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The Contest as Fuel for Creativity

With all the talk lately about quality, amateurism, who-should-be-doing-what-and-to-what-extent, mixed with ripping off, ownership and other elements of style, one of the latest entries into the increasingly ethereal, indefinable Web 2.0 seems to make all these discussions terribly moot as the evolution of user generated content continues to grow in directions ever harder to predict — much less control — and further increasing the gap between generations, not of age, but of standards and practices, leaving one group of people screaming in the distance while the other moves forward. Or at least sideways.

Zooppa, a contest-structured, community-based web site that connects companies with users eager to create videos and share advertising concepts may not be the industry revolution it claims to be, but it does present an alternative to the typical advertising model. Actually, it presents an alternative to the alternative user generated advertising model we’ve seen arch in the last couple of years from groundbreaking, viral-hungry idea to a stale, viral-hungry — exploitative (to some) — idea of brands engaging their audience. You may recall our discussion about Converse, where they asked willing participants to create videos about the iconic shoe to the tune of 1,500 submissions. A success by bottom-line standards, but not by creative ones, as Converse gulped the rights of every single submission and only forking over cash to a small percentage of the entrants. Then, the venerable Chevrolet, with its “An American Revolution!” modus operandi decided to open the :30 TV spot to users — as a product placement extension in Trump’s The Apprentice — providing clips of their gas-guzzler, the Tahoe, that could be edited at will with text (and sugar) on top. With 30,000 submissions, the idea was a case study in the making, even with (or perhaps because of) the numerous parody, off-brand videos that some users submitted.

These are just two of the more visible examples of this trend, but cases of other minor players in varied industries gunning for free creative work, under the guise of user empowerment, are common. What is consistent about these, and what makes them feel a little dirty — and stink of spec (again, to some) — is that it’s always The Company (The Man, The Brand, whatever you want to call it) asking for your ideas, even if an advertising agency prompted them to this approach. It’s the glass half-empty scenario of the faceless, multi-million company taking advantage of the little, gullible guy or gal that gets creative knickers around the world in a bunch. This is where Zooppa comes in, as a friendly intermediary. Fighting for the good guys to boot.

The self-proclaimed “First Ital-American start up about advertising,” Zooppa is a high-energy, publicity-happy endeavor created by Italian-based (Treviso to be specific) H-Farm, a “center for research and innovation in technological and new media fields,” and whose “H” stands for “Human.” Zooppa — the name is a combination of “soup” and its Italian counterpart “zuppa” — works as a conduit for companies looking to benefit from the infective potential that a social community like this one can foster by hosting contests where Zoopers — a fancy word for registered users, but part of the site’s unique linguistic world — can contribute videos, storyboards or written concepts that are then voted upon by the growing Zooper population, with the largest vote-getter receiving a grand prize (disclosed from the beginning) that ranges anywhere from US$1,000 up to US$8,000. Oh, except that here they are called Zoop$ but, unlike Monopoly money these have a 1:1 ratio to real money, that you can only claim after you earn 1000 Zoop$. Runner-ups also get money. What I still haven’t figured out, and perhaps there is nothing to figure out, is what happens to the winning video? There are no TV promises, no web galleries. The winners, and the company, are simply content with the process and the potential of viral fame. But so far, I am guessing this is all still iffy and prone for spec and exploitation accusations for those that feel offended by this sort of thing. However, there is something different about Zooppa. It doesn’t exist simply to host contests and pass money from one party to the other, with some of it staying in their hands. Zooppa is fully invested in the process and in kick starting its community. This is cleverly embodied by a screaming, long-haired, heavy-accented dude that goes by the title of BigZooppa.

Not only is BigZooppa the face of the web site, he is probably the most effective Art Director I have seen in a long time. He sets up every contest — and there aren’t many, so it gives the sense of quality over quantity — with a unique video for each client that serves as an animated, caffeine-laden brief. (Luckily, you can also download an actual brief that you can read in your own, non-invasive voice.) From there, you can decide whether you want to create a video and upload it (probably the most fun option) or you can submit a concept that others can build upon… A feature that blew my mind and where I conceded that Zooppa was on to something unique. The ideation and concept phase of any project can be one of the most arduous and is what (I think) separates the great from the good. And here you have a public brainstorm session available to anyone willing to rollover an image (which serve as mini moodboards). Granted, this is not a rigorous process and some of the ideas are not groundbreaking, but neither advertising nor graphic design have ever embraced an open source approach. On the contrary, being secretive and protective is the only way to keep an edge over the competition. With the tools of the trade now widely available and embraced, it was down to our intellect and imagination to separate us from those dreaded amateurs, but when this part of the process is served free, then we might start running into trouble. Oddly enough, in its laid back attitude, Zooppa feels harmless. And wildly entertaining.

Our friend, and sometimes programmer, Su, had sent me an e-mail about Zooppa over the weekend and despite having limited time and attention span (what with the baby and all) I spent most of the afternoon going through the site. Unlike YouTube, where browsing is an act of arbitrariness, Zooppa’s content proved fulfilling as responses to actual briefs and companies, that I could judge them against something tangible and within a simple expectation that is increasingly evident: People want to create, they just need an excuse. The context might not be ideal, the process faulty, and the result subpar but we are experiencing an age of creative generosity — yes, fueled by the possibility of internet fame or a one-in-the-thousands chance at financial compensation — that should be absorbed and enjoyed not marginalized and feared. Contests, in their myriad shapes and forms, have turned creativity into a competitive sport — see Threadless and see the lack of people bashing them for exploiting anyone, despite their financial success — where people are willing to play along on their time and dime. It’s inevitable, there is a need to make that we impose on ourselves. Contests are just an incentive. Do the means justify the end?

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3422 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON May.22.2007 BY Armin
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Jim Kidwell’s comment is:

I find this an interesting topic. I work at a company that creates software for creative professionals. We occasionally get things that we'd like to give away to customers, but don't have a very decent way of choosing someone. For example, every year we participate in the HOW Design conference. This year we were given a full conference pass to give away as a thanks for our participation and promotion of the event. We want to give this to one of our customers or readers of our blog. So, what better way than a contest? We don't plan to use the items created from the contest for any other purpose than deciding who we'll give the free pass and other prizes. We might post interesting items submitted as contest entries on our blog, but if anything that would just be good promotional material for the people submitting. It's what I hope is a win-win. Well, check it out if you get a moment: http://blog.extensis.com/?p=595

On May.22.2007 at 06:00 PM
Su’s comment is:

I'd sent this to Armin because while I'm interested in the questions this raised for me, which I'll post later after I check on some details, I don't think I'm in a position to put forth much of an opinion on it.

The one request I made, which I'll pass on here, is that the spec issue be avoided if at all possible. Yes, it's spec. Yes, you have your (probably very negative) opinion of that. And your opinion is highly unlikely to change as a result of this site or discussion of it. There's plenty else, and more interesting, to talk about regarding this.

On May.22.2007 at 06:16 PM
Longtooth’s comment is:

I find the concept interesting when considered as a sociological experiment used to map the very diversities of our culture as you discussed in your first paragraph. It could become a kind of survey with resulting data far exceeding the value of any offerings to the initial brief; the kind of data Double Click would pay for.

That brings to question the very real risk of such an otherwise "innocent" offering, and motivations of the promoters, either existing or potential to be revealed.

As with all things "switched", OFF is an option.

On May.22.2007 at 08:39 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I think something that gets overlooked to a degree is that these contests are a very compelling form of brand engagement in their own right.

Who cares if Converse gets 1,498 mediocre or worse quality submissions. For every submission—regardless of quality—there has to be 3 more that sit unfinished on hard drives, camcorders, and notepads; and at least 10 half-baked ideas that never see any tangible action. These start adding up to decent numbers, especially when you factor in the necessary jawboning.

Its a better bang for the ad dollar than many other 'traditional' campaigns in terms of depth of engagement.

On May.25.2007 at 03:16 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Its a better bang for the ad dollar than many other 'traditional' campaigns in terms of depth of engagement.

Specially because it makes people think a little harder about the brand, and what it means to them. As opposed to just seeing an ad, thinking they might want to spend money on it next time they are at the mall or on Amazon and that's it.

I really think that once designers and advertisers get over the fact that these kind of projects are not taking opportunities away from them, or that companies are looking for thousands of concepts to choose the best, but rather they are a new form of engaging the audience — almost like a super business reply card — a lot could be learned and appreciated from the work produced.

On May.25.2007 at 10:19 AM
Leila Singleton’s comment is:

Building on Armin's comment...

The Threadless and Zooppa models are unappealing to most professional designers because of the spec participatory element; however, sites like these also offer a very valuable spectatorial opportunity that designers should not ignore.

Unlike contrived articles in design magazines declaring the next big aesthetic trends according to editorial boards and personal bias, these sites are a petri dish where ideas are born and tested in real-time on a demographic that includes both designers and non-designers. I can't say I've explored Zooppa at length, but on Threadless, posted artworks receive comments from members; since not all members are artists, the comments go beyond the typical art school crit, creating a forum more akin to an informal focus group. In this way, such sites incorporate a bonus element of free market research that is fully visible to the browsing public.

Of course, I wouldn't go so far as to equate Threadless comments with anything authoritative that one would want to cite in a research paper, but even the unfounded comments made by silly teenagers and envious artists provide a valuable insight into psychology, if nothing else (and perhaps a bit of entertainment as well!).

On May.25.2007 at 02:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Entertainingly related.

On May.26.2007 at 10:34 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

I find it strange - and a bit sad - that people are willing to put their creativity to the service of advertising - just for fun.

Professionals can justify doing so by the fact that they are paid for it. It may well be stimulating creative work, but it's still work.

Shouldn't people have outlets for their creativity - their desire to have fun - without having to flog someone's products. The few videos I saw on Zooppa seemed as though they were dying to break away from the need to ape traditional ads (pretending to sell products) and to become properly creative.

I suppose the framework of having advertising briefs set by real companies is what allows the (limited) creativity to happen at all. But it all feels a bit shallow, like children playing make-believe advertisers.

And I can think of better things to make-believe.

On May.26.2007 at 11:35 AM
Kelly Hobkirk’s comment is:

This latest trend is a natural step in the evolution of marketing. It is a step that the likes of Adobe have hurtled upon the creative field with reckless abandon by creating and marketing mediocre software applications that nearly anyone can buy and learn. Nearly anyone can be a creative "pro" by plunking down a few hundred dollars and spending a few hours in front of the computer.

As professional designers we really cannot blame Adobe. After all, we buy their software. Sure, they could make professional level applications that work properly and cost thousands, but that is not their goal. They want to sell volume. They could care less about our high creative standards.

Our profession has completely changed. Everyone can buy the tools we use, and they can create visually compelling messages if they discover how to express their ideas. There is no harm in that. It just makes our job harder because we must rise to another level.

It is not just our industry that has changed. The entire process of marketing has changed. Zooppa and other creative contests are not the calling of professional designers, but they are an exceptional opportunity for use to see inside the creativity of the people to whom we market our clients' goods and services.

I didn't do spec before creative contests became the rage, and I still don't do spec. I do, however, listen to what customers want.

On May.28.2007 at 05:25 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> It is a step that the likes of Adobe have hurtled upon the creative field with reckless abandon by creating and marketing mediocre software applications...

+

> They could care less about our high creative standards.

I wouldn't want to turn this into an application battle but... Seriously? How are Adobe's applications mediocre? And how are they lowering the high creative standards? As far as I can tell, some of the best work since Adobe Illustrator 5.0 came out has been done on Adobe applications. They care about making a usable product and making money off of it, just like you and I are concerned of offering a quality service and making money off of it. Establishing creative standards is only up to us. Maintaining them as well. Regardless of the tools.

On May.29.2007 at 09:30 AM
sye’s comment is:

> Our profession has completely changed. Everyone can buy the tools we use, and they can create visually compelling messages if they discover how to express their ideas. There is no harm in that. It just makes our job harder because we must rise to another level.

i agree with that statement, i mean look at a carpenter, anyone can go to the hardware store and buy the tools they use, but not everyone will use those tools with skill to create something professional and of a high quality. i know i can put a nail in the wall and that's about it.

we as designers need to constantly be rising above the masses and showing what great design is.

On May.29.2007 at 10:37 AM
jenny’s comment is:

I really think that once designers and advertisers get over the fact that these kind of projects are not taking opportunities away from them, or that companies are looking for thousands of concepts to choose the best, but rather they are a new form of engaging the audience — almost like a super business reply card — a lot could be learned and appreciated from the work produced.

Interesting - and related - article on the Heinz Ketchup DIY ads, The High Price of Creating Free Ads..." which argues that these contests are not really taking away work from ad agencies, and that, if you're not considering the audience engagement angle, companies may or may not get the biggest bang for their buck this way.

On May.29.2007 at 05:39 PM
art chantry’s comment is:

contests? as fule for "creativity"? "warning! warning! does not compute! danger, will robinson...." (dang, i wish i had a robot like that one on 'lost in space').

point one - contests are an insult to the profession. why pay one of us "professionals", when you can get it for practically nothing wifrom the general public? i know of a huge caffeine company that actually had advertised a "mug art" contest to the general public (and especially design schools) in order to get free artwork. it seems the fine print gave all exclusive rights of all entries to the company and you lose all copyright and authorship claim to all entries. first place prize? a mug.

they got busted and cancelled the contest.

point two - anybody who has a contest to create something for them (like a logo) gets stuck with third rate work they are forced to use. nobody with any pull will enter a contest. what's in it for them? they have to give up all that time to compete for a free gig on sheer luck? nah! so, the "contestors" get stuck with a really bad design forever. if they re-design it, everybody gets upset because of the contest promise.

point three - what's in it for me? period. nothing. i never win contests. at best i'm told that i "was a close second". my work is weird, so they go for the other end of the spectrum. they go for 'safe' every time - which means mediocre. a contest is a certain sort of design problem that medocre and safe design wins - every time. if they weren't so afraid, why else would they have a contest? it's a sort of "chickenshit" design at it's finest.

point four - "but, it's for a good cause." what cause is that? PR? there is no other reason to have a contest. if they really cared about the cause, they'd get truly great work from a seasoned professional who donated to the cause because they cared so deeply about it. a contest simply makes the public feel good for a moment (until a winner is selected, then everybody gets alienated). after that it becomes a bit of a PR nightmare.

point five - it turns design into pure product. a contest eliminates the PROCESS of design and replaces it with a beauty contest. how do you create a gret design for a cause and yet have absolutely no interaction with the client? it's like shooting in the dark. why do that? it almost guarantees failure.

point six - five is plenty. there must be a hundred other points to make. but, i'm tired of ranting

On May.31.2007 at 03:16 PM
Kelly Hobkirk’s comment is:

Art,

Your comments are dead-on correct. Thank you for the rant. You excel at that!

--

How are Adobe's applications mediocre? And how are they lowering the high creative standards?

I hail from the time of manual color separations, the almighty -- albeit leaky -- waxer, and the type galley, (but I have been working on Macs for 18 years). The computer has been great in some ways, but in most ways, it has ridiculously complicated the design process and diminished the level of pure creativity because the available software continually imposes "workarounds" to get things done. If software companies were serious about serving their customer base, they would make more intuitive tools that enable creatives to think and do, rather than think and figure out how to make the software do what you need it to, then find a workaround when it can't perform the necessary tasks. I would be willing to bet that professional designers would pay ten to fifteen times what they currently pay if design software actually worked as an extension of their creativity rather than a frequent obstacle.

Now, it's not my mission to pick on Adobe in particular, but it just so happens that they rule design software. Every single Adobe release during the last ten years has had major conflicts. Adobe's standard line of fire with those conflicts is to deny that a problem exists, then after you prove to them that it does exist, they tell you to wait until the next upgrade. Why should we have to pay to spend our time diagnosing their product shortcomings? If anything, they should be paying us.

They care about making a usable product and making money off of it, just like you and I are concerned of offering a quality service and making money off of it.

I care about great design first, money second, not the other way around. If money comes first, the design usually suffers from mediocrity. If the design is great, the money comes.

Establishing creative standards is only up to us. Maintaining them as well. Regardless of the tools.

Oh, I agree there. As I said before, we can't blame Adobe. We can really only blame ourselves. When we stop purchasing upgrades, I believe Adobe and others will step up to the plate with better tools. Until then, we are stuck with mediocre tools.

Fortunately, we still have the choice of using the good ol' drafting table, pencils, hands, and creativity. I've done some of my favorite work in Adobe and Macromedia software, but my most enjoyable and satisfying work has been drawn by hand.

To get back to the original topic, though, I believe contests directed towards non-designers are ok, and they certainly can be used as research, but contests don't fuel my creativity at all. They may fuel my sense of being taken advantage of, but that's about it.

On Jun.01.2007 at 04:11 PM
Leila Singleton’s comment is:

Steering this away from the spec discussion into which it seems to have devolved…

Perhaps a better London 2012 Olympics logo would have been generated/selected through a worldwide "Threadless Loves" or Zooppa-style competition? Forget the spec element for a moment…in terms of marketing, this could have yielded stellar results, doing what the Olympics have failed to do for years: get young people (apparently the main target demographic) actively invested in the games. Plus, such an approach could have translated into added value for the client, who would likely have ended up with a genuinely cool, market-tested logo instead of a widely-despised eyesore desperately imitating hip.

With a prize of $800,000, I'm sure such a contest would attract more than just the world's bad amateur designers…

On Jun.12.2007 at 02:41 PM
tommy777’s comment is:

I've recently entered work into the Threadless tshirt competition.
I did it with an arrogant attitude that- since I was a trained-educated graphic designer/illustrator I would blow people away and easily win.
Well, I was completely humbled. When you submit, over a period of 7 days 2000 people from all around the world, score your work on a scale between 1 - 5 and they write comments.
It made me realize that my elitest attitude about being a trained
educated graphic designer was actually making me into a bad designer. My mistake was- I submitted a design that was too slick and refined for an audience of mostly males between the ages of 16-30. Comments on my design on Threadless were very similar to the comments made on this site about the t-shirt design that won the Underconsideration competition—"Too Girly!" and some people wrote: "This looks Gay!" Noone even noticed that I had perfect kerning. My scores were very low.
Anyway, the experience of submitting my work and getting
comments from 2000 people taught me a lot and gave me a
reminder that it doesn't matter if what you create would appeal
to other graphic designers- if it fails with the audience it is intended for- it's a failure.
Anyway, I think every graphic designer could learn something from submitting work to Threadless- its the only competition I know of where you can get immediate gut reaction feedback from thousands of people.
P.S., I have become completely addicted to threadless- and many of the people on that site do have graphic design degrees, or are professionals- and they are witty as hell. The comments on the designs are often, right on the mark and extremely funny and sarcastic—good entertainment.


On Aug.21.2007 at 09:51 PM
tommy777’s comment is:

I've recently entered work into the Threadless tshirt competition.
I did it with an arrogant attitude that- since I was a trained-educated graphic designer/illustrator I would blow people away and easily win.
Well, I was completely humbled. When you submit, over a period of 7 days 2000 people from all around the world, score your work on a scale between 1 - 5 and they write comments.
It made me realize that my elitest attitude about being a trained
educated graphic designer was actually making me into a bad designer. My mistake was- I submitted a design that was too slick and refined for an audience of mostly males between the ages of 16-30. Comments on my design on Threadless were very similar to the comments made on this site about the t-shirt design that won the Underconsideration competition—"Too Girly!" and some people wrote: "This looks Gay!" Noone even noticed that I had perfect kerning. My scores were very low.
Anyway, the experience of submitting my work and getting
comments from 2000 people taught me a lot and gave me a
reminder that it doesn't matter if what you create would appeal
to other graphic designers- if it fails with the audience it is intended for- it's a failure.
Anyway, I think every graphic designer could learn something from submitting work to Threadless- its the only competition I know of where you can get immediate gut reaction feedback from thousands of people.
P.S., I have become completely addicted to threadless- and many of the people on that site do have graphic design degrees, or are professionals- and they are witty as hell. The comments on the designs are often, right on the mark and extremely funny and sarcastic—good entertainment.


On Aug.22.2007 at 04:08 AM