The people take over the pitch

‘Democratic marketing’ – skirting the agency process to put the creative brief out to consumers and independent creatives – is gaining popularity among brands such as Peperami. Are we about to see a seismic change in marketing services procurement?


Democracy is a word most often encountered in political circles. But with the public getting involved in marketing more frequently than ever through co-creation and crowdsourcing projects, brands are now at the forefront of what is being called “democratic marketing”.

Although co-creation and crowdsourcing (see glossary, below) have been around for some years, the new wave of democratic marketing is taking these tools to a whole new level.

Matt Burgess is managing director for Unilever UK & Ireland’s Chrysalis brands, which include Marmite, Pot Noodle, Peperami and Bovril. He is running a crowdsourcing initiative, and is excited by the potential of democratic marketing. “There’s a way of producing content through this approach and I will be using communities going forward,” he says.

One democratic marketing approach is to have consumers develop material in real-time which can be used across multiple marketing channels. For example, the Victoria & Albert Museum is about to launch an innovative campaign which seeks to involve consumers with its exhibitions at the same time as creating marketing materials for itself (see V&A case study, below).

Its upcoming exhibition, Decode: Digital Design Sensations, will ask online communities to play with one of the digital exhibits on display and develop it. The scheme, devised by agency Saint@RKCR/Y&R, will then use the consumer-created material across marketing channels, such as digital sites on London Underground.

Another approach involves asking consumers to pick the agencies that will create branded communications. Last month in the US, for example, PepsiCo turned the choice of which marketing agency should work on three of its product launches over to consumers.

The way the scheme will work is that agencies and production companies will submit 12-second clips, pitching their marketing ideas for the three launches – extensions of Pepsi’s Mountain Dew (also known as Mtn Dew) soft drinks brand. Consumers will then vote for their favourite.

PepsiCo has snappily entitled this strategy “Dewmocracy”. The three new variants are even the product of consumer input. It is the public who have determined the new drinks’ colours, flavours, packaging and names.

Roy Langmaid, founder of agency Promise, has been working in the field of what is now called co-creation for almost two decades. He says that the philosophy of getting consumers involved in marketing is not itself the innovation. Many brand developments have come as a result of consumer insights, he argues, including British Airways’ Fastrack transfer system and Danone’s recent launch of individual pots of Activia yogurt.

Most marketers are already familiar with the nail-biting period after developing a particular campaign when a concept “goes into research” – meaning it is tried out on focus groups or consumer panels.

But Langmaid admits that the internet has changed everything. Consumer research and focus groups can be conducted through a variety of technologies, allowing vast numbers of consumers to participate, and brands, like Mountain Dew, to leverage the ownership consumers feel from that participation.

What is also unusual about the Mountain Dew process is it provides an opportunity for small marketing services agencies to pitch for pieces of business that otherwise may have been out of their reach. It is unclear exactly what this all means for Mountain Dew’s agency of record, BBDO Worldwide, although PepsiCo states that the new ads will not affect its relationship with the agency.

While some might dismiss the Mountain Dew case as a rather gimmicky marketing ploy, there are growing signs of unease in some quarters of the marketing services industry about the potential threat posed to traditional advertising agencies by brands collaborating with the public or specialist internet communities.

Crowdsourcing in particular has highlighted a number of new business models being created. Some industry commentators claim the age of dominant large advertising agencies is reaching its end.

Unilever’s decision to part ways with its long-term agency Lowe for its Peperami business and throw the brief out to a crowdsourcing platform seems to add weight to such fears. The company sparked a furore in the marketing world when it asked users of Idea Bounty (see below) to put forward creative marketing ideas for Peperami’s “Animal” character in return for the chance to win a $10,000 prize.

Although the Peperami competition is technically open to anyone, the “crowd” is largely populated by those in the creative industry in some way. In fact, the two winners of the Peperami brief are ex-creatives who were recently made redundant. Kevin Baldwin is a copywriter from London who has worked across a variety of FMCG brands for a number of agencies and Rowland Davies is an ex-creative director from Munich who has been shooting TV commercials for almost 20 years.

Unilever claims, however, that this is not a move designed to create a buzz around a user-generated ad but a genuine attempt at sourcing a creative idea that the company intends to produce outstandingly, using all its resources.

Unilever’s Burgess explains the thinking behind the move: “We wanted to get Peperami communications back from good to great, coupled with the fact that the value I was getting from the traditional method wasn’t as good as I felt as it could be.

“My feeling was that Peperami ‘Animal’ wasn’t that difficult a brief and that it may well lend itself to, and benefit from, more sets of eyes looking at it.”

The reaction to the move from the industry has been vociferous and divided, with blogs and comment columns aflame with indignant posts. “We are staggered at how much defensive comment there has been about what we have done,” says Burgess.

Nexus/h planning director Mark Hadfield’s view on the Peperami strategy is echoed by many sections of the industry: “I can’t see how this system is sustainable in the long run. A rich, deep and long-lasting client relationship is worth much more than a scattergun approach to ideas.

“While there are many positive ways in which crowdsourcing can be used, the Peperami way seems shortsighted,” he says. “First, it’s being used in a horizontal way. The client is generating lots of ideas from people he hasn’t met and, thus, the submissions will lack the clear understanding that one picks up through a good relationship with a client.”

He concedes that the scheme is likely to bring in a lot of ideas, but argues that these are “probably not deeply thought out and likely to be creative executions as opposed to strategic proposals”.

He continues: “When issues arise, when tweaks are needed and when the agency wants to push the client, there needs to be a mutual understanding. A good agency will not only help a client through these inevitable issues, but it should also embrace the opportunities they represent.”

Agencies can only do this well by understanding their clients, the business’ goals, aspirations and having a deep, well-researched understanding of the sector. He warns: “This is not something that can be picked up overnight from a brief, and it certainly can’t be picked up from zero interaction with the client.”

Other, much less-measured criticisms abound across blogs and marketing websites. Some resort to personal insults directed towards the protagonists. Others dismiss it as a stunt.

Burgess retorts: “If it’s a stunt, it’s a poor one because no one who buys Peperami has heard about it.” Nevertheless, Burgess does concede that the move has generated some handy PR, at least from a Unilever corporate perspective.

Though Burgess understands the view that an agency provides an enduring relationship and deep understanding, he doesn’t believe that a brand should be dependent on that.

He says: ”Poor clients cede stewardship of their brands to agencies when that should be the [marketers’] job.” He adds: “I’ve terminated my relationship with Lowe, and I will have no above-the-line agency relationship for Peperami.”

Burgess also denies that crowdsourcing can only be used for certain projects where no strategic thinking is required. He says that view is “complacent” and elaborates: “As I have been going through the process, I have become more confident that it can be applied to many, many other brands. At first I felt it was only for Peperami, but now I think there is a much wider applicable model here.”

The Idea Bounty online community platform used by Peperami is just one of a number of websites where groups or crowds can submit creative ideas to briefs from a variety of businesses and individuals; 99designs, and Crowdspring are two further examples of such internet-based communities.

Should traditional agencies feel threatened by this? Burgess says: “If agencies ignore or dismiss crowdsourcing, I think that is a huge error on their behalf. They should get in there and get involved and I don’t think it is just above-the-line. I think it’s applicable right across the spectrum.”

Others are also experimenting with fresh business models. Launched at the end of last month, Victors & Spoils claims to be the world’s first creative advertising agency based on crowdsourcing principles (see below).

The Colorado-based agency seeks to address the gap that critics of crowdsourcing have raised about the lack of a sustained understanding of a brand by acting as an intermediary between a company and the crowd, providing creative direction. The business is developing its own community, which it hopes will comprise of an elite group of professional creatives and planners.

The Victor & Spoils management sees a new age of agency business models on the horizon. Chief executive John Winsor says: “The reason that this whole way of working is so disruptive is now, in the digital age, aggregating a thousand people in an office with desks and computers and all kinds of infrastructure is just very expensive.”

Other non-traditional approaches are evolving as well. In the UK, Big Al’s Creative Emporium, founded in 2004, is based on principles that have some parallels to that of Victors & Spoils, in that it does not have a creative department.

Instead, based on the 20 years’ experience and industry contacts garnered by its founders Stef Jones and Tom Burnay, both former creative group heads at WCRS, it allocates briefs to a collective of available talent. While not exactly crowdsourcing, it allows clients access to a large group of creatives and aims to deliver a faster, cheaper service without sacrificing quality and devoid of the overheads traditional agencies carry.

Jones says: “We know the best teams and the best individuals, the fastest, the deepest, the most prolific – and the most anal. But most importantly, we know the best people for each brief. We know how to spot half ideas, who is the best to develop them, and turn them into great advertising.”

The marketing services industry has historically undergone several seismic shifts in terms of business models, so no one should be surprised if another change is now building momentum. The recession and the reality of digital transparency will change businesses forever, although the idea that global brands will dispense with the services of traditional agencies entirely seems somewhat far-fetched.

Nevertheless, marketers will be closely watching the results of the Peperami strategy; the ad is scheduled to air in the first quarter next year. If it proves viable, then it will be down to the agencies serving marketers to ensure their survival by heeding the words of Unilever’s Burgess. They must embrace democratic marketing and make themselves an important part of the process.


Case study

The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Victoria & Albert Museum is promoting its upcoming Decode: Digital Design Sensations exhibition by developing an extension of the exhibition with its audience, which will then be used to market it.

The idea behind the strategy is to speak specifically to the target audience, involving them in the very nature of the exhibition – one of the pillars of which is interactivity.

The campaign, for what is the V&A’s first exhibition dedicated to digital and interactive design, involves one of the artists, Karsten Schmidt, creating a bespoke piece of open-source artwork that will be used for the project’s marketing. A microsite will be built and promoted online. Users will be able to play with the artwork and post the results in an online gallery.

This material will then be used in other communications channels, such as digital outdoor sites on the London Underground. The campaign, the brainchild of Saint@RKCR/Y&R, is entitled Recode. Saint creative director Dave Gamble says: “Anyone can take part in creating this ‘user-renovated content’, which will then be used to promote the exhibition.”     

Working on a limited budget, the V&A is being careful with its media planning. It will target influencers online, maintain a dialogue with them and aim to get them involved. The idea is that the content will then spread in a way that is parallel to how people actually use the internet. 

There will also be some online display advertising which will link to the gallery and it is hoped there will be occasions when the exhibition can be hosted elsewhere as well.

Saint managing partner Zaid Al-Zaidy says: “You can do an awful lot online if you think smart and plan it wisely. What this campaign demonstrates is that brands should have the ambition to do something interesting and embrace the digital world in a way that is true to that world, rather than force themselves on it by splattering themselves over it. It’s a lesson in opportunity.”

He continues: “I think brands often allocate a lot of money to search marketing and things such as listings, where they can quantify a clear internal investment. Yes, it’s great that clients can see the number of clickthroughs and so on, but, in terms of exploiting a brand, it’s pretty limiting.”

Al-Zaidy says the V&A’s campaign for the Decode exhibition should be seen as an example of a brand enhancing its product through its marketing, as opposed to simply advertising it.

Democratic marketing glossary

Crowdsourcing – this is where the functions normally performed by a supplier or contracter, such as product design or advertising, are outsourced to a crowd of people or community. It is known in academic terms as a “distributed problem-solving and production model”.

Co-creation – this is the practice of developing new systems, products, designs or marketing through the collaboration of brands with consumers outside the organisation.


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