As a small “d” democrat, and as someone who is skeptical about the idea of expertise, I’m a fan of decentralized power.
Decentralized political power, a.k.a. democracy. Decentralized economic power, a.k.a. markets. Decentralized computing power, a.k.a. the Internet. Decentralized media power, a.k.a. blogs. Decentralized power, literally, a.k.a., rooftop solar. You get the idea.
That’s why I’m interested a start-up company called Genius Rocket, headquartered near my home in Bethesda, Md. (“Headquartered” is a stretch: Genius Rocket has just five full-time employees.) But this little company is built on a big idea: That advertising and marketing can be crowdsourced. Which is a fancy way of saying that two or 200 or 2,000 heads are better than one.
In practice, this means that entrepreneurs, startups, small companies, nonprofits and others who can’t afford high-priced Madison Avenue agencies can let Genius Rocket become their virtual ad agency and outsource their creative work to a global crowd–13,956 minds, at last count.
Customers include nonprofits like Ashoka, which promotes social enterpreneurs, Riverkeeper, the clean-water advocacy group led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Kopernik, a new and very cool bottom-of-the-pyramid NGO, about which more another day; small companies like Al Fresco All Natural, which commissioned a video for its chicken sausage, and True Lemon; and big brands like Sony Bravia and PepsiCo.
Recently, I had lunch with Mark Walsh, the CEO of Genius Rocket. (Small world: I wrote short piece about Vertical Net, Mark’s b-to-b web company, in 1997 for FORTUNE, headlined The Web’s Trashiest Site: SolidWaste.Com!) Mark, who is 55, a lively guy who has had an action-packed business career, working at HBO during the early days of cable, at AOL during the early days of the web, then at Vertical Net where he made a pile of money and more recently as the volunteer Internet guru for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and the founding CEO of Air America. “I’ve always been a new business junkie,” he told me.
Advertising is in Mark’s DNA. His dad ran an agency in Baltimore and his mother provided the voice for one of the best-known commercial slogans of the 1960s: “More Park Sausages Mom! Please…” Now, by eliminating the costly infrastructure of an advertising agency, and by drawing upon the creativity of many, Genius Rocket can create Internet videos, TV and print ads, logos and slogans at a fraction of the cost that clients would pay at a big ad shop.
To pick one example, Many Wheels was a start-up technology company, backed by a National Science Foundation grant,, aimed at improving the process of shipping and transporting cars. The company solicited ideas from Genius Rocket, received more than 300 submissions and eventually selected this logo:
Customers can request a new logo from Genius Rocket for a minimum of $500, or more if they want to encourage more submissions.
Below are a couple of videos created by the Genius Rocket crowd. The first, a local TV ad for the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, is simple but it gets the message across.
This one, for a company called Wicked Lasers, is a bit more outrageous.
Each cost less than $5,000, and Walsh says he is not just selling on the basis of price. These videos, he argues, are more effective than agency product because they come across as home-made and authentic and therefore are more likely to touch younger audiences who are cynical about slick and over-produced ads.
Genius Rocket has plenty of competition. CrowdSpring says it has 52,000 graphic designers and writers “standing by” to provide services for small business. 99Designs specializes in graphics and says its community is 168,000 strong. Elance and Craigslist, of course, are robust online marketplaces for all kinds of freelance work. Hoping to stand out from the crowd, Walsh recently launched Genius Rocket Select, which he calls “curated crowdsourcing;” customers will pay more, up to $50,000, but get more hand-holding along the way.
Businesses like Genius Rocket will do well so long as we are in a down economy. “A lot of ex-advertising agency workers are coming to us because the agency business is shrinking,” Walsh said. The problem, of course, is that the contest model produces many more losers than winners. The most creative people, it seems to me, will prefer to take a salaried job at an ad agency where the company itself assumes the risk and cost or bidding for work that it may or may not win.
Walsh, though, says that kind of job security will be harder and harder to find as the agencies are disintermediated by the likes of Genius Rocket.
“It’s free-agent nation, man,” he says.