Will crowdsourcing make agencies strategic again?

Columnist Patrick Armitage discusses the pros and cons of crowdsourcing and explains how the sharing economy can give agencies more time to focus on ideas and strategy.

From Openprise's "Martech Data Report"

I attended the now-defunct Bolo Conference in Arizona last year. The majority of its attendants were either creative agencies or firms that catered to agencies.

One theme, heard over and over again, was the need for agencies to become a more strategic partner to their clients. There was growing discontent that established, traditional agencies were getting left behind by smaller, more nimble firms. And in many cases, clients were taking their needs in-house.

Why? Because many agencies didn’t see or weren’t structured to address the rise of three trends in media:

  • Content marketing and social
  • Analytics
  • Mobile

Why agencies lost influence

Agencies were originally built for campaign-centric projects: The client has an initiative, an agency builds a campaign to promote that initiative, and the campaign runs its course. Rinse. Repeat.

When content marketing, analytics and mobile came along, agencies didn’t have the staff, the expertise or the infrastructure to address changing client needs. As a result, clients went to specialty shops, found software solutions or hired boutique agencies that focused on doing one thing well.

The truth is, “integrated marketing” and “full-service” agencies don’t mean anything anymore. Agencies that focus on a discipline, channel or industry are better positioned than those that don’t as the professional services industry gets increasingly specialized

But there is hope for those integrated or full-service agencies losing work to specialized design, video, social and mobile shops.

Building a progressive agency model

I believe the progressive agency model will figure out how to find the right balance between in-house expertise for strategy and crowdsourcing for execution.

Agencies want to be strategic partners to their clients. But few are. The initial agency/client relationship may start as a strategic one. But without a careful eye on the tenor of the partnership, it can quickly devolve into clients using their agency as a design shop or errand boy for last-minute fire drills or trade shows. Agencies become doers instead of thinkers.

Agency/client relationships atrophy for one reason: Work gets in the way.

Ideas and strategy become compromised when agencies get stuck in the vicious cycle of execution, meeting deadlines and taking orders from clients. And what’s more, in-house talent burns out. It’s why agencies have a turnover problem.

Four things successful agencies do well

In the face of daily fire drills, filling talent gaps, employees leaving and trying to scale to meet the needs of their clients, agencies should keep their eyes on doing four things well:

  • Scale teams, expertise and resources efficiently.
  • Ensure employees stay happy, fully optimized and billable.
  • Deliver on time, on budget and scope for their clients.
  • Above all else, remain a strategic partner to their clients.

But these four items take time. Agencies are handcuffed by time: billable time and time available to get to every client need. Crowdsourcing is one way for agencies to rethink how they allocate time.

How crowdsourcing creates time for strategy

The sharing, crowdsourcing, whatever-you-want-to-call-it economy can get agencies back to doing what they do best: ideas and strategy.

Agencies sell time. Their time. If their time is spent doing something that could be crowdsourced, it undermines the value of their time.

Agencies crowdsourced work long before the word “crowdsourcing” even existed. It was called “freelance.” But freelancers are notoriously hit-or-miss. What’s more, if an agency found a freelancer, the relationship dynamics, payment, scheduling and freelancer’s needs changed each time.

Crowdsourcing platforms have started to put structure around a motivated, talented workforce available and capable of helping agencies.

Major brands have already figured this out. It’s the agencies playing catch-up that still have some learning to do.

Brands that already used crowdsourcing in a significant way from 2004 to 2014 increased their usage by over 30 percent in 2015 alone “The state of crowdsourcing in 2016”

In my agency experience, freelancers were discovered three ways:

  • “Does anyone know a freelancer?”
  • Google “freelancer”
  • Go to Craigslist

And the advertising industry appears to be coming around to the idea. As one ad exec, James DeJulio, told Mashable: “It’s nontraditional work, and it’s a model that’s really starting to catch on… And creative people are enabled by technology now to do what only big organizations could do before.”

Pros and cons of crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has its fans and naysayers, to be sure. Nevertheless, it continues to grow, and the ability to leverage expertise and additional resources without retraining or hiring additional staff is undeniable.

Pro: Retain strategic resources in-house

There is no reason an agency’s senior, full-time designer (billing $200+/hour) shouldn’t be making small edits if that work can be outsourced to thousands of capable designers around the world. This is how agencies eat into their profit margins.

Pro: Happy employees = Better employees

Finding more efficient means to address relatively menial tasks will keep employees happy. Consider the senior designer making minute design edits. She knows her value to the agency and their clients is more than editing and resizing. It’s ideas, strategy and setting the direction of the creative. By putting her on less profitable work, agencies are not only eating into their profits; they’re also eating into employee morale.

Pro: Build scale and expertise 

Social media agencies, mobile design shops and influencer marketing companies stole market share from large agencies when mobile, analytics and content exploded.

And for the benefits, there are certainly caveats of crowdsourcing worth noting.

Cons: Bridging the skills gap

Crowdsourcing platforms run the gamut of talent. Agencies want to make sure crowdworkers have the ability to create a work product that can stand on its own.

Brands and agencies are still getting comfortable with the idea of crowdsourcing. But consumers are also crowdworkers. And the undeniable truth of crowdsourcing is that great ideas and great work can come from anywhere.

Whether using a crowdsourced platform to find talent or launching crowd-based feedback, finding talent will take upfront work, but the payoff at the end can be massive.

Crowdsourcing platforms continue to proliferate for agencies looking to outsource design edits, HR needs, accounting, copywriting and programming.

Cons: Intellectual property/Lack of NDAs

Rarely are things kept confidential on the internet anymore. And the concern for many agencies remains the lack of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and who/what owns the intellectual property of the work. Of course, the transparency is on a case-by-case basis. That said, it remains a blind spot for many crowdsourced companies and services.

Cons: Misalignment of expectations

The crowdsourcing economy is growing, specializing and offering a host of options and skill types to agencies. But understanding what the crowd is capable of executing remains an issue.

If your agency wants to start crowdsourcing, start small and identify the tasks that can easily be outsourced or crowdsourced within your agency. Once you’ve identified those areas, look to crowdsourcing platforms that can meet those needs.

There’s no doubt account managers, designers and copywriters are doing tasks that could be outsourced so they can work on more strategic projects. It’s just a matter of making those organizational changes a priority.

Can crowdsourcing make agencies more strategic?

The reality is: Crowdsourcing and the gig economy continue to grow. And brands, as well as many progressive agencies, are coming around to the idea of crowdsourcing.

But it comes down to delegation. There are crowdsourcing solutions for almost any agency need. When agency owners or account directors stop to consider the benefits of crowdsourcing, it’s up to them to make it a part of their process.

For agencies, it’s not about being strategic just for their clients — it also means being strategic for themselves.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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