PitchFest: Putting on a Content Contest


Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) PitchFest creators and judges wanted to create an atmosphere of innovation to produce new content for multimedia platforms.  One of PitchFest’s creators, BBG Senior Strategist in the Office of Strategy and Development, Paul Marszalek, offered some insight into how it started, what the goals were, what the considerations were, and what PitchFest 2 might look like.


On August 2, 2012, BBG posted the results of PitchFest: New Contest Results in Dozens of Innovative Ideas.  The article states, “A panel of judges and broadcast executives selected four winners from more than 80 submissions designed to contribute to the next generation of agency programming. … Shirine Hossaini, Jeff Blagg, Vidushi Sinha, Nancy Coviello, and Tim Wang submitted the winning Pitch Fest ideas in the inaugural competition.”


That’s awesome!  But, why do a PitchFest?

-       In any organization, ideas can get trapped because the person who has the idea may not have the confidence to present the idea or because he/she is unsure how to develop it.  The corporate culture may also be an issue whereby “management may or may not make an environment conducive to brainstorming or bringing ideas up from below,” noted Marszalek, “Corporate structures need to–create a positive environment.”  Marszalek mentioned that for the 80+ entries that the judges received, he imagined that there were likely 100 more ideas that were thought of but not submitted.

-       First competition is the hardest.  However, now that the first PitchFest was a success, “people will see that their peers participated and that the organization is responsive to the ideas,” said Marszalek, “It was hard to whittle down to just a few winners because nearly 75 entries were good ones with potential for development.”  Now the judges’ goal is to “keep the ideas alive … to put them on air or online,” putting the ball back into management’s court – and management must follow through added Marszalek.  He looks forward to an even bigger PitchFest 2.

How to Make Entering and Judging PitchFest Easy

-       Set people up to succeed by posting easy parameters and guidelines.  The fewer the flaming hoops, the more entries you’ll get.

-       Create an ESL-friendly entry form.  (Check out Marszalek’s Google Doc PDF example here.)

-       Consider using off the shelf, easy to use entry forms such as ones made on Google docs.  This promotes easy distribution among departments and easy viewing for judges who are located around the world.

-       Encourage entrants to hold true to their broadcast entity’s mission. In some cases, you may want to give context. While it might sound counter-intuitive, creativity loves constraint, so you might try something like “ideas that cost less than $10,000.” It depends on your ultimate goals and the needs of the organization.

-       Use a content development document to make entrants go through a series of steps to research and vet their idea for feasibility so they can submit a complete idea.  Ask them to think about target audience and types of platforms for content distribution. “You’re asking everyone, regardless of where they sit, to pitch an idea. So don’t set people up for failure – give them some tools to better their chances for success. Our development document was very basic, and written for people who speak English as a second language. But in theory, it would greatly enhance the chances for, say, a graphic designer with no development experience to put together a solid pitch.”

-       Do not require a video.  “Initially, we asked everyone to do an elevator pitch on video. In the end, I don’t think it worked. Not everyone is an extrovert–some of your greatest ideas come from people who are not comfortable on camera,” Marszalek points out.  “If we did view an entrant’s video, the judging wasn’t on production value–it was on the core of the idea.”

-       Since the judges may be coming from different walks of professional life, be sure that at least 2 judges review each entry to ensure fair judging.

-       Promote the idea that even if an entrant does not win, he or she will learn about programming/content development that can benefit the next idea for their department.

-       For the winners, they should expect that BBG will help them develop the ideas further to at least to a pilot stage for possible full implementation.


Cost and Ownership of Ideas

-       “In terms of cost, (we just used) man hours,” mentions Marszalek.

-       Very little in terms of prizing costs; a pizza party is promised to the winner’s departments or language services.

-       Recognition is worth its weight in gold.  Marszalek noted, “What worked was us saying ‘we want your ideas and we’re going to seriously consider them’.”

-       Unlike in a corporate world, where your ideas become proprietary corporate property, the BBG is mission driven “so there’s an ability to feel like you’ve made a difference in someone’s life,” explained Marszalek.


Making Ideas a Reality

-       Radio Free Asia is already developing their winner: “Inside the Firewall” by Tim Wang.  The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio/TV Marti) plans to execute the same idea because they have similar issues with firewalls.

-       Marszalek hopes that PitchFest will promote “cross pollination” where different offices and language services catch wind of new ideas to promote new programming.  “We saw numerous ideas that were similar, so we thought that we should connect these people, regardless of where they work, so that they could brainstorm with each other – improving the chances of an even better idea, with a better chance of becoming a reality.”


PitchFest 2

-       PitchFest 2 will be even BIGGER.  Marszalek hopes it will include internal staff as well as external, global submissions.

-       BBG needs to “identify staff members who can dedicate a handful of hours each week to continuously work the ideas” so they can be further developed, advises Marszalek.

-       PitchFest needs to recruit more judges in anticipation of many more entries.

-       BBG should consider doing “mini-PitchFests that are language specific or platform specific. Each language service or office could hold their own,” suggests Marszalek.

-       If there are many production worthy entries that are submitted, Marszalek contends that “(his) biggest hope is that there will be a cultural change within the (BBG) that regularly solicits for (content) ideas to be submitted into a proverbial suggestion box. Before this, the suggestion box really didn’t exist.”


To See All of the Semi-Finalists Entries [Videos Included]:

Part One        |         Part Two        |         Part Three


The Winning Four Submissions for the 2011-12 PitchFest:

Title: “Making of a Democracy”
Submitted by: Shirine Hossaini — Promotions, Alhurra TV

Title: “Inside the Firewall”
Submitted by: Tim Wang — Mandarin Service and Editorial Division

Title: “VOA App for Mobile Devices”
Submitted by: Jeff Blagg — Video Editing Department

Title: “Global Health News Update (Health Update or GHNU)”
Submitted by: Vidushi Sinha — VOA Central News Health Producer & Reporter
Nancy Coviello — VOA Africa Health Network


To contact Paul Marszalek at the Office of Strategy and Development: pmarszalek@bbg.gov

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(Thank you to Paul Marszalek for his contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)


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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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