The Ups and Downs of Crowdsourcing

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If you're working in advertising or marketing, you will have at least encountered the term "crowdsourcing" by now. A term first coined by Jeff Howe of Wired Magazine, crowdsourcing is " the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. "

Crowdsourcing in Action

​So, that's fine in theory. But how does it work in the advertising industry? Well, a good example of that is the current Victors & Spoils agency model. It is, in fact, the first ad agency to be built on crowdsourcing principles.

A typical project for a client involves just what you'd expect from an ad agency, including:

It's all housed in an office building, too. This isn't a virtual landscape. The big difference, however, is the creative department. This is crowdsourced, which means that every project that comes into the ad agency is outsourced to the "crowd."

Putting the Crowd in Crowdsourcing

What's the crowd? Well, it's a seemingly endless supply of freelance talent that lives out there in the world, ready to work on any jobs that come along. They include:

Victors & Spoils maintains a database counting hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of creatives, and they will access this database as and when they need work producing. A creative brief will be issued to the crowd, the ideas will come flooding in, and directions are chosen from the ideas the agency receives.


There are many.

The Overhead Is Lower: You only pay for creative people when you need them, and even then, you only pay people if their ideas are chosen. Plus, there are no benefits to pay, vacation hours and so on.

The Talent Pool Is Huge: An ad agency built on crowdsourcing can choose from thousands of available creatives.

It Allows an Agency to Grow and Shrink as Needed: In these tough times, agencies are laying off creative staff and working with a skeleton crew. When times get better, more creatives are hired. But with crowdsourcing, the creative department grows and shrinks to accommodate each job.

The Work, Theoretically, Is Fresher: You can have different teams working on the same client for years, rather than tapping a select few times and draining the creative well dry.

You Have Access to International Talent: The barriers are gone, you can team up a writer in India with a designer in Japan, all via cloud computing.

Collaboration: Great collaboration across multiple disciplines, languages, and age ranges.

Darker Side

Unfortunately, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, what's good for one agency is not necessarily good for them all. And it's even worse for the talent pool out there. Major issues include:

Talent Is Only Paid for Chosen Ideas: This means that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people are working for free in the hope of having their idea chosen. This devalues creative talent enormously.

Other Traditional Agencies Find It Hard to Compete: Not unlike the Shawshank Redemption, in which the prison inmates could build a railroad for a fraction of the price of a regular business, crowdsourcing is hard to beat. Does that make it wrong? No. But it does skew the marketplace in favor of freelance-only business models, which could be very bad news for creative careers.

Below Average Wages: They average out to fall well below average, for the lucky ones who actually have their ideas chosen.

A Greater Probability of Failure: Creative departments in the world's top agencies are staffed with the best minds. The talent pool that remains is not comprised of the top-level talent, as 99% of those are employed. Crowdsourcing sacrifices an expensive A-team for a much cheaper B-team.

A Breakdown of Working Relationships: As creatives change on each job, it's tough to build solid relationships with reliable staff.

No Accountability: With no contracts and low (or no) wages, the creative team will always be on the lookout for the bigger, better deal. When they take it, the agency has left the bag.

Is It the Future of Advertising?

Maybe. Right now it's too early to tell. There are many upsides and many downsides. But as the downs fall on the shoulders of the creative talent, and the industry thrives on creativity, it's likely that crowdsourcing will probably remain a very small part of the advertising industry.