“More Parks sausages, Mom! Please?”
Today’s Maryland children don’t remember the series of sausage ads that ran for decades beginning in the 1950s — but their parents do.
Little known fact: The familiar plaintive entreaty doesn’t actually come from the little boy featured in the ads. It’s a voiceover performed by none other than Mark Walsh’s mother.
Her proud son fills in the details: “You know that ad? Of course you do. Well, that’s my mother. She was an adult even back then, but she had this great childlike voice. She still does. She can still do that voice.”
During Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s latest campaign, Walsh pitched an idea to the governor: Record his mother as she said, in that same time-honored cadence: “Martin O’Malley for governor! Please?”
In Walsh’s eyes, there was no better talent to pull in than his own mother at that stage of the campaign.
But O’Malley didn’t bite on the Parks sausage pitch. Walsh still thinks O’Malley made a mistake. “The slogan would have been perfect,” he said, raising his hands and looking at the ceiling in exaggerated pain.
To Walsh, whose brain seems to be in a state of constant storm, the idea still holds the gold-nugget promise of immediate recognition, instant sell — and a fair fee for his mom, of course.
He can’t let it go, saying: “There must be someone out there, someone who’s running for something, who will use this.”
And then, in the midst of mumbling political names under his breath, testing the syllables to see which work best within the rhythmic confines of the slogan, he abruptly returns to the present: “Oh. Yes. Now, see, we’ve just had a crowdsourcing moment. Just now.”
Mining Gold From the Mosh Pit
“Crowdsourcing,” a term first coined by writer Jeff Howe in Wired magazine in 2006, is the business of outsourcing tasks to an undefined, large group of people or a community through an open call. The call can come in the form of a contest, challenge or question, and is almost always distributed via the Web.
Out of the rabble of responses, it’s the crowdsourcer’s job to find the people most fit to perform the task, then further narrow that group to the people who have the most relevant or creative ideas — to shake the pan until the gold glints appear.
Walsh has sharpened this concept into a business model with GeniusRocket, his latest in a string of successful entrepreneurial ventures. He is billing his latest brainstorm as “The First Curated Crowdsourcing Company.”
Curated, as in a museum.
A curator supervises, cares for and makes decisions on behalf of a museum or, in this case, on behalf of the crowd.
When a client approaches GeniusRocket for advertising media, an in-house team helps that client craft a descriptive brief outlining direction, strategies and goals for the brand. Then, GeniusRocket taps an already-vetted global team of more than 14,000 artists and production people. These are not GeniusRocket employees, but they have applied and been accepted into GeniusRocket’s community of artists.
When a call goes out from GeniusRocket, these pre-qualified artists and production teams are invited to submit detailed written concepts. From this pile of responses, GeniusRocket helps clients choose a few finalists who will move forward with production. These selected artists create storyboards for the clients, with GeniusRocket continuing to serve as the managing intermediary. At this point, the client again narrows the selection of ideas. Artists who make it to the storyboarding stage but do not move on to production still are compensated for their work, and they retain legal ownership of their idea.
The pile narrows even further. Selected artists move on to produce ads while GeniusRocket oversees all legal and copyright transfer of the purchased content as well as payment to the creative teams.
The results have attracted the eye of big-name clients: Sony, Heinz, Aquafina and hundreds of others. And Walsh’s system of mining gold from the mosh pit of creative people has attracted the wary eye of faltering big ad agencies.
Who’s Got Talent? Everyone.
In the waning era of upper-crust ad agencies that sink millions of dollars into a single ad, GeniusRocket is seen as an upstart, maybe even a threat.
In this waxing era of viral videos, instant online recognition and general obsession with televised talent shows and dance contests, GeniusRocket fits right in.
A common complaint about crowdsourcing is that it tends to blur the line between professionals and amateurs. From Walsh’s perspective, that’s precisely the point. Talent can bubble up from anywhere: from a housewife in Sweden, from a seasoned professional animator, from his mother.
“Some people we vet aren’t professionals, but they are talented,” he said. “I care more about vetted versus unvetted than professional versus unprofessional.”
GeniusRocket vets artists by considering their specialty, such as animator, copywriter, “big idea person” and the like. Artists submit links to demo reels and their other work.
Walsh believes that a sea of minds considering the same challenge will yield a more creative result than the same in-house staff day in and day out.
He also believes that today’s consumers are the toughest ad audience yet. They simply won’t tolerate ads that aren’t entertaining. “We have been insulted and demeaned as customers by the big-ad agency mentality,” he said, “by the two-Cs-and-a-K [that’s two-‘chicks’-in-a-kitchen for those outside the advertising world] scenario that worked in the era of three-network TV.”
‘A Dash of Agency’
The reason crowdsourcing works for GeniusRocket is because the company has honed a business structure that combines the resources of the crowd with thoughtful checks and controls — what GeniusRocket President Peter LaMotte calls “a dash of agency.”
In other words, it’s not the free-for-all that YouTube has become — a world in which “talent” can consist of Uncle Ozzy making rude noises with his hand in his armpit, news junkies posting non-edited videos of car fires, and cute puppies falling asleep in their water bowls.
“Unacceptable,” said LaMotte. “We expect professionalism, and we not only vet people, we also have our own team that vets all creative ideas. We conduct online back-and-forth sessions between artists and clients, and we hold pre-production meetings.”
But even with the vetting and screening taken into account, crowdsourcing draws on the philosophy that there is wisdom among numbers, explained Walsh.
“If you have a jar of jellybeans on the table, and you ask 10 people to guess the number, you will get a lot closer to the correct answer if you ask 10 million people,” he said. “There is an incredible amount of talent in the world, and a lot of it is coming from non-U.S. citizens, like it or not.”
Walsh has ridden more tech-world waves than most other entrepreneurs, even the over-achieving ones. Before founding GeniusRocket, Walsh was CEO of VerticalNet and, before that, served as a vice president at AOL. He also was president of General Electric’s online service, as well as director of new business development for HBO.
His experiences are varied, but he says one important lesson is consistent: Bubbles eventually burst.
“First at Microsoft, you saw guys with ponytails and surfboards on top of their Jeeps who were 27 years old, getting rich. Then at AOL, you saw the same guys with their ponytails and surfboards on top of their Jeeps, again getting rich. When I visited Google in 2009, I saw in the lobby there, they have one of those endless pools. And they hire a lifeguard, a woman who just sits there with her nose painted white. A lifeguard at the endless pool. They’d better enjoy it while it lasts. It’s amusing to me. I see the same curve, over and over. It doesn’t last.”
Walsh believes the time has come for the wisdom of crowds to prevail over the concentration of ideas in the hands of a few.
The crowdsourcing model has been coming into play in other sectors as well, with very visible results. Massachusetts-based InnoCentive has pulled ideas from the crowd that include affordable drugs to treat tuberculosis and a biomarker for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients, among others.
While some applaud the model of crowdsourcing — and few can dispute the results at this point — others are profoundly threatened by it, said Walsh.
“This is staggeringly disruptive to a lot of current players out there who have been working in their silos. Well, I’ve got news for them: The crowd is cheaper. And they’re talented.”