The Myth of Co-creation

Co-creation is one of the many myths propagated by the apostles of web 2.0. They would have us believe that millions of consumers are actively involved in the creation of ideas and concepts for their favourite brands. In fact why bother employing an agency creative team when there are millions of wannabe creative directors out there, willing to apply their brains and ‘Magic Markers’ to your brief. We are all creatives now.

The reality, according to The Future Foundation, is that only 15% of British consumers claim to have participated in some form of branded co-creation. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t creative – The Future Foundation also claims that around 50% of consumers say that ‘expressing their creativity is important to them’ and 60% regard creativity as ‘a route to personal fulfilment’ – they just don’t necessarily want to apply this creative urge to your brand or service.

The vast majority of successful co-creation or creative crowdsourcing initiatives have been more a case of ‘expert-sourcing’: this is more than mere semantics, the distinction is important. During the summer of 2009 Unilever decided to abandon the usual practice of deploying an advertising agency on its Peperami brand. It dismissed the agency that had worked on the brand for 15 years and created the successful ‘bit of an animal’ campaign and instead offered a prize of $10,000 to any creative team that could come up with the best-executed idea. Although the Unilever spokesperson claimed that the winning idea could come from a ‘plumber from Barnsley’, the fact that the contest was being run through an online community for creatives called underlined how Unilever wanted primarily to attract entries from professional creative teams. The company also promoted the competition on the freelance recruitment sections of the major advertising and marketing blogs. It was therefore hardly surprising that the winning entry didn’t come from a Barnsley plumber, but from a former agency creative director working alongside a freelance copywriter. Nic Ray, speaking on behalf of the freelance creative community, explained the attraction of this approach for his peers: ‘ almost all agency creatives work on freelance briefs outside of their normal employ – and get paid substantially less than $10k for doing so. Here’s an opportunity to work on one of the UK’s most iconic (and irreverent) brands, pull out those brilliant back draw ideas that were never sold and have some fun shaking up the industry in the process.’

When it comes to involving members of the public it is far more appropriate for brand owners and agencies to talk about creative collaboration rather than co-creation or creative crowdsourcing. People are happy to collaborate on many different levels – depending on this level of interest in or enthusiasm for a particular brand or service – but you have to make it easy for them. Don’t give them a blank sheet of paper but instead give them the tools to customise and adapt. And don’t ask them to come up with ideas from scratch. Writer Eric Raymond used the metaphor of the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ to describe two very different models of innovation within the software industry. The bazaar represents the loose, open source approach, harnessing the skills of the wider developer community, whereas the ‘cathedral’ represents the traditional, tightly controlled model. Raymond argues that both approaches are valid and potentially complementary, although the experience of the software industry suggests that the ‘bazaar’ is not particularly effective at originating concepts, which still rely on the spark of individual genius to make them happen, but is very effective at testing and improving them. So in the case of your creative brief, you still need the creative thinkers – working within the company’s or agency’s ‘cathedral’, to come up with the original ideas, which can then be tested and fine-tuned by the members of the ‘bazaar’.

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