Why You Shouldn't Hire A Social Media Agency Of Record

Social media may be the biggest agency land grab ever. Interactive agencies, PR agencies, creative agencies, media agencies, direct agencies, and even specialty search, mobile, and obviously social are getting into the game. Of course this is driven by client demand.  The massive adoption of social technologies has driven many marketers to rethink their approach while moving at least experimental dollars and resources toward social media. And given how fast things move today, they often look to their agency partners for advice, education, and execution. Over the past year we’ve had a lot of questions from marketers seeking a “social media agency of record” to manage all social media marketing activity. My response to this has been straightforward: Don’t do it.

It’s not that we don’t believe that agencies can help with social media, they absolutely can and do. And it definitely makes sense to bring in outside partners to help with advice and education (full disclosure: We at Forrester do a lot of consulting on this subject).  Yet there’s an inherent challenge with the approach of having one social media agency of record and that’s the fact that social media is not a vertical channel. It’s a horizontal set of technologies that enable sharing across individuals and brands. That means social media can and should be incorporated across virtually all marketing activities. It can be incorporated into your Web site. It can be used to help improve organic search results. It can be leveraged in market research. And it can be used in a slew of other areas such as product development, advertising, public relationship, CRM, etc.  So the question becomes: How can one agency truly be an expert in incorporating social media into all of these channels? The answer is they can’t. Let’s face it, the agencies that claim to be experts in social media tend to be experts in their area of expertise. For instance, PR agencies are typically best at influencer marketing, interactive agencies are best at building communities and platforms, and traditional agencies are best at creating viral content (see Old Spice). Certainly these agencies can talk about other parts of marketing. Are there a handful of exceptions to this? Certainly there are. Some agencies have successfully added new areas of expertise outside of their original discipline, and a few more have even added a wide range of social-specific skills. But those are few and far between.

So if you shouldn’t go get a social media agency of record, what should you do? First, if you still need help with strategy and education, go ahead and find the best agencies or consultants.  The reality is that strategy and education can come from a wide array of partners, so be open to looking across different types of agencies. Interactive marketers are often the leaders of social media strategies, and in that role you may need help. But at the end of the day, you need to own that strategy and you need to determine the importance of social media across your interactive marketing. So as you get into the execution, work with your colleagues across marketing to make sure that all of your current agencies have a plan to incorporate social media into the work they’re doing (or a good reason not to be).


Absolutely agree with you on

Absolutely agree with you on the Strategy part. Actually majority of clients still struggle in differentiating between a strategy and execution. Part of that responsibility lies with agencies too (creative/media/pr/interactive etc.) as everyone tries to impress the client with some "strategy". End results; client jumps to execution and therefore seeks more specialized agencies to develop that work. Of course this is just a learning curve, sooner or later client would realize that they are working with 8-9 agencies rather than couple of them, and we would see some sort of consolidation or single window operation so that both strategy and execution can be centralized. One way could be the P&G's model of BAL (Brand Agency Leader) where you have one single agency as the lead and others as contributors.


I often say social media is a competency, and I guess this slots neatly into your nice 'horizontal' definition. As your company itself says, social media works in research, marketing, sales, support and development. I think where social media agencies can help is by integrating with traditional PR agencies, matching them level for level so that each AE function in a 'trad' agency is replicated in a cool new social media agency. So that's where the client needs to think ahead and make sure they're bringing the best of both worlds together. Or, of course, you could always think about hiring a freelancer... ;)

Social media as an integrated component

I think the best argument you're making here, Sean, is for social media to be seamlessly integrated into existing marketing strategies wherever it can add value. I couldn't agree more.

As a public relations agency, we don't claim any kind of ownership over the social media file but our embrace of new interactive channels and their integration into a more traditional media relations effort has accelerated, particularly over the past year.

In the beginning, we extended our outreach efforts to include pitches to bloggers who met our existing criteria: Did they reach our clients' markets and did they write about our clients' subject matter? Because we have always employed a highly targeted and personalized approach to pitching journalists, adding bloggers to the mix was the most effortless of extensions for us.

From there, we've moved on to become adept at evaluating other social media channels and in developing relevant and high-value content with which we can seed a conversation on those channels. In many instances, we're also managing the whole process from monitoring, to evaluating which opportunities are good ones, to developing and even placing the content and responding to comments, feedback and discussion, all in our client's voice.

As our understanding of new media and social media channels grows, we are finding that clients are trusting us with developing their overall social media strategy, whether the activities are limited to public relations or also include broader marketing or even internal communications requirements. But even then, the specific manner in which social media might be added to another marketing program beyond PR remains the purview of the client's advertising agency, or human resources department, or wherever the underlying activity belongs.

It's an evolving world, this social media thing. Thanks for pointing out that strategies need to evolve along with it.


Couldn't Agree More

I agree 100%.

I run the Social Media (Twitter, FB, Blogging, etc.)/e-mail marketing campaigns for two hotels. And this works for us for several reasons.

This works for our company because I know the hotels and the area (I grew up here), I am beyond passionate about social media strategy (I know how to use it, and I know why it works) and I work in the sales department alongside the sales managers.

Become a fan of facebook.com/mollypitcherinn or facebook.com/theoysterpointhotel if you want to see more :-)

I completely agree with your

I completely agree with your assessment and thesis. However, I would go farther and say that social media should be integrated across more business functions than just marketing.

While most companies have understandably first ventured into social media focused on marketing, to think that social media should be "owned" by marketing departments, and their agencies, is simply underestimating and misunderstanding the fundamentals of this technology....

Jose Villa

The argument needs a finer point on it

Sean, there are some assumptions implicit in your post that deserve to be surfaced. As it stands, the same reasoning could be used to support the point that companies should not hire any sort of agency of record, social or otherwise. Lest I become too Shevlin-esque, I'll leave it there (ask Josh what that means if you don't know).

AOR doesn't encompass as much as social media

Thanks Peter. As you know, social has a broad reach across an organization - both internally and externally. That encompasses more than even the biggest holding company AOR relationships typically cover. Plus, you can have an AOR for a speciality, like iProspect for search. So I don't necessarily agree that the reasoning can be applied to any AOR relationship. With that said, I'm always interested in hearing about your experience in the market. (And Josh told me what "Shevlin-esque" means and I appreciate you not going down that road)

Hire people to make YOU better

As we keep telling our clients, you're the experts on you (http://www.mediasnackers.com/zen-and-the-heart-of-social-media-experts/) and even know we're one of those social media agencies, we're not experts but expert students (http://www.mediasnackers.com/zen-and-the-heart-of-social-media-students/) - good post!

A cultural change, not a set of tools

Sean, recycling expertise into another channel i.e. social media is not a proper way to look at inbound marketing and will only lead to people ignoring the same push marketing tactics from traditional agencies. Regardless of who managing the strategy and implementation of a PR 2.0, they should represent the constituency and work for the constituency. To simplify, (4) constituencies: employee/partners, customers (past and presents), prospects, influencers. To build trust, a referral mechanism and ultimately internet visibility leading to conversion, a PR 2.0 program needs to transform the brand into a conversational hub.

This is a very large cultural shift and hiring an agency of record will simply deliver the same push marketing propaganda you're referring to.

Most companies fail at becoming conversational hubs as they are so internally focused. This is where we (the agency) come in and it's not just a set of tools but the ability to work with every client to turn the constituents into conversational partners promoting the company as a by-product. Re-creating a transactional relationship through social media is a common trap. People are looking for meaningful relationships, not only transactions. Transactions should be interwoven but meaningful relationships are long lasting and constituents will gladly promote the brand. As an agency, we're here to protect their constituencies needs and transform the client into a conversational hub. We are only an extension of their brand, an inbound marketing catalyst.

Thanks for your work,

I agree

Thanks Yann, I wasn't implying that social technologies are just a set of tools that you plug into traditional marketing efforts. Rather, they can be used to meet a variety of business goals and shouldn't be thought of as one "channel". I also don't believe that inbound marketing will be the only kind of marketing in the future. There's clearly a big shift toward earned and owned media and rightfully so. But paid media (advertising) won't go away, it will always be there in some capacity to add immediacy and scale.

Transactional vs Experiential

Thanks for clarifying and yes it should be a media mix. The mix will depend on the brand's position on the transactional vs experiential scale. The more experiential they are the more earned/owned media should be used and vice versa.