As a follow up to my Un-Agency post back in June, I thought I would provide a scouting report on the 12 different types of firms trying to command the high ground on the social media/community space and what I perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses amongst the 18 competencies an engaged outsourced firm should have.
In part, I've done it to help clients understand the pros and cons to each agency choice they make here. Dial back 5 years, and as a client not living in social media or the grassroots on a daily basis - I would be confused and potentially charmed out of the best decision. Also in part, to make some sense of this "cattle drive" of new firms now entering and multiplying in the space given the media, technology and cultural shifts happening around them.
In full disclosure, two caveats:
- I run a specialist grassroots marketing services firm and likely have some biases that a focused firm with a strong specialization is a favoured method in most scenarios for social media success
- although I have worked with many partner firms and colleagues, I have by no means seen them all - what I am painting is the typical firm in each space, exceptions do exist but are rare
So, the 12 types of firms making a beeline for social media are:
- the Ad Agency
- the Brand/Design Agency
- the Strategic Consultancy
- the Innovation/Research Shop
- The CRM Firm
- the Social Media Hothouse
- the Grassroots Specialist
- the Digital Agency
- the PR Agency
- the Media Firm
- The Technology Vendor
- the Promotion/Sponsorship Firm
Let's tackle the first one - the Ad Agency - and why not, they still own the lion's share of dollars being spent on creative and communications. They are the award-winning All Stars of the communication space. See chart above - legend: the darker the shade - the better the competency and the lighter the shade - the poorer the competency.
As noted by the chart above, their obvious strengths are ideas, creative and content. They are the Mad Men of 2010. When I was head of marketing at Guinness, some of the work that was created by the ad people and their producers made most movies pale and drab by comparison. They had a really special talent to force you to pay attention and feel prouder, more intelligent for consuming the black stuff.
In a world of scoreboard watching and bean counting, it's refreshing they actually think about and produce stuff that is enormously entertaining and creative and thus, when done well, build one of the biggest currencies in this attention-starved marketplace - getting noticed.
What personal rankles me, as well as a number of my colleagues, is their lack of ability to play well in the schoolyard with other partner firms when we're not talking TV, radio, print or billboard.
Historically, they have always sat at the adult's strategy and planning table with the client, allowing other firms to fight over the execution and funding scraps that fell on the floor. Unfortunately, in the social media space, most have been reticent to acknowledge that they don't operate nearly as effectively in the grassroots engagement, dialogue or measurement facets of the business.
In fact, given monetization issues, staffing talent, siloed departments, pace of business and competing priorities, most would acknowledge behind closed doors that they are horrible at the grassroots engagement side of the business. At worst, some are downright hostile to opening up the brand to the customer for content, insight or advocacy purposes.
Despite all the hurdles inside their firms, they are reactionary to letting any other firm drive the social media car. We just had a pitch where one of the competing firms, having no competency or pedigree in the social media space, claimed rightful ownership to execution based on the "Integration of the idea". For our own selfish benefit as well as the client's, hopefully they don't get politicked into this way of thinking.
Integration is an over-used word by any large firms including ad agencies, particularly when there is an absence of any other substance there. Convergence didn't work in the media world, nor does the "everything under one roof" concept fly in agency land. The truth is most agencies have a competing fiefdoms that operate just as dysfunctionally, if not more then two different organizations would.
Usually there is a hierarchy of creative talent that based on history, the money trail and awards, looks at broadcast first before looking at how an idea travels in social media, word of mouth and community . One only needs to look at the turnover of online creative directors at large agencies to understand the web frustration from within.
From my point of view, here's the Ad Agency Scouting Report :
1) Creative Ideas - ad agencies can legitimately lay claim to owning a brand idea that needs to then be parsed out in a number of different directions- within social media, they have a role in defining and providing colour to the brand idea and positioning so other people can then get excited and execute against it
2) Program Execution - what clients are craving, is somebody to take all the execution off their hands, a good ad agency director and team can be an extremely valued integrating force amongst a number of partner firms that deliver a "whole campaign/community" that is greater than the sum of its parts
3) Brand Positioning, Identity and Design - establishing a parent look and feel to any brand initiative is a key need to ensure initiatives don't look like orphan children from a different parent - being the brand cop and counsellor could be a valued ad agency role
4) Content Development - ad agencies forte is producing extremely good looking stuff on video and print, harnessing those elements and pieces to work on the web can be a lynchpin to social media success
5) Media Awareness - usually the ad agency is in the best position to integrate the efforts with their partner media houses and deliver scalable conversations through paid media - they can act as effective middleman and solution brokers with the media planning/buying firms
1) Technical Infrastructure - one look at most flash-based agency websites will quickly tell you that integrating web platforms, database architecture, information security and privacy, and hosting is nearly the last thing on large agency agendas - they would be wise to seek third party managed host vendors with customer service capabilities
2) Research/Analytics - a weak link with ad agencies and one now under scrutiny given the need for ROI - ad agencies do not have the talent or the motivation to equip a truly helpful and now just-in-time system of monitoring and evaluating performance - they would be wise to work with a dedicated research house that understands the social media space or at minimum, work with an outsourced vendor like Radian6 or Visible than outfit it themselves
3) Influencer Outreach - I've asked agencies before who they're top 10, top 50, top 150 social media influencers are - most haven't an idea nor really care on a day-to-day basis - involving a firm like ourselves, or a seeding firm or media partner would alleviate most concerns here for agency and client
4) Social Media/Community Development - many agencies can pull off an iPhone app. or Facebook page - some are very clever and creative - unfortunately, this is not "living in the social media space" and create very little longevity of impact - the web is littered with these experiments that launched with great fanfare may have got initial traction and then traffic fell off a cliff when people realized their enthusiasm wasn't being rewarded, curated or responded to - community management is the key here, whether it be inside an agency, the client or an outsourced firm, somebody needs to keep the light on as the account executive tries to traffic the print ad that's two days late for Vogue
5) Customer Experience Focus - how people are using online properties on an ongoing basis?, how different marketing touchpoints are affecting the brand delivery of a positive customer experience? how customer insight may informs how a company runs their business better? Although agencies certainly have special access to a client and their executive, they rarely believe that the customer experience is their area of concern in these forums. Companies would be wise to hire online analytics specialists to dive deep on how their web stuff is being used and researchers/anthropologists to understand how this is being reflected and used in the real world.
What are your thoughts? Is this consistent with your experience, or do you have a different point of view. Let's discuss.
Next week - we'll cover off a much different scouting report - the PR Firms.