Is John Winsor Bringing Industry Full Circle?

Victors & Spoils Founder on Difference Between Crowdsourcing and 'Expert Sourcing'

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield

This is going to get philosophical verging on mystical before it's over with, but let's start with a simple question: What's the best way to locate a good advertising idea?

Let's also save time by eliminating the method employed by most advertising agencies for most clients for most of the past 50 or 60 years: one art director and one copywriter riffing on layouts and storyboards until they hit pay dirt.

In parimutuel circles, that's what you call a long shot. Because no matter how good the talent, and how good the brief, the output is limited to the imaginations of two people, either or both who could be ill-suited to the task, motivated by the wrong values, hostile to the client, fixated on a path leading in the wrong direction or just plain drawing a blank. Some agencies therefore impose a bit of creative tension by assigning, say, three teams to the same task. Putting aside the toll of such competitions on the human psyche, and the dollar cost, the odds are rendered exactly one-third as awful, but not exactly a house advantage.

That's why back in the '80s and '90s, when global campaigns were all the rage, I used to beg advertisers to just say no. Not only was this gimmick a transparent (and self-dealing) strategy of multinational agencies to consolidate business under one roof, and not only did it deprive advertisers of the extraordinary power of local and regional culture, it reduced the chance of blundering upon a bona fide Big Idea to virtually zero. If you have 100 offices working the problem, your chances of finding a genuinely universal solution are 100 times greater than if you entrust the brand to one set of supposed geniuses in New York or wherever.

It was the only opportunity advertisers had to tap into any kind of collective imagination, and a lot of them -- seduced by illusory "efficiencies" -- blew it. The result was efficiently deployed terrible ad campaigns the world over. That's what you call penny wise, pound foolish.

But now here we are in the digital age, and with it we have the miracle of crowdsourcing. Poptent, GeniusRocket, GiantHydra, Victors & Spoils -- in various ways they all tap cognitive surplus on behalf of individual creative problems, increasing by a large multiple an advertiser's chances for success. Two expensive prima donnas in a high-rent office? How about, say, 700 hungry thinkers in their jammies all over creation?

"We're trying to create a new operating system for the advertising industry," said John Winsor, founder of Victors & Spoils. "We're trying to create a meritocracy."

Winsor is no newcomer to the world of disruptive technology. As he tells the story -- and, believe me, he tells it to everyone -- 25 years ago as a publisher of a regional running magazine he embraced desktop publishing because the existing model meant huge typesetting bills from his commercial printer. Thus began a publishing empire that would secure his fortune, and a lifelong disrespect for the status quo.

"Our culture and capitalism forces radical change," he says. "As I told my typesetters, I wish I could go with you guys, but I can't afford you. I choose to be in business."

As that philosophy applies to advertising, "You can't charge people hundreds of thousand of dollars to produce a YouTube video when 12-year-olds can make a video on their iPhone and publish it with one button." Hence: crowdsourcing. Hence: the community of creatives under the virtual banner of Victors & Spoils.

Pretty irresistible, seems to me. Lots of aggregated IQ. Low overhead. Zero exposure to sexual harassment suits and cocaine-related catastrophe.

Except for a few little matters:

1) Many in the crowd are rank amateurs or otherwise talentless. 2) Maybe a marketer doesn't wish to dispatch its brief -- the one laying bare its business problems and strategy -- to 700 nobodies. Hell, maybe some of the "creators" are undercover agents of the competition. 3) One-offs are swell, but maybe the marketer also prizes continuity and expertise, which are hard to get ad hoc from invisible strangers. 4) Some warm-blooded clients might harbor misgivings about being a Dickensian caricature of capitalist swine, relegating the proletariat to the streets to fight over crumbs.

On that final point, the class of Vulnerable Established are extremely sensitive. My past inquiries into crowdsourcing have yielded comment traffic seething with outrage and indignation. For his part, Winsor offers a shrug. (At least, I think it was a shrug. As we spoke, I was on the East Coast freezing my proletarian ass off and he was in his Baja, California, second home looking at the Pacific surf.) To him, it is but the toll of progress. The Industrial Revolution was bad for cobblers, but good for shoe buyers and the economy at large.

"Throughout history the drop in the price of technology changes the playing field," he said. "It's gonna put some folks out of business."

Stipulated. But where things get really interesting are in dealing with the haphazardness of the crowd. For all of the above reasons, Victors & Spoils has built the majority of its business not around the random PJ-o-Sphere, but around a cluster of top performers who sign nondisclosure agreements and dedicate themselves to specific brands. A Samurai class. Mercenaries. Or, as they're usually called ...


"More like expert sourcing," Winsor said.

OK, fine, let's call it expert sourcing. But it has a sort of back-to-the-future quality to it, does it not? It's like an Escher print, wherein perspective seems from some angles to negate itself. I asked John Winsor, "Wait ... are you on a path back to the old model?"

"That's a great question," he replied. And it is.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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