Why Ad Agencies Shouldn’t Do Social Media

The short version

Managing a brand’s social media presence is a waste of time for creatives because it requires them to use a different set of skills and spend time cultivating communities and building relationships, which takes time and energy away from creating killer creative.

The long version

Winning social media is not promotional and it’s not creative, at least not the way advertising is. It’s about building relationships. It’s about having authentic interactions with your followers and fans (likers?). It’s about content, yes, but not about selling or soliciting. And it’s not about concept. (Although, in some cases it can be about providing special offers.)

Great creatives should spend their time making great creative.

Public relations, however, is already set up to build relationships, develop trust through authentic content, and handle consistent and effective communications.

At The Hodges Partnership, we’ve been able to forge some interesting partnerships between our clients and their audiences. (I feel compelled at this point to draw attention to the disclaimer to your right expressing that this post represents my opinions only.) For instance, last year Morton’s The Steakhouse held a quarterly series of “community conversations,” called An Evening at Morton’s, where panelists discussed topics over dinner at Morton’s and interested citizens followed along on a liveblog and on Twitter (using the hashtag #steakchat). The program was successful enough that it was renewed this year as a partnership with Richmond.com, and now takes place every other month. (Look out for the next one June 22. I should also mention that this event predates my employment at THP, so I had nothing to do with its development.)

Now, maybe that doesn’t strike you as a fabulous idea, but it has generated wonderful conversation around the topics, from exploring Richmond’s identity as a participatory sports town to discussing the Richmond arts scene or the environment local non-profits and charities face in the current economic and political climate.

Some of our social media projects involve collaborating with our friends at various ad agencies to create promotions to build up communities on social networking sites, but the real work for us is cultivating the community — that is, maintaining and developing those relationships, and equipping our clients with the tools to do the same. Engaging fans, followers and readers not with promotion or marketing, but with useful information and authentic interactions.

You may shake your head in disagreement reading this, saying to yourself that advertising copywriters are adept at creating content of all types. Through my own ad agency, PR firm, corporate and freelance experiences creating (and refining) different kinds of content, I’ve experienced how easy it is to cross the line from informing to selling. While things are always changing in the nascent social space, so far users haven’t reacted well to being sold to, even in the opt-in worlds of Twitter and Facebook.

This isn’t a question about what ad agencies CAN do, it’s about what they should do. If you’re an ad agency, you have talented writers who create winning concepts, write compelling headlines and script successful commercials. It’s tempting to put those writers to work creating tweets and status updates. But what of the opportunity cost of asking them to manage a brand’s social media presence? The time your copywriter spends reading brand mentions on twitter and responding to comments on Facebook and blogs is a distraction from what she was hired to do. Perhaps you’re thinking billable time is billable time, but when that set of ad concepts is due by 5, you want your creatives to be free to concentrate on their primary jobs without letting your social media presence lapse.

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One thought on “Why Ad Agencies Shouldn’t Do Social Media

  1. Hi Tony,

    You’re right pointing out Ad agencies should be careful to assign their creatives to execute social media ‘campaigns’. Although indeed in some cases this is exactly what they should do.

    However I’m not sure I can agree with your overall conclusion stating that Ad agencies should not ‘do’ social media campaigning. In contrary I would say Ad agencies should demand to be involved with any social media project their client is involved with or plans to. Again you’re absolutely right arguing that this would be an expensive mistake for any agency when this comes down to creatives spending valuable time monitoring streams or comment panels.

    But doesn’t this merely say that Ad agencies currently are not well enough organized to execute such tasks? Or that they have to better define their role and benefits for social media campaigning to their clients? After all social media touches every aspect of a brand and is capable to reach much deeper into their customers’ environment and their own organization than any traditional campaign or media ever could achieve. Isn’t this the prime ‘working area’ of an Ad agency?

    So, the question at hand imo is not if an Ad agency should engage in social media campaigning — they definitely should – but how they should organize themselves without bleeding their creative assets. And with organizing I don’t mean building huge departments with (junior) people executing SM campaigns. That reminds me too much of the early nineties where Ad agencies built huge DTP studio departments that turned out to be very expensive forcing agency management to make the studio billable draining creative flexibility.

    I think Ad agencies should redefine their role from scratch, their responsibilities and relation with their clients even up to the level of what it is they do best. When social media becomes business as usual, and it will soon imo, I think we’ll find creativity to become more strategic as will an agency’s role. No longer will it be sufficient to write great copy or script an excellent commercial. Great creative concepts will be useless without a properly defined context strategy.

    The concept will become an integrated part of the context if you like. And if you’re not capable as an Ad agency to lay out and execute a contextual strategy you’ll have a much bigger problem at hand than discussing whether you should or should not assign your creatives to social media execution duties.

    In short you’re right arguing an agency should not engage with social media execution only when such agency has not yet re-invented itself. But than the agency will face a much much bigger problem. The kind of ‘will we survive’-problem. However when they did, or are doing so they should embrace social media indefinite and position themselves as true brand masters. A position any Ad-agency should have taken long ago btw.

    Kind regards
    Bartel Scheers
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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