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Citizen Draper

Crowdsourcing is poised to change the way advertisements are made, which isn’t the best news for Madison Avenue

Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Dave Murray


Some of the more compelling scenes in the show “Mad Men” involve Don Draper striding into a conference room and beguiling his clients with a brilliant, incisive pitch for selling deodorant or cigarettes. Draper is the paragon of the ad agency creative director—slick, erudite, discerning. This month, the first part of the final season of “Mad Men” premieres on AMC, and the age-old Don Draper model of advertising creativity may be on its way out too.  

As ever, the disruption is being caused by the Internet. The culprit in this instance is James De Julio, a 38-year-old Boston College grad, former senior vice president at Paramount Pictures and co-founder of Tongal, an enterprise he set up in 2008 with a couple of college buddies that would make David Ogilvy spin in his grave.

Based in Santa Monica, Calif., the firm is at the forefront of a new model of advertising, one that aims to reach the consumer via creatives who have an unusually clear sense of what ordinary people think and feel—largely because they themselves are ordinary people. The way Tongal does this is through crowdsourcing, or what might perhaps be termed “citizen branding.”

Tongal solicits its creative campaigns through online contests on its website. First, people submit basic ideas in 140 characters or less, after which prospective directors submit proposals on how to execute the winning ideas. Five finalists receive $1,000 to $10,000 to produce an ad, plus more after they turn it in. Finally, the client picks a winning director, who can receive tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the scale of the campaign. For a typical project, about 500 people submit proposals.

The idea seems to be catching on. De Julio says Tongal handles up to 200 projects each year, with fees ranging from the low five figures to six figures or more. McDonald’s, Lego and Gillette have all used its services, and last year the company secured a $15 million round of funding from Insight Venture Partners, backer of Twitter and Tumblr. And the company’s clients tend to come back—about 80 percent of Tongal’s business is repeat.

There are hurdles, of course. Despite the tendency of corporate brand managers to extol the virtues of guerrilla marketing, Tongal’s approach—actually executing radical changes rather than talking about them—can make clients jittery. Where’s the psychometric research, the five-year plan, the 158-page breakdown of ROI? Where’s Don Draper? “This is creativity on steroids, and not in a good way,” says marketing consultant Jack Trout, expressing a common criticism. “It lacks analysis of the competition, the starting point.”

De Julio, however, insists that the work Tongal produces is as professional and effective as that of any conventional agency. “This is not just some guy,” he says of his contributors. “This is someone who is really talented and ambitious and wants it so bad he is willing to take a decent amount of risk.”

De Julio says that talented (and persistent) contributors can make $300,000 a year, but few are getting rich from this. Frank Limbaugh, a 46-year-old law-firm copy center manager in Boring, Ore., got only $250 last year for an idea he came up with for a Pringles ad, in which an office worker and his boss (Darth Vader) engage in a light-saber fight. He also got $1,400 in residuals. But to talk to Limbaugh, it’s not about the money. “It was fun,” he says. “You don’t get to use that part of your brain in my line of work.”

For Erik Beck, the 32-year-old filmmaker who co-directed the resulting ad, the $25,000 prize paled beside the fact that his spot ran on ABC. “To see our Darth Vader in costume, fighting in a light-saber battle?” he says. “You have to pinch yourself.”

Predictably, traditional agencies don’t view crowdsourced ads with the same enthusiasm. Aki Spicer, head of digital strategy at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, says the practice results in “random one-hit wonders, not brand stewardship. You need to understand the long-term issues and problems of the brand.”

You could argue, though, that fretting about “the problems of the brand” is a surefire way to stifle creativity. De Julio’s aim is to let people enjoy themselves, in the hope that their work will reflect a sense of fun rather than responsibility. With Tongal’s ads, he says, “there aren’t a million conference calls with people agonizing over every wardrobe decision. You have the freedom to fail.”

And once you’ve embraced this basic principle, “you suddenly have this massive batch of people engaging with the brand, thinking about it in the shower.”
Cristina Rouvalis, a Pittsburgh-based writer, is exploring the possibility of crowd-sourcing her laundry.

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