Creativity in numbers

LONDON - Unilever is experimenting with crowdsourcing for ads on an unparalleled scale.

Keith Weed certainly knows how to make an entrance. The first major piece of activity signed off by Unilever's new chief marketing and communications officer is the company's most ambitious attempt at crowdsourcing to date.

The activity centres on a global initiative, unveiled last week, to source consumer-generated advertising content. This is not an original idea, but it is taking place on an unprecedented scale - 13 of Unilever's biggest global brands are involved, with the goal of finding content that can run in multiple markets, either on TV or via online channels.

The plan represents a step up from Unilever's previous experiments in this area, which used single brands in single markets. Last year, for example, it dropped Lowe from the Peperami account and held a crowdsourcing contest to find replacement creative, while in China it asked consumers to post videos based on Lipton tea.

It should also be noted that the latest invitation is aimed squarely at film-makers, not consumers in general. In that respect, it is similar to the Peperami exercise, which was carried out via creative network Idea Bounty.

Babs Rangaiah, Unilever's vice-president of global communications planning, says the lesson learned from earlier campaigns was that crowdsourcing should not be 'about getting a million people creating ads'; instead he is looking for entry numbers in the hundreds. He believes the company can tap into a desire among a film-making audience for visibility and the chance to advance their careers. 'Using this technique properly can produce some really engaging ideas,' he says.

Unilever is paying out £70,000 in prizes - a relatively small investment for creative ideas. According to Carl Ratcliff, planning director at ad agency MCBD, who worked last year on a campaign for OXO built around user-generated content, the approach could allow Unilever to focus its investment on media buys. For example, OXO, he says, was able to secure high-profile slots around The X Factor.

Of course, squeezing creative costs in this way may not go down well with a brand's creative partners. Rangaiah insists that the strategy does not 'replace or interfere with our relationships with agencies'.

However, the agencies in question show a marked unwillingness to comment on the idea. Off the record, executives at some of Unilever's agency partners express disgruntlement with being so publicly bypassed. 'It's not just about coming up with an idea, it's about following it up with a coherent campaign,' says one. Rory Sutherland, president of the IPA, also questions why crowdsourced campaigns are judged on their likeability alone.

Opposing views

These critics may have a point. After all, the Lynx campaigns by Bartle Bogle Hegarty are often held up as an example of successful long-term marketing. Why, then, would Unilever run the risk of disrupting such work? Ratcliff contends, however that this risk is negligible: 'This is allowing consumers to play at the margins. Those margins are never going to take centre stage.'

Nevertheless, such crowdsourcing initiatives are unlikely to go away. Rangaiah confirms it is 'more than a one-off' for Unilever.

Alastair Duncan, partner at crowdsourcing agency Alternative Genius, argues clients are looking at these options because they are 'frustrated'. 'With Peperami, Unilever's frustration was that it felt it was bottom of the (agency's) food chain,' he claims. 'It would issue a brief and weeks later it would get an idea.'

Ultimately, Unilever's approach will be judged on the ideas that result from it. While simply adopting a crowdsourcing strategy still secures free publicity, its growing use means it will have to evolve into something more than a gimmick. As Nick Emmel, executive planning director at Dare, says: 'The PR ability of the new mechanic has a very brief shelf-life. So the weight of long-term brand and business expectations will lie squarely with the crowdsourced creative.'

It should be noted that an ad has yet to appear from last year's Peperami campaign. The jury, then, is still out as to whether a strategy of lasting value can be developed this way.

UNILEVER'S AD CONTEST

The FMCG company has thrown down the creative gauntlet to film-makers across the world

- The Unilever Consumer Creative Challenge is a collaboration with MOFILM, an online community of film-makers.

- It is asking for content inspired by 13 of its global brands: Lynx, Ben & Jerry's, Close Up, Dove deodorant, Wall's ice cream, Knorr, Lifebuoy, Lipton, Comfort, Sure, Surf, Sunsilk and Vaseline.

- For each brand a winner and four runners-up will be announced in October. Each will receive a prize, with the overall winner taking home an additional £5000.

- Full briefs for each brand are available at the MOFILM website. Unilever is keen to find ideas that can run across all of the brand's key global markets.

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