Can the Pros Fall in Love with Amateurs?

There's an interesting article by NYT magazine writer Rob Walker in this month's Fast Company. Rob makes some good points and it's about time someone took the shine off user-generated content (UGC). However, there are a few points that should mentioned. First, by their very nature, ad agencies are going to be less risky than amateurs. They have to be - they're getting paid to do this stuff while an amateur can do any damn thing they want. Risk is a predicament: sure, most of what these amateurs produce is junk, but the gems are real winners. Agencies can be stalled by message loyalty and an idea echo-chamber; amateurs aren't. (Of course, agencies are the ones actually getting ads on TV/online, but I'm speaking specifically of quality ideas that will provide good ROI.)

Second, let's face it: user-generated content is inevitable. People are gonna create stuff online, period. By embracing UGC, brands maintain some editing or selection power. Check out the great example from Heinz ketchup. Among the benefits of this program:

  • Sincerely viral effect
  • Consumers engaged with brand
  • Ad made on the cheap (allowing for cost of website development, maintenance, and prize money)
  • Stories the company can use for years to come (read the story about the guy who carried Heinz through World War II Europe and tell me as a marketer you don't start to salivate - quotes from and about this story here)

Plus, Heinz was left with a small army of citizen marketers throughout the voting process. For weeks, amateur video producers begged their friends to view their video and vote for them online. Wonderful stuff.

Finally, Rob makes advertising sound like a zero-sum game where it's either the product or the producer that is being promoted:

And why should this surprise us? Of course we're tired of listening to Mr. Advertiser. But when we get the chance to speak, it's not going to be about brands. It's going to be about us.

Why can't it be both? In my mind, the popularity of both grow exponentially. In Rob's article, the Diet-Coke-and-Mentos guys were mentioned, but duh, so were Diet Coke and Mentos! Cutting off one's nose to spite the face of the amateur producer isn't worth the time or the effort. As a marketing manager, decide if what your product is getting out of the deal is worth it and, if so, go for it with gusto. Why take away something from the amateur ad producer when it can help your product?