7 Reasons To Stick With Agency Smarts Rather Than The Wisdom Of Crowds

Baby in bath

I was catching up with my Beancast podcasts yesterday morning at the gym and found episode 71 to be a real gem.

In this podcast, there is a fascinating story about Unilever's brand Peperami forsaking their agency in favor of a crowd-sourcing/consumer-generated content method (found around minute 53 of the podcast).

As this blog is a celebration of new media and consumer control of brands, you might think I'd laud this as a great move. Surprisingly, you'd be dead wrong.

Before I launch into why I think this is a bad decision, let's get a couple of assumptions down:

  • Yes, I work at an agency. But please presume that I am able to take an unbiased view of this story as (I like to think) I do of anything else I write about here.
  • I don't know anything about Peperami's agency, Lowe. They could have been doing a dismal job, but that's immaterial. The issue of this post is whether the wisdom of crowds (hat tip to James Surowiecki) is better than an online marketing agency.

On the Beancast, the guests discuss how Lowe, the agency in question, created the "Animal" campaign for Peperami which was terribly successful. But, once the campaign was up and running, Peperami felt that the agency was no longer necessary.

Crowdsourcing is really cheap while agencies can be expensive. Crowdsourcing is in; traditional advertising/marketing agencies are hurting.

So why in the world is it smarter to stick with an agency rather than outsourcing your marketing needs to the community?

Just like stage-diving, it's sometimes stupid to trust the crowd. Here are 7 reasons to stick with your agency rather than crowdsourcing your marketing.

  1. Repeatability - Your agency gave you the big idea - You've Got Milk, you'll Just Do It, you're Living Strong. What happens when you wake up the morning after that idea has gone stale? Where does the next big idea come from? Who knows the history of your brand? A 15-year-old with Photoshop? Good luck.
  2. Scalability - As in the Peperami example, let's assume a campaign is already established. What happens when it explodes on a global, rather than just national, stage? Are your servers prepared? Can you translate it? How many banner ads can you create per hour? How many consumers can you help? If your agency's ideas are as good as they should be, consider who manages these tasks when they're gone.
  3. Staffing - Speaking of help, who is doing the day to day work after you fire your agency? It isn't the crowd, believe me. Can you hire developers, designers, copywriters, and anyone else you need, all at a moment's notice? Agencies have experts like these ready whenever you need them. You...don't. (Not to mention needing someone managing the brilliant crowdsourcing experiment too.)

    Consider the Ajira Airways site. This airline doesn't exist - it was created solely as an immersive experience for rabid LOST fans, courtesy of ABC (only noticeable in the footer). That unique experience is simply impossible for a guy in his basement to create while aligning this creativity with business objectives.

  4. The Ruse of Savings - Bill Green, Publisher of Make The Logo Bigger, added this insightful comment on the podcast:

    "It's not that they [clients who drop agencies in favor of crowdsourcing] want better ideas. They want cheaper [ideas].

    Creative has always been the lowest priced - when you're doing TV, they're going to make their money on the TV end of it and the production end of it. You can't tell me that they aren't still going to have to go out and get a production house and buy the media. None of those elements are going to discount their price.

    They're not saving anything by doing [crowdsourcing]. I find it ridiculous to say that 'We'll go out and find a couple of kids just out of art school to come up with our ad campaign.'" (minute 104)

  5. Accountability - If you work for a public company, you probably need to clear this decision with someone. At the highest levels, that's the stockholders. Are you prepared to tell them that your marketing budget (though reduced) is now being funneled to a retiree who won your crowdsourcing campaign? Plus, if it goes sour, you just replaced your agency's head on the chopping block with yours. Have fun with that.
  6. Safety - The agency I worked for previously dealt only in online marketing for rare or orphan diseases. The writers and designers on staff had the experience to keep the clients from any trouble with the FDA or other regulatory bodies. The client often didn't realize this. Like a lot of other good pharma-familiar agencies, it was just a value-add. There are companies in many industries that need this kind of guidance from their agencies.
  7. Decency - OK, this is just my opinion, but I certainly would not work for a client who made such an illogical, but hugely impactful, decision. To make a move to a new, better agency I can understand, but thinking you can handle it all requires such hubris that I'd be hesitant to deal with that company. Ever. If other marketing folks are like me, you'd better pray that this crowdsourcing experiment works out.

Maybe Peperami believed the social media pendulum had swung far further than it has. By that, I mean the strength of the consumer in regards to ownership of the brand.

Wise up. From Mitch Joel:

"The idea that the consumer is now not in control is anathema to what most people think. The general drum-beating is that the consumer is in control, not the company. But it's not true." (page 94)

Someone still needs to guide the strategy. Someone needs to come up with the big ideas, the tag lines that seem so easy your mother-in-law could create them (but somehow, she never does). Someone needs to stay up to date with emerging trends, new technology, and the ever-evolving world of media.

Is that you?

If you're in charge of a big brand, or can't do it all no matter your size, perhaps you'd better take another look at your agency. Maybe it's not the right one for you. Great, change up - it happens all the time.

But throwing the agency baby out with the marketing bathwater - that's just crazy talk.

What do you think? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

P.S.: Brian Sheehan has some good comments about collaboration regarding this story.

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(Image courtesy of AllyGirl520 via Flickr)