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Back in 2009, when John Winsor, a former top strategist at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, set out to launch a new Boulder, Colorado, agency named Victors & Spoils, he knew he was about to, in his own words, “piss off a lot of people.” Indeed, Winsor’s new venture was destined—and to some extent designed—to ruffle the feathers of pretty much the whole advertising industry, especially its creative community.

Why? Because Victors & Spoils was conceived as advertising’s first crowdsourcing agency, meaning that the new shop aimed to produce ads by working hand-in-hand with the larger public. And although that certainly seemed like an intriguing and worthwhile idea to many—including a number of clients who quickly signed up to work with the new agency—it stoked no small amount of fear and loathing among some agency professionals who craft ads for a living. Would crowdsourcing of ads threaten the livelihoods of established ad creators? Would it devalue the work of designers, writers and art directors by promulgating the notion that anybody could make ads?

From left) Associate creative directors Brock Johnson and Fabien Dodard, creative director Patrick Horn, associate creative director Ari Levi, executive creative director Noah Clark, and creative director Kate McQuail Kayne.

Today, a little over five years later, it seems much of the early anxiety was unfounded. Although crowd-sourced ads have become an accepted part of the business—occasionally used by the likes of PepsiCo and other big clients, sometimes even during the all-important Super Bowl—the trend hasn’t obliterated advertising jobs, nor has it fundamentally changed the way the majority of ads get made. For proof of that, look no further than Victors & Spoils (V&S), which today employs more creative staffers than ever before and increasingly finds itself making ads by turning less often to “the crowd” and more often to the agency’s own in-house pros.

That’s not to suggest crowdsourcing isn’t still a key part of the agency’s process and its core identity; it means only that experience has taught V&S that crowdsourcing seems to work best as a tool rather than an all-encompassing approach. For example, the agency still occasionally turns over one-off assignments to outside creators. In other instances, it relies on the wisdom of the crowd to augment or fine-tune the agency’s own ideas. “But there are also many times when we function as a so-called traditional shop and don’t include outside input,” says V&S executive creative director Noah Clark. “We’re careful not to let our philosophy or process overshadow the need to solve our clients’ most challenging business problems.”

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This more tempered approach may not garner as many headlines, but it seems to be working from a business standpoint. The agency has more than doubled in size over the last couple of years, with about 50 people now occupying V&S’s bright and airy space in downtown Boulder. The list of clients the agency has partnered with includes impressive brands like Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, DISH Network, General Mills and JCPenney. And its creative output—whether produced by outsiders, insiders or some blend of the two—has been strong enough that V&S is now starting to focus attention more on the work itself rather than on the process of making it.

This represents a welcome change for Clark and others at V&S who at times seem weary of being pegged as “the crowdsourcing agency.” Of course, that label was quite beneficial when the agency was first starting up—it sparked immediate interest and generated considerable heat, as V&S’s savvy CEO figured it might. Winsor was ahead of the curve when he first started writing and talking about “co-creation” of advertising back in the early 2000s. His idea gathered momentum when YouTube exploded and provided an opportunity for advertisers to tap into the groundswell of creativity happening online. Winsor’s theories were eventually put into effect when he joined Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), which experimented with soliciting creative ideas from the public during Winsor’s tenure there.

When Winsor launched V&S (partnering with Evan Fry and Claudia Batten, who both later moved on), the agency started out with a full-on crowdsourcing approach. One of its clients, DISH Network, wanted to redesign its company vans. V&S took that assignment and offered it up to the world, using an existing crowdsourcing design platform called 99Designs.

Clark—a CP+B creative who joined V&S shortly after it opened—presided over that first campaign for DISH and found himself on the receiving end of what came back from the public. “We were crushed with ideas,” Clark says. “And most of them were not very good options—they were derivative, nonstrategic, didn’t follow the brief.” Winsor adds, “Crowdsourcing works too well—you get too many answers.” On the plus side, Clark says, the client seemed to love certain aspects of crowdsourcing. Instead of being shown just a couple of ideas produced by the agency, DISH was shown about 50 options, ranked by quality levels A, B and C. “In some cases, clients want to see how the sausage gets made,” Clark says. “And they sometimes want to see more ideas, not less, because who knows? They might really like something in that C batch.” Harley-Davidson was another early client that responded well to the approach because it was seen as a means of enabling Harley’s devoted fans to become more directly involved with the brand.

If you’re based on being open, then you must be open to the possibility that sometimes the traditional way of doing things might work best."—John Winsor

In terms of compensation—which tends to be a touchy issue with crowdsourcing because many of the ideas submitted are not used and therefore not paid for—Clark says that as a creative himself, “I was sensitive to the whole debate about not getting paid for spec work. We wanted people to get paid for their time without breaking the bank.” So V&S structured its crowdsourcing process in rounds, paying people modestly for the first round of efforts; those whose work was chosen to move on to round two would get paid more, then more again for round three. With major clients involved, V&S’s early crowd-sourced projects offered a nice prize for freelancers whose work won out. “We were putting ten to twenty grand up for grabs,” notes Clark. The projects also tended to stir interest among writers and art directors who had full-time agency jobs, but were looking for the kinds of fresh work challenges they weren’t getting in their day jobs.

Gradually the process began to evolve. In some cases, V&S would throw an assignment out to the whole world, but in others, the agency sought out a smaller, more defined group of collaborators. V&S began to amass a database of people who’d signed up for earlier competitions, and within that “crowd,” it could search for, say, a team of 30 people with experience writing comedy for television who would then serve as the crowd contributing to a series of spots for the DISH Network.

Clark says that at some point the agency had an epiphany that “maybe this crowdsourcing model is really about finding nuggets and thought-starters—which then could be crafted and polished internally, by our own people.” The agency came to think of that as the outside-in approach to crowd-sourcing, wherein the work begins with outside ideas and is finished by insiders.

That gave V&S and its clients more control in guiding the process, and it proved effective. But the agency also discovered that it could use crowdsourcing in yet another way—as a means of testing and sharpening ideas that originated within the agency. As Clark notes, “Today, we’ve flipped the script. Our process has evolved from an outside-in approach to one that is inside-out.” V&S’s full-time creative teams come up with an idea, then assemble a custom crowd (anywhere from 10 to 100 people) and negotiate a fee to have them act as a digital creative advisory board. The agency sends in-progress ideas to the online crowd—“like putting work on the agency wall,” Clark says—and solicits thoughts and additions.

We’re careful not to let our philosophy or process overshadow the need to solve our clients’ most challenging business problems.”—Noah Clark

Agency president Jonathan Balck says that whether the process used on a campaign is inside-out or outside-in, the prevailing objective is to “tap into the intelligence that’s out there in the world.” He notes that the agency now has a database of more than 8,000 people it can go to for ideas and creative input, and sometimes the agency will extend the reach even wider by putting out a call via e-mail or LinkedIn for a creative who’s passionate about a particular subject or product.

A good working example of the agency’s unconventional methods is a recent campaign promoting a decidedly unglamorous product—broccoli. The spec assignment came out of a collaboration with the New York Times, which was doing a story on how advertising techniques might be used to get people to eat more healthful foods. Balck says that since the agency had no expertise in broccoli, it used crowdsourcing methods to bring in various experts, including a broccoli farmer. To pay for the creation and running of the ads, V&S again turned to the public—this time to raise money on Kickstarter for the campaign. Hence, the broccoli campaign was both crowd-sourced and crowd-funded.

That kind of innovative thinking remains a hallmark of V&S, and it’s a key reason clients come to the Boulder shop. As Balck observes, marketers these days are under growing pressure to innovate, which causes them to seek out agencies associated with innovation. “And if they look up ‘innovative agencies,’ they’re probably going to see something about us.”

Though V&S is growing, the agency’s leaders have strived to create a culture that is “not sweat-shoppy,” as Balck puts it. The agency recently made Advertising Age’s Best Places to Work list, in part, noted the magazine, because V&S gives its creative people an opportunity “to swing above their weight.” But at the same time, staffers are urged to keep reasonable work hours so they can actually enjoy living in Boulder, Balck says.

And if the agency’s original radical crowdsourcing approach has been modified and toned down a bit, in a way this means V&S is truly following an open business model, according to Winsor. “If you’re based on being open,” he explains, “then you must be open to the possibility that sometimes the traditional way of doing things might work best—and that sometimes the best people to work on a campaign might be two staffers in your own office.” ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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