This article was published on March 3, 2011

The changing face of creative agencies: Crowdsourcing to services exchange

The changing face of creative agencies: Crowdsourcing to services exchange

Madison Avenue, 1861: twenty advertising agencies are already operating in Manhattan’s north-south thoroughfare. By the 1960s, a century later, the street is known globally as the pulsing heartbeat of the advertising industry, with Doyle Dane Bernbach’s (DDB) ‘Think Small’ Volkswagen advert emerging as one of the most memorable ads of the decade.

Whilst a number of agencies remain on Madison Avenue in 2011, including the aforementioned DDB, most have now upped-sticks and moved elsewhere in the Big Apple. But with the digital revolution in full swing, physical location isn’t quite as important as it once was. Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a global village has taken shape, and a business in Brooklyn can source creative services just as easily from Malaysia as it can from Manhattan. There might not be ‘free’ lunches and swanky meeting rooms, but by harnessing the power of web-based technologies, it’s now possible to cut through all the crap and into the heart of the Earth’s creative artery.


DonDraperWhat I’m talking about, of course, is crowdsourcing. In its purest form, crowdsourcing can achieve massive feats in short periods of time, simply because thousands of people can collaborate on projects.  It really is a tantalizing technique.

But of course, there are downsides. Quality can be compromised because labour is often cheap – or free. When Facebook launched its localisation programme in 2008, it faced the wrath of professional translators across the globe, with a ‘Leave translation to translators’ Facebook group formed in defiance against the social network’s localisation methods. Indeed, Facebook’s local-language websites have come in for a great deal of criticism for its ‘low-quality, no payment’ policy.

Crowd control

And many web-businesses operate low-cost ‘creative’ models under the auspices of crowdsourcing. Most of these platforms, however, don’t operate any real ‘crowd control’, so to speak. So you could potentially have anyone from a high-school dropout to a part-time plumber working on your company’s new logo.

CloudCrowd and CrowdFlower, for example, are all about fulfilling labour-intensive tasks that require human judgement, as opposed to building a pool of creatives with a wealth of industry experience. Such models have their place, but these are all about low cost/high-volume – such models will rarely produce the kind of quality desired by big brands and it’s not the sort of model that will make the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi quake in their boots.

So against that backdrop, you couldn’t blame big businesses for ignoring crowdsourcing and sticking with the tried-and-tested agency/creative professional model. But it would be a shame to let crowdsourcing as a technique fall by the wayside, simply because the control mechanisms haven’t always been implemented.

Madison Avenue: the need for change

Whilst Madison Avenue may not be the hub for advertising agencies it once was, the name is still synonymous with an industry that has generally been slow to keep up with technological advances. The ‘Madison Avenue’ model isn’t going the way of the dodo this year, or even next year, but it knows it has to change to keep up with developments elsewhere. Digital has altered the rules of engagement.

Furthermore, the Madison Avenue business model is very much based on retainers, hourly fees and lunches in plush (and expensive) boardrooms. Businesses are crying out for change – they want value for money, they want quality and they want a pay-per project setup. They don’t want an outdated system that vastly inflates the cost, but they don’t want an uncontrolled ‘crowdsourcing’ model either.

So this is the challenge for the modern agency: harness the power of the thousands of creatives around the globe, whilst ensuring members of the ‘crowd’ are fully vetted for their professional credentials.

The ‘Creative Services Exchange’

And we are starting to see a shift in this direction, with companies such as blur Group offering what it calls “the world’s largest Creative Services Exchange”. To streamline the process and maximise scalability, the new model consists of the client (obviously), creative briefs, the crowd (vetted creatives) and ‘Brief Brokers’ in the middle, who work in-house for the ‘agency’ and facilitate the trading of briefs between the companies and the crowd. It’s almost like a real-life stock exchange, except rather than trading gold, oil or company shares, creative services are the commodity. This could be web design, copywriting, graphic design…you name it.

Such a model doesn’t focus on small-scale logo-design type projects where the winning proposal is the lowest-bidder, it is aimed at the higher-end market. Big companies with big budgets that want to tap into the world’s creative pool without being locked into lengthy contracts. And whilst the Saatchi and Saatchis of the world might not be quaking in their boots quite yet, a model such as this does tick many of the boxes for businesses seeking something different.

But whatever the creative agency of the future looks like, there’s little question it will have to evolve to keep up with the demands of businesses operating in a digital world.