykes/Wired UK

For Wired UK’s “Work Smarter” issue (just released), I had the pleasure to speak with John Winsor, co-founder and CEO of Victors & Spoils (V&S), the world’s first creative (ad) agency built on crowdsourcing principles. You can find a shortened article in the Wired UK magazine. Here’s the interview in full length.

Q: V&S launched a few months ago. How is it going so far? How many clients do you have, and can you share some of the work that you are doing?

It's going really well. We're working with a half-dozen clients and have done a dozen projects, thus far. We've been doing everything from brand strategy work, to developing digital tools, to design projects. We've just started working on a couple of TV spots and an industrial design project. It's been a fast three months. You'll see the work start rolling out the door in the next few months.

Q: I guess it's one thing to have a bold idea like crowdsourced advertising and another to actually do it. What made you believe that this might be a viable business model?

I think what we're doing is bigger than just crowdsourcing. The rise in digital connectivity has fueled new ways to use co-creation, mass-collaboration and open-source innovation as powerful tools for business. I've been a firm believer in these disruptions since I wrote my first book about co-creation, Beyond the Brand, in 2004.

Likewise my career has benefited from several disruptions. First, the rise of desktop publishing allowed me to start a publishing company, Sports and Fitness Publishing. Without the revolution that Apple started with the Macintosh, along with Quark and Adobe's help, I would have never been able to afford to go into the magazine publishing business. Likewise, the rise of other digital technologies allowed me to build Radar Communications, by combining the worlds of anthropology and journalism to provide a new way to do brand strategy and market research. And now, Victors & Spoils wouldn't even be possible without the communities of talented people that are aggregating online.

Of all the disruptions I've had the opportunity to build businesses upon this is the greatest opportunity in my career.

Q: With Starbucks, Best Buy, and other big brands launching crowdsourcing platforms, some industry observers seem to believe that crowdsourcing has jumped the shark. Is V&S the logical end of the line or are we going to see more crowdsourcing, across other creative disciplines?

I think we're seeing a bigger and deeper change going on in the way we work. Every time a new technology disrupts an industry, there are those who try to protect the current way of thinking. While this current digital disruption might seem like a new and frightening trend to those how hold on deeply to the current paradigm.

Just look at history. During the Renaissance, in the middle of the 15th century, there was a similar disruption happening that was shaking the pillars of the then current media world. The methodology of using movable type on a printing press, developed by Johannes Gutenberg, was spreading like wildfire, making books more accessible throughout Europe, allowing a whole new generation to have the tools that only a few held. At the time, books were produced by an elite group of monks in a few monasteries. These scribes were the media elite of their day. As it became more obvious that the new disruptive technological changes produced by the printing press some felt the need to turn the page back. In 1492, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim, a well-known monastery, wrote, In Praise of Scribes. In it he wrote, "We must preserve the old order at any cost." Yet, he had a problem. If he used scribes to produce the book it might take too long to stop the tide of the disruption caused by the printing press. Instead, he used a Gutenberg press to print In Praise of Scribes, only accelerating the change.

The same thing is going on now. Agencies are trying desperately to protect the old way of doing business while bigger cultural trends are shifting the sand below their feet.

Q: If the crowd turns out to be more creative than specialized professionals, will that be the end of the creative industry?

It's only the beginning. How much creativity was there when only monks could write books? Likewise, Apple and Adobe have ushered in a new age of democratization of creativity. The current trends of mass-collaboration, co-creation and crowdsourcing, based on mass connectivity are only further democratizes creativity. Just look at You Tube. When digital tools become cheap enough everyone can gets involved. Now, it's a question of what's good content and what's bad content. But often, that's a matter of personal taste.

Q: Some people say that your radical crowdsourcing approach might just be a PR stunt to get some publicity around the launch but that V&S will eventually become a more traditional creative shop or at least a hybrid of crowdsourced and expert services. What do you tell them?

For us, it's been unbelievable. It's been like walking into a forest with a match. Sure, we wanted to start a fire and build a business. The cultural conditions have been right for something much bigger. We've gotten calls from several of the most progressive CMOs in the world. They are tired of paying too much money for too few good ideas. They want change.

It used to be that creative quality and price were diametrically opposed. The more you paid, the better quality you could get and vice versa. It was an "or" relationship. You could get quality or price. Certainly, that's been the way the current advertising and design world works. What we're seeing is the opposite. Two things are happening. First, with our own projects and with projects like Unilever's Peperami's crowdsourced scripts project on Ideabounty, talent rises to the top and wins. Our contention has been that in truly free markets, the best work produced by the most talented people rises to the top. It's not blocked by internal politics or hierarchical competition that can smother the best ideas inside big organizations. And, it's only accelerating, many of the most talented creatives and strategists are starting to play around and do work on the new digital networks that are emerging. We've also found that in an apple to apple comparison with the projects we're working on, clients typically save 75% in their creative fees for the same quality. Projects that used to cost $100,000 now can cost $25,000 (or $1,000,000 is now $250,000) for the same quality. We're seeing that with the same strategic and creative direction, results are very similar. Clients are telling us they want to leverage the power of "and." They want the best creative work and pay the best price. That's what we're trying to do. We're using the latest digital tools to provide the best creative product for the best price. Crowdsourcing is only one of the tools to accomplish that goal.

Q: How do you hire, and how do you manage the crowdsourced creative department? Is it limited to a submission of "big ideas" or do contributors collaborate on projects from start to finish?

The first thing we've noticed is that there are lots of different ways to use co-creation and crowdsourcing to solve marketing and product design problems. We've run projects on Crowdspring, 99designs, and GeniusRocket. All of these platforms are good for different things. They get a lot of people involved in a project. But it's easy to get overwhelmed by the number of entries. And, Sturgeon's Law, that only 10 percent of any large group of creative output is good, definitely applies. In these large community crowdsourcing projects it takes a lot of creative direction. One of our core principles is "Victors" instead of "Victor" or paying many winners instead of just one. We do this with every project we run.

Another way we've been using the community for projects is by selecting small groups of people from our 500+ strong creative department, a global network of some of the best creatives and strategists in the world. In these projects we've been inviting 50-100 folks to participate in a project, selecting between 6 and 12 finalists to compete. In these cases, the finalists get a fee for participating. There is then another fee for the winner of the competition. These smaller, swat team efforts have been working well with all kinds of projects from more complicated design projects to strategy and brand platform projects. One of the advantages has been the ability to keep projects more tightly controlled confidentiality and the ability to creatively direct more complicated projects. But, unlike the larger public projects, the sheer number of ideas is more limited. There are lots of tools in the toolbox and surely more are coming.

It still comes down to the strategic and creative direction to make sure the work produced by any crowd, either internal or external, pushes the work forward in the right direction to accomplish a client's objectives.

Q: How do you pay your crowd(s)? Do they receive a percentage of the client fees? Are there several layers of contributors with varying payment levels? Do contributors have any influence on V&S' strategic decisions?

Yes. We have many different payment models, as described above, and are constantly developing new ones. People in our creative department have a ranking based on their reputation. And, we constantly ask the department to participate in decisions. This space is bigger than all of us and is constantly evolving.

Q: You previously worked at Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), a legendary firm with a distinct brand. With V&S, how can you develop a creative identity over the long term when your creative is crowdsourced? How do you maintain your quality standards?

Working with guys like Alex Bogusky and Chuck Porter was an honor. Alex and Chuck are fearless the way they approach work and life. The attitude is the key ingredient of making CP+B what it has become. Quality and consistency of the V&S brand comes from great strategic and creative direction. My two partners, Evan Fry and Claudia Batten, are two of the best. The three of us spend a lot of time developing the V&S brand. So far, we feel like it's going pretty well.

Q: You write on your blog that "Brands need an alternative to current ad agencies and crowdsourcing platforms. One that offers the strategic direction, engagement and relationship management that agencies deliver today but one that also delivers engagement, connectivity, creativity, and ROI that crowdsourcing platforms have the potential to deliver." How does V&S measure ROI?

We believe that marketing and product design should be judged on how it affects sales and profits for our clients. At the end of the day, that's what they're being judged on. We do work with clients to develop goals for every project. Each project has a different ROI metric. That said, when clients are saving 75 percent on their creative investment to start with they can achieve their goals much more easily. They also have the ability to try a lot more creative ideas.

Q: At CP+B you launched a product innovation group, and now you have set out to innovate the entire creative industry. In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers and challenges that stand in the way of organizations becoming more innovative?

When Alex Bogusky and I were doing research for our latest book, Baked In: Creating Products and Businesses that Market Themselves, we noticed that the biggest stumbling block to being more innovative for most companies were the internal silos that have been created. Marketing is a silo. Product Design is a silo. Innovation is often its own silo. To be more innovative companies must knock down the internal silos and start to get everyone working together.

Q: What business innovation are you still waiting for?

I'm really looking forward to even more collaborative digital tools, especially video conferencing technology.