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Embracing Marginalization
by David C. Baker

Writing this article is probably about as smart as smearing tenderizer all over my body and then jumping into a lion’s den. This seems to be one of those subjects that sparks lots of fury and little reasonable discourse.

Having said that, I didn’t help guide animal traffic as they loaded Noah’s ark, but I did start out in the industry with a Varityper 4560 back in 1984. Even then, transitions were afoot from spinning type wheels to fully digital output on RC paper. In fact, the last few decades have brought constant change to the fields of marketing and design.

Remember all the things you made money on before? Gone are the days of typesetting machines, separations, masking off areas by hand and waxing RC paper galleys.

Even photography has changed. How often do you pay $5,000 to a photographer for a day shoot? How about illustration? Or the changes in media and even printing technologies?

How clients buy things from you—and how you in turn buy them from others or create them yourself—is radically different than it used to be, and that sort of change is accelerating. Like other changes in the past, crowdsourcing is just the newest one, but the whining within the industry isn’t anything unique. These changes, though, are very much like losing some key pieces early on in a chess game. From that point forward, you’ll have to play smarter, force your opponent to play differently and do a little more planning for yourself.

THE NOT SO HIDDEN CLUES
It’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised by this, really. There have been articles all over the more respected media outlets about the slow and steady marginalization of advertising and design.

Design has been identified as one of the ten professional services most vulnerable to outsourcing, particularly offshore, and we’ve seen it ourselves, to varying degrees. I have a client with 64 employees, all but 4 of whom are in Colombia doing Web development for Fortune 500 companies. All the while making roughly one-third of what their U.S. counterparts make, and twice what their fellow citizens make.

Many firms also misread the tea leaves when the economy was robust, thinking all the easy money in design was portending some new era where we'd get a seat at the table. Not so. Two recessions have brought us down to earth where we'll have to earn a living like everyone else.

We’ve also experienced the Draconian, dispiriting consequences of handing off the sourcing of design and advertising to purchasing departments where cost and timeliness rise in importance.

What makes any of us think this is temporary? It’s not temporary, but that’s not bad. More on that later.

THE MOVEMENT ITSELF
Crowdsourcing, through sites like 99designs.com and crowdspring.com, is merely the next step in commoditization via a price—and deadline-driven model where geographic barriers are minimized and the availability of substitutes minimizes differentiation.

In some ways it’s doing for design and advertising what match.com has done for dating, monster.com has done for employers, and craigslist.org has done for adult services. These are all virtual marketplaces that bring buyers and sellers together, emphasizing the transaction itself over the quality of the service.

BLESSING IN DISGUISE
No, I’m not some motivational speaker looking for work. I really do think this movement is good. Even if we end up disagreeing on that point, it really doesn’t matter. The change is already underway, and resisting it makes as much sense as promising to hold an inner tube under water forever. Let us know how that works out for you, as they say.

First, it’s good (for now, anyway) because it’s affecting only a very small part of this industry. This equates to plenty of advance warning with minimal impact, sort of like a flare close enough to be seen but distant enough to not create any appreciable damage. Don’t continue to ignore the signs, though, or the advance warning may not help. Right now all we have is a lot of complaining, and that energy really ought to be spent on adapting.

Second, it’s good because the movement will attract your worst clients with the smallest budgets and the least amount of sophistication. It’s a self-selecting trap with just the right poison in the elixir of “quick” and “cheap.” Frankly, bad clients are notoriously more disciplined than many in this industry. Who are the ones who keep compromising, muttering that the “fit” will be OK? Bad clients don't reach up and use good agencies, but good agencies do sometimes reach down and pretend that the bad clients really are good ones.

Third, it’s good because it will nudge the entire industry to start selling their thinking rather than their doing. If positioned well, all you need to do is observe, research, advise and shape. Others can do the actual hand work. Do you really think an armless creative director couldn’t do a bang up job?

Fourth, facing marginalization and price pressure is exactly what your clients are facing, and it informs the solutions they are seeking from you. Dealing with these same forces yourself will add a credibility and authenticity that clients will appreciate. 

EMBRACING THE MOVEMENT OF CROWDSOURCING
So I do think crowdsourcing is a good thing, and there are some opportunities here that we can embrace.

One thing we can do is find talent. Throwing a few hundred bucks at one of these projects might easily surface a polished, efficient thinker and doer. If nothing else, you’ll find out who can read a creative brief.

Another option is to actually embrace these sources as your new employees. That doesn’t mean you have to dismiss the current ones, but it might mean that you change the model as opportunities arise and learn new ways of working. Before you say it can't be done, remember that there was a time when we looked with skepticism on the idea of using printers in foreign countries and letting designers telecommute. The essence of being human is to adapt to changing circumstances. Besides, one of the worst financial decisions you can make is to retain staff longer than you need them. With this model, though, it’s less emotional to quit using a contractor.
http://image.commarts.com/Images1/4/8/3/38482_54_0_MTYyNTQ2OTg1NzUxMTg1NTg.jpgDavid C. Baker
David C. Baker (david@recourses.com), author of Managing (Right) for the First Time, is a leading management consultant for the creative services field. Through ReCourses, Inc., he has guided hundreds of firms through management issues, difficult transitions and growth.