Consumers are the new ad agency

Simon Mainwaring / Advertising / 9 years ago

Credit: Tom Fishburne

These are fighting words, especially from an ad guy such as myself, but I see several reasons to argue the case.

1. CONSUMER GENERATED CONTENT HAS EARNED RESPECT: Last week the New York Times contained a provocative piece noting that the most popular Super Bowl ad was created by consumers (Doritos). This is just one, highly visible, example of consumers recast as content generators and publishers. This new role has been formalized by in-stream advertising platforms like like that enable consumers to profit from their newfound influence by advertising brands and products.

2. A POWER SHIFT TO CONSUMERS: Brands and consumers are now in a two-way dialogue and that means that the weight of conversation is shared equally between them. As such, the responsibility for the result of a brand’s marketing efforts rests partly in consumers’ hands.

3. A RISING VOICE: Social media has empowered consumers to find a voice, get organized and express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction about a brand or product. This can be in response to a statement by the CEO (as in the boycott of Whole Foods over insensitive healthcare statements), the launch of a new app (such as the twitter protest over the Pepsi’s Amp Cola app), or concerns over a product (such as with the Toyota’s current recall of millions of vehicles).

4. PEER TO PEER MARKETING: Consumers are increasingly looking to each other to decide what brands to support and what products to buy. This is because they are weary of misleading or purely self-serving advertising and now possess the tools to bypass traditional media and communicate among themselves.

Digital thought leader, Rishad Tobaccowala, from VivaKi tweeted a statement last week that succinctly sums up the new role of consumers as advertising agency:

“Social media is broadcast word of mouth.”

So as a traditional ad guy engaged in the new media space, I’d like to introduce traditional ad agencies to their new creative partners: consumers.

Do you see yourself as an ad agency? Or is this overstating the facts?

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  1. Hi Simon,

    For the past 2 years we’ve been building a platform to connect brands and agencies to consumers, and we’ve found that the answer to the question in your headline — are consumers the new ad agency? — is both yes and no.

    Yes! They have the tools to create and distribute their own opinions about brands. These opinions can rival advertising for reach, resonance and value to other consumers. The assets produced can be word of mouth made tangible.

    And yet, the winning creators of both Doritos Super Bowl ads had creative training and experience in the advertising industry. Here’s a good overview of the winners of major UGC advertising contests:

    If you want to maximize the probability of success, it’s not consumers overall who can be the new ad agency, it’s consumers with specific attributes — creative experience and an understanding of production process and techniques.

    And it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that fits all brands. It’s matching the right approach to the right brand. Imagine crowdsourcing creative work for Raytheon (, for instance.

    On AdHack, we’ve found with big and small clients that including consumers as contributors in the right context produces outstanding results — great creative, fast and cost effectively that resonates.

    The keys are providing process + talents + tools.
    * Process fit to a specific desired outcome.
    * Talents who can deliver the work.
    * Tools that make managing the process quick and easy.

    Having all 3 maximizes the probability of success. Having 2 is workable. Having only 1 is an underwhelming recipe.


  2. […] my eye because it said “Consumers are the new ad agency”. The tweet linked through to a blog which made several statements to back it […]

  3. Thing is, consumers aren’t the ones generating the winning content. Creatives are.

    According to this article from MIT’s ad lab ( the highly-touted “consumer creators” of recent contests are actually creative directors, short film directors, or trained creatives trying to break in to the business.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. Proof in the power of ideas and elbow grease. May the best idea win.

    I believe that crowdsourcing has a lot of potential. I happen to be a creative at an agency, I’ve stared into the abyss, and I feel fine. But I think there is way too much hype and histrionics over the fantasy that this content is produced by “consumers.” People are acting like these folks are putting down their bag of Doritos, buying a digital camera, and winning fame and fortune.

    Not so.

    I’m excited that everyone has a chance to “be a creative” and drive word-of-mouth, etc. It’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff really fast.

  4. Simon asks if consumers see themselves as ad agencies.

    There is a social media inflation taking place. In the last decade people became brands, and then those brands grabbed social media to become agencies. No, few if any consumers can be agencies for long.

    I’d prefer to think of some customers as advocates, or activists. You need to cultivate them, and give them tools. But activists switch causes, and move on in life. They’ll broadcast their experience of your brand, and become part of the experience, but you need to be creating the next wave of advocates. That’s a little different from agencies.

  5. Avatar domconlon says:

    I think you are overstating it really. The word “consumers” is a pretty broad brush but really the usage you employ would cover only a tiny percentage of them. Some consumer generated content as earned respect – but there is only a tiny amount of it and even the Doritos ads were originated (conceptually) by an agency. And did people respond positively because it was user-generated? I have no idea but I wasn't aware (until this article) that that was what it was. I thought it was just a nicely scripted ad which made me laugh.

    Some brands and some consumers are in a two-way dialogue. Equal though? I'm not so sure. In so far as consumers have always had a choice whether to buy product A or not then yes, the responsibility continues to rest in the hands of the consumer.

    Social media can empower people but as with most things, most just don't care. Protests have always helped shaped brands, the digital age has made that easier but in some ways this could be headed for a fall as consumers become desensitized to screaming reactions from the Twitterati. But we'll see.

    Consumers have, in addition, always looked to one another for what brands to support. That's why agencies take such pains to research and target opinion formers. Even the term “traditional media” is liquid – changing as it does with the shifts in technology that have seen advertising transform across the ages.

    From focus groups to the Tupperware party, these affects have always been with us. “Consumers” are no more an ad agency than they ever were.

    Social media is broadcast word of mouth, but as with so much else on Twitter – it's a simplication that helps nobody.

  6. Thanks, Don. Totally take your point about overstating the “consumer”. And yes, social media could become increasingly desensitized over time to the online protests. As for the weight of conversation, I feel like it is more 50/50 but that comes down to our individual experiences and what listening we see brands doing. Perhaps you are right – that such over-simplification does as much harm as good. At this point I do feel its necessary to provoke brands into awareness of the new power of the consumer voice as not enough, at present, give it due credit or consideration. While I agree that protests have always shaped brands and that consumers have always looked to each other, I do see social media as a key differentiator in its ability to allow consumers to connect and organize themselves on a scale not available before. Thanks for your great feedback. Simon

  7. Thanks, James. As the comments in general reflect, the answer has to be mixed as the proposition is too simplistic. The Doritos ad is telling, as you say. It's content creators doing work outside traditional forums like ad agencies that are shaping consumer to consumer opinion. Perhaps creative content generators is a better description. That then begs the question of whether it is a reflection of the next generation of the advertising industry or the next generation of consumers. Or, perhaps, a bit of both. Thanks for sharing your experience in this area. Best, simon

  8. Thanks, Mark. I agree the statement is over simplistic as much of the so called “consumer” work is the product of creative professionals operating outside traditional channels. If I understand you correctly, you feel this is more an expression of the evolution of the advertising industry rather than a change in consumers. I still think its important to separate out the role that the content creators provide in generating word of mouth from the role that social networkers play. Bearing in mind that 5% of twitterers are responsible for 90% of the tweets, their role as broadcasters is a sizable change. But I agree that the tools are not a magic creative pill and the best idea continues to win out. Thanks for the great feedback, Simon

  9. Yes, I hope I didn't sound too confrontational. I'm excited about the potential all this stuff offers.

    It does not threaten creativity and innovation in the least, though it certainly might threaten some bureaucracy at agencies and in a client's marketing dept.

  10. Of course not. I wanted to see what push back there was because I'm wary of the histrionics around new media too. Good strategy and ideas are still our currency and social media is just a new tool. Thanks for the input. simon

  11. Avatar jeremymorris says:


    All the points you raise are valid…but essentially they're the same point expressed in different ways. The web empowers people to create, consume and share information. This levels the playing field between brands and consumers. Excellent! Now people can tell companies Exactly. What. They. Want. And maybe they'll even be heard.

    The problem with advertising is that it's a push mechanism rooted in an era of mass, passive attention. The fact that a tiny minority of people get a kick out of creating dumb ads for a few companies with no ideas themselves is admittedly a little ironic in the short-term but also consistent with the imminent death of advertising as a way for brands and consumers to, ahem, engage. IMO obviously 🙂

  12. Thanks, Jeremy. I do think the ad industry is undergoing the same transformation that the music, movie and publishing industries have already experienced. Those that adapt will survive and those that cling to old strategies will not. I think advertising will survive but the players will surely change. Thanks again, simon

  13. Simon – Its refreshing to hear your POV on this conversation as both a strategic and creative pro from the “traditional” ad world.

    There is a true shift in the economics behind it all that you've shown is more fruitful to acknowledge than attempt to suppress, similar to what happened in the music business about 8 years ago, when MySpace and iTunes brought musicians a way to mass distribute their art that was made on a $1000 home bedroom studio.

    Zooppa is a user-generated advertising platform, so we live to evangelize the idea of advertising as a two-way conversation, I think the Doritos / Super Bowl phenomenon speaks more to the curiosity and anticipation that happens when “consumers” are said to be behind advertising. Had there not been so much buzz because of that fact who knows if they would have been the most engaging ads, maybe so, fact is though – people wanted to watch them because they knew they were different from the rest of the ads.

  14. Thanks and yes, I agree. To some degree there's fascination and hype around consumer generated ads that will surely pass. What will remain, though, will be the vetting of content to be shared and the channeling of that through consumer-driven social networks. I truly believe the ad industry has a powerful role to play here if they engage. if they do not, many leading advertising brands may themselves become casualties (or at least bit players in a show they used to star in). You sound incredibly well-position for the future. Smart. I have a feeling luck will be one of the last things you need. Best, Simon

  15. […] the consumers voice. I find it easy to able to communicate with the public and express their opinions back to the […]