The Download: GeniusRocket adds Bob Garfield, PlaySay goes to Silicon Valley

Bob Garfield is best known for the media and marketing criticism he dispenses as a columnist and radio host. But the Washington area resident also consults with a handful of companies, in part to “have a laboratory for my thinking on the future of marketing.”

Garfield’s future includes a marketing landscape in which advertising, at least in its traditional form, no longer dominates and the business model enjoyed by Madison Avenue firms becomes increasingly obsolete.

“I have long since been on the record saying that advertising is losing its primacy in the marketing ecosystem, but it’s not disappearing,” Garfield said.

“The very digital revolution that has so disrupted the advertising agency model has created this crowdsourcing model, which is going to have an increasing part of the business as advertising very, very slowly ceases to be the center of marketing.”

Now Garfield’s thought laboratory is about to get a bit bigger. He has been hired as critic at large by Bethesda-based GeniusRocket , which describes itself as a disruptive force in the digital and television advertising business. The company distributes advertising projects to a broad network of creative types in an effort to find fresh ideas at a lower price.

That process, called crowdsourcing, has attracted the interest of brands as large as Kraft Foods, AARP and Amazon. But co-founder and Chairman Mark Walsh said unraveling long-held industry practices has taken longer than desired.

“There is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt. They were used to using a large Madison Avenue agency, and if it didn’t work out, they could blame the agency,” Walsh said.

Garfield, who works as a columnist for Advertising Age and is co-host of NPR’s “On the Media,” will add legitimacy, Walsh said. In the part-time role, Garfield will advise brands on which of the ideas that GeniusRocket turns up stands to have the biggest impact.

“That gets people over the hurdle of saying, ‘I’m not using an agency, but I’m getting a validated opinion,’” Walsh said.

Garfield is quick to note that crowdsourcing has limitations. The quality of the advertising can be poorer than what an agency would deliver and it can be difficult for brands to maintain consistency, he said.

But in Garfield’s estimation, the potential to find a unique and compelling idea can only be magnified by crowdsourcing because more minds are put to work on a single project.

“The kind of thinking that goes into creating advertising is pretty close to ubiquitous within the industry, and if you go to outliers, you sometimes get outlier ideas that never would have emerged from an agency,” Garfield said. “They’re definitely four-leaf clovers, but my goodness, who doesn’t love a four-leaf clover?”

Speaking of advertising

Facebook’s purchase of photo snapping and sharing service Instagram for $1 billion has prompted many to wonder whether a video equivalent can gain traction and fetch a similar sticker price.

As companies and investors flock to that opportunity, District-based Veenome hopes to ride the wave. The start-up’s software tags the large volume of video that people upload to the Web with terms that allow advertisers to quickly determine whether a video will appeal to their target audience.

“People just want to upload videos quickly on their mobile device,” said Veenome founder Kevin Lenane. “Tagging, if it’s ever done at all, is always hasty and nonstandardized by definition.”

The business is a slight shift from Veenome’s initial idea of embedding links within online videos that allow a viewer to simply click on an item, such as an article of clothing, and learn more information about it.

Lenane said his company has signed a deal with video service Videofy.me to analyze the 50,000 videos its users upload each month. Other deals are in the works, he added.

“When Myspace moderated video, they just had a room of people who would go through everything for content control, but we are at a volume of product by users that makes that technique impossible,” Lenane said.

YouTube, for example, reports that 60 hours of video are uploaded to the Web site every minute.

Left coast

Adiós, PlaySay.

The language-learning upstart forged west to Silicon Valley from the District in February, following a string of other young firms that have decamped for the tech mecca.

The almighty lure of investment dollars brought the company, which builds interactive tools to help people learn Spanish, to the District in 2011. Bethesda-based Novak Biddle Venture Partners has injected about $800,000 into the firm to date.

Chief executive Ryan Meinzer said the latest move won’t affect Novak Biddle’s involvement with the company, but added that San Francisco presented a more viable city to nurture a tech start-up with limited resources.

“Talent was a big reason. It was a lot easier for us to attract talent [in San Francisco] than it was in D.C.,” he said.

That’s in part because of money, he said. Apparently workers in Washington actually want some, whereas techies in the Valley are more accustomed to working toward a big payoff that, at best, is down the road or, at worst, might never come to fruition.

“It’s very tough for us as a start-up bootstrap to get people [in Washington] to work for equity as opposed to money,” Meinzer said.

PlaySay debuted the latest incarnation of its Spanish language platform last week, an iPhone application that allows learners to communicate with native speakers via voice messages. The app also critiques your pronunciation.

That’s a pivot from the company’s strategy last fall when it developed an application for Facebook.

“We took a huge gamble, took a huge shot and thought it would be an awesome place to have a language learning product,” Meinzer said. “But we just didn’t get the product-market fit at that time.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.
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