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Will marketing ideas always come from marketers?

September 11, 2009

There is wisdom in crowds. This has been tested and proven, over and over and over. In one of my all-time favorite Radio Lab episodes, quite possibly my favorite hour of radio, period, they tell a story about the wisdom of crowds.

They tell the story of Sir Francis Galton, who wanted to prove that common people weren’t altogether that clever. After watching a bunch of people try to guess the weight of a Ox at a fair, he asked for all the answers. His idea was that everyone would be staggeringly off, and would prove that these people are dumb.

Problem was, when the results of all these so-called dumb people were tabulated, the mean answer of the guesses was off by one pound. And the Ox weighed over 1,100 pounds. Meaning, the crowd got the weight right.

This has been tested over and over with Jelly Beans in a jar. The crowd usually gets it right. Crowds are collectively smarter than individuals.

Google works because of the wisdom of crowds. The more people who link to a page with words that match your search string, the higher it comes in results.

So, this begs the question: can crowds come up with better ideas? And if they can, will we need marketers like me? I will address this in three acts.

Act I — The Idea

“Seems like we tend to be nostalgic about the past and fearful of the future. But each time the future actually arrives and becomes the present we feel like it’s just the way things should be.”
From here, a conversation on the future of ideas.

In this act, Alex Bogusky talks about ideas. There’s a lot of good content (ideas) in this post. But my favorite notion comes from this: smart ideas are ones that get produced. One can argue that agencies are better at producing ideas than random people (in general), but that doesn’t mean that crowdsourcing is a bad thing. But it does give a vote to agencies being a conduit for ideas.

Then, you come to Act II.

Act II — Marketers need not apply

“As markets morph into Web 2.0 “conversations” and consumers gain much greater freedom to pursue their own interests, customers are doing things that online marketing managers don’t necessarily want—or expect—them to do. For example, they can easily connect with one another, often using multimedia sites such as YouTube and Flickr, so they themselves can satisfy their need for information about products. What’s more, consumers may trust information obtained in this way much more than they do information from your company.”

From here, a McKinsey Quarterly “Though starter”, and the thought is we marketers are irrelevant. I put thought starter in quotes because I think this is meant to be a drastic argument to get conversation going.

Yes, people can and are getting opinions, sharing ideas from their network. But does that really mean that marketers are no longer relevant? That seems like a stretch. I think it means that marketers have to work harder.

But let’s think back a minute to the wisdom of crowds. If you listened to the Radio Lab episode (and please, go listen, how many times has someone even told you they had a favorite hour of radio?), you’ll know that the crowd is collectively smarter than the people. Meaning, yes, you can get “mean” good ideas from the crowd, but someone has to both identify the mean idea, and then produce it.

Give me a camera with lots of memory, and I can take a few good pictures. But that doesn’t make me a photographer. The difference between me and a photographer is that the photographer isn’t lucky, and I am. They not only know when they’ve got a good shot, they know why.

Act III – Marketers apply what you know.

3. “…it is our job as marketers to set the strategy for a brand and create clarity around what it stands for. It is our job to ensure that the brand is valuable to its consumers. Key to that process is anticipating what people will need from the brand, then building assets that allow the brand to fulfill that need, and finally communicating the brand offer coherently across all points of contact. Only if we fail to add value to a brand in this way will we be sidelined as Donna suggests.”

This is Nigel Hollis, responding to Donna from Act II.

We can take the ideas from people. But that’s not the only thing we need to understand. We need to understand how an idea fits into the bigger picture. Just for a second consider the role of a creative director. In the agency, the creative director’s role is to make the idea better. But not in a “I would like it better if you did this”, but more so in a way that is better for the brand.


What if the agency was thought of as a crowd? Bogusky suggests that we’re all creative. something I agree with. I don’t like it when people say they aren’t creative because I disagree. Creativity can simply mean asking yourself why, and then trying to answer it. So there’s wisdom in an ad agency. Each person brings their own creativity to the assignment, from different disciplines. It’s not just about the idea, but it’s about how the idea will resonate to the right people in the right place. In this crowd, there’s wisdom.

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