Unilever's So-Called Crowdsourcing

Why This Marketing Prof Thinks the CPG Giant's Move Is a Cop-Out

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Brian Sheehan
Brian Sheehan
When is crowdsourcing not really crowdsourcing? When it is Unilever's Peperami.

Last week an article hit the advertising press that sent shivers down the collective spines of Madison Avenue. Unilever, one of the world's largest advertisers, fired its agency, Lowe, London, on the Peperami brand. Peperami is a popular snack in the U.K. roughly equivalent to a Slim Jim.

What made the decision doubly painful for Lowe was that it was fired not for doing a bad job, but for doing a good one. Matt Burgess, managing director at Unilever, said, "Lowe has done great work on the account over the years. They've created a strong creative vehicle that's extremely well defined and portable. But their work has created a problem for them, because it makes Peperami the obvious candidate for crowdsourcing."

Agencies get fired every day. What makes this case unique, however, is that the agency was not replaced by another agency; it was replaced by what Unilever claims to be a "crowdsourcing" solution.

Now this all sounds very leading edge in a digital, social-media sort of way. But let's dig a little deeper and ask ourselves if Unilever's approach is actually crowdsourcing or something very different.

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First of all, what exactly is crowdsourcing? Perhaps the place to start is to ask what we mean by a "crowd," and more specifically, a digital crowd. The best place to look for that definition is in James Surowiecki's seminal 2004 book "The Wisdom of Crowds." It is safe to say that the term "crowdsourcing," which was coined in Wired magazine in 2006, owes its origins to Surowiecki.

Surowiecki tells us that a digital "wise crowd" must be diverse, so that lots of different opinions are represented. It must be decentralized so no single person can influence the outcome. It must be independent, so that "good" information can balance out "bad" information. Finally, it must be collaborative, so that it can result in "collective intelligence." Wikipedia, for example, is all of these things.

The last point about collective intelligence is critical. Crowdsourcing at its core is about mass collaboration. Unilever's move, on the other hand, is nothing of the sort. Unilever is looking for no collaboration here. What it is looking for is to get lots of high-quality creative ideas at a significantly lower price. End of story.

What it has created is nothing like crowdsourcing, but rather an ongoing contest to create new advertising executions at a vastly reduced price. Unilever is offering a bounty of $10,000 for the person who can develop the winning TV and print ideas. Unlike other famous brands that have sourced creative from consumers, for example Doritos for its Super Bowl ads, Unilever is specifically looking for professional ad people to put forward ideas. Advertising Age's story about the Peperami move, from a few weeks back, noted that professionals in creative businesses were specifically "who the pitch was marketed to."

The best entry will win. There will be no mass collaboration of the type Procter & Gamble uses when it taps InnoCentive.com to connect to a crowd of over 140,000 scientists and engineers worldwide to solve research and development dilemmas. Mr. Burgess admitted in the article that cost was a key factor, as well as the ability to get more ideas from more professional creatives.

Now don't get me wrong, I have no problem with Unilever's move. It may be a look into the future where professional ideas are more numerous and much cheaper, thanks to online outreach, fitting in nicely with the pronouncements of Ad Age's own Bob Garfield.

But please, Unilever, don't insult our intelligence by packaging it as a leading-edge mass-collaborative exercise, an exercise that truly represents a step forward toward creative collective intelligence.

Brian Sheehan spent 25 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, the last nine years as chairman-CEO of Team One Advertising in Los Angeles. In 2008, he became associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University.
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