Advertising Agencies, Big Ideas, Emerging Technology, Inspiration, Social Media

The Soul of Social Media, And Why "Agency" Shouldn't Be A Bad Word


There's something I've thought about for some time, and was perpetuated by Zach Lieberman, a speaker at the PSFK Conference last week. Lieberman, who is a creative technologist, had a talk about Engaging the Human Element, and "making deeply engaging, entertaining and meaningful interactions" through art and technology. He talked about the power of individuals, and touched on a trend of the shift from DIY to DIWO (Do It With Others); an interesting notion that speaks to to the heart of social.

Joseph (Jaffe) would say that social's purpose for brands is to Acknowledge, Incentivize, Dialogue, and Activate (AIDA as opposed to ADIA) its customers who would then act as advocates for the brand, bringing new customers into the fold. That's one way of looking at it, and a legitimate way to use it.

Many others in the industry see social is an opportunity for brands to go to where their customers are (online), in order to listen and engage in dialogue. And if there's a real opportunity for it, act as a unifier, bringing like-minded people together around a common idea, belief, or hobby through a branded community.

But when I had a conversation with a peer of mine, a third angle came up; one that speaks to the point Lieberman made at the conference. Is social capable of being more than just a response/support/inducement tool? What is the purpose of launching a branded community? Are we facilitating conversations for the sake of having conversations? What is the end goal? Lieberman's work, such as the Eyewriter and Drawn, is about leaving the screen behind. He talked about the "Open Mouth Moment", when a person drops their jaw in amazement at something they just experienced. He described this as "the pathway to someone's heart." How do we create these social experiences? How do we move beyond the Facebooks, Twitters, and YouTubes of the world and get people talking again?

The advent of social media did not mark the beginning of people talking to each other, or about brands. It merely facilitates conversations, but it isn't the reason why people talk. People talked about Lieberman's Drawn because it was an "Open Mouth Moment". It's about a strong message or idea that's worth sharing. Most self-proclaimed "social media experts" are internetologists (a point I won't contend) who rely on incentives over emotions. Dare I say it, this is something social marketers stand to learn from the Big Dumb Agencies (BDA), as George Parker would call them. Whether it sits well with you or not, before Facebook's founders were even born, these agencies rose to prominence on the backs of people's emotions. And even then, people talked about and recommended brands.

Griffin Farley, a Strategy Director at BBH and author of Propagation Planning, recently discussed something missing from social media that has long guided traditional advertising: Brand Mantras.

"Good creative briefs can do a great job of inspiring advertising but recently I have discovered that they don't do a great job of grounding social media actions. I think Brand Mantras do a much better job of this because they describe an emotion, a theme, a writing style that can be used as the guide for the voice of the brand in social media."

He went on to cite a Brand Mantra in the form of a poem written for CNN. Guess who wrote it. Mother New York; Creativity Magazine's pick for 2009 Agency of the Year.

"Agency" shouldn't be a bad word. It's only begun to take on negative connotations, but we shouldn't equate the term to immorality. We should instead take hold of it, reshape it, and bring it back to a point of distinction. There are many things BDAs do well, and there are many things that they do poorly, like thinking small. But that same point can be turned around and said about smaller boutiques; most especially social shops. Logistics aside, like the inability to scale, social marketers have forgotten the pathway to people's hearts. They've embroiled themselves so deeply in "Activation" strategies that they've forgotten human strategies.

Social media is missing its soul, if it ever had one. Strong ideas and "Open Mouth Moments" are all the reason people need to propagate an idea; not free shipping offers and discount coupons. The tools are merely there to help spread the word, but they shouldn't be the idea itself. The Obama campaign had one strong, succinct idea that used the tools simply as a way to circulate it: "Change". It was simple; but it's that simplicity which made it stir the collective emotions of a nation.

Lieberman said “The process of creating art is in many ways an R & D department for humanity”. I implore this industry to remember back to what made us smile and cry as humans. To capture that raw emotion, and recreate that pathway to people's hearts.