Advertising Agencies, Big Ideas, Individuality, Social Media

The Ubiquity of the Social Web, and the Questionable Sustainability of its Agencies

Let me preface this by saying I don't write these posts simply to be contrarian. I just think that some perspective is in order.

I've said this before. My larger interest is in technology and how brands can connect with people through things that whirl and buzz. Taking a step beyond that is my interest in integrated advertising. So, count me as a member of the school of thought that no one medium can do the job of every other. That goes for social as well.

Too many social marketers believe that social will eventually take over the world. And for all intents and purposes, I agree. I agree that applications and experiences that are socially enabled and contextually aware is the future. The Internet of Things and the true semantic web are years away. But I do believe they're on the horizon. Experiences that change and mold to fit who we are as individuals is the Holy Grail of advertising. Think of the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise's character enters Gap. We're already seeing it with Facebook's Open Graph and the rise of hyperlocal information.

The use of technology and the internet has become so commonplace that anyone can do it.

Social and contextual advertising will, in my belief, reach a level of ubiquity that pervades every facet of advertising. And with that ubiquity, comes widespread learning and understanding. In an age where the internet has become inescapable, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who, at this point, has never at least Googled, or checked email. Using the internet is no longer a luxury of the technologically savvy. It's a place anyone can access, and the cost of entry is as little as a standard cell phone.

That said, social marketing is not rocket science.

Too many self-proclaimed social experts feel the need to justify their jobs, pointing down at digital and traditional advertisers/marketers, claiming they don't get social and that they're doing it all wrong. But it begs the question: Why do you think social is so far outside of their scope of understanding? Social is human. And last time I checked, humans ran all the other agencies in this industry.

Advertising—good advertising—is based on understanding human behavior. It's about either tapping into, or in some cases, creating culture. So, while I admit that most advertisers are accustomed to talking at consumers, it's a time tested truth that they are no stranger to indoctrinating thoughts, ideas, and beliefs into the minds of the masses. They simply have to learn how to do it in new ways. And as was the case with the widespread adoption of the internet, it's only a matter of time.

"The Last Advertising Agency on Earth" video suggests that remaining relevant requires agencies to understand that times are a-changing and we need to change with them. Most agencies know this now, and are taking the necessary steps to stay connected.

It's grossly naive to believe digital and traditional agencies don't get it and never will. Sure they'll stumble. But haven't the social agencies stumbled as well in proving sales-driven ROI? An agency is only as good as the "agents" it hires. And if the BDA's hire people who "get" social, what makes them any less capable of kicking our collective asses? Not only do they have the client roster, but they have the funds, execution/production resources, and greater leverage for true campaign integration.

Digital agencies doubted traditional agencies the same way. But then what do you say about agencies like SapientNitro? And even then, I think the argument isn't the same as the one social agencies make. Digital and Traditional advertising are two very different disciplines, and require vastly divergent skill sets. We, on the other hand, sit in a place that is primarily based on common sense rhetoric. As a colleague of mine says, we do a lot of talking.

Few social agencies can execute, let alone on the scale and with the refinement of a digital agency. Honestly, any programmer/designer team worth their salt can create custom tabs in Facebook. And even the strategy that leads a good social program can be developed by a digital agency that has at least one person who understands the best practices.

Understanding social, and properly executing against it, is not something reserved to the "great thinkers" of a space that is barely 10 years old. It simply necessitates that you behave more like an individual, and less like a brand hocking your wares. The foundations of good account planning and strategy were carried over from the other disciplines. But polished execution, I'm sorry to say, is something most social agencies just can't do because they don't have the production resources and expertise.

That said, thinking "socially" isn't necessarily hard, it just requires you to think differently; but it doesn't require an entirely new skill set. So, who's more likely to emerge when the dust has settled? Social agencies who do a lot of talking about Facebook and Twitter, but lack the skills to execute against programs larger than a custom tab; or digital agencies who have the expertise to develop deeply engrossing experiences, but need to brush up on the (very elementary) do's and don'ts of social marketing?

Here's a hint: Social agencies; hire some digital creatives.