// what do you think?


Agencies Get Out of Your Client’s Way

Road Block

Road Block

Having done corporate social media from both sides of the table now, I can tell you that agencies can do more damage in the long term even while they provide short term value. This is especially true in social media.

I remember as a kid, when my mom was a secretary, she would *type* inner-office memo’s on triplicate paper. Place one copy in a manila envelope and then stick that in an outbox. A mail clerk would come and pick that up, take that to a mail room and sort it. Eventually that memo got delivered to the recipient in the same building.

This was the 80′s and this is the environment our current business organizational structure was developed in.

As companies engage in social media the biggest change that needs to happen is inside the walls of the company.

This is the #1 reason I hate ghost blogging and ghost tweeting. If agencies stand between the company and the customer the organization as a whole will never be able to make the cultural and structural changes it needs to in order to stay relevant and competitive.

What is the role of an agency in social media?

This then begs the question: What is the role of an agency in social media?

An agency’s role in social media is to help their clients scale: I see 3 different roles agencies play to make this happen:

  1. Strategy and Consulting
  2. Filtering and Flagging
  3. Content, Content, Content

Strategy and Consulting

This is both the upfront work of strategy development as well as the ongoing guidance. Something agencies seem to have forgotten how to do is the role of trend watchers. It’s equally important that agencies have people out front watching for what’s next. Even the agencies that do this often fail to filter it down to the account level.

I would also add to this bucket the huge role of process development. This space is new and there are a lot of details to work out.

Flagging and Filtering

This is the role of watching, monitoring and measuring conversations to bring the more relevant ones to the clients attention. This is a huge piece of the scale issue. This also speaks to the role of “community manager.” I would just caution again that this is the place where agencies stand the biggest risk of getting in their clients’ way.

Don’t filter too much and if you do engage on behalf of a client do so with complete transparency.

Content, Content, Content

This piece should be easy for agencies to grasp because for the mast part this is what most of them are already doing. However they need to not just create expensive flashy content, they also need to train clients how to create their own content, especially for use in blogs and social networks. Sometimes the best content has the lowest production value.

I worry as I watch agencies try to add value and meet all of their clients’ needs that by doing so they create clients unable to function on their own. Maybe to some they see this as a good thing as it ensures the clients will always need them. To me it’s a sure way to end up with an irrelevant client that is eventually doomed to extinction.

Photo credit: Mozambique - Moments

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • ztoryteller

    Good analysis but I've never seen an agency do any of your three things well. True strategic thinking would have to divorce itself from the foregone conclusion that the agency will get to do ads and other big-ticket billable stuff. So what passes for strategic thinking is usually just a way of setting the hook, building momentum for the big gig.

    I've seen lots of agencies that were good at client service in the sense of personal face-time to shield clients from the bumps and swerves of the creative process. But I've never seen an account exec who had so thoroughly internalized the client's business that s/he could serve as an independent, objective source of intelligence and observation of trends, economic and demographic factors that a CEO would need to truly navigate in rough waters, etc. Every AE I've observed has ultimately had the agency's interests and biases at heart, and their role has been to insulate the client from discomfort, not connect the client with gritty reality. Agencies tend to focus on changing customer perceptions, not changing the business.

    And while agencies are often quite good at generating mediated content, finding clever ways to tell the brand story to particular audiences … I have never seen an agency teach itself out of a content-creating role. To do so would be economic suicide. I haven't even seen agencies who were any good at hands-on content-creation themselves — actual filming or interviewing or editing. They tend to hire production companies to execute on their vision… but are uncomfortable if they cannot prescribe the result from the start. Allowing people to talk on film without scripting feels like an abdication of responsibility to every agency I have ever worked with.

    The agency ethos as I have observed it always involves what David Galenson calls conceptual innovation — dreaming up ideas that fulfill a creative or branding goal. I've never seen agencies that were good at what Galenson calls experimental innovation, which is the kind of content development I think you are looking for in the fully interactive, scale-the-rock-face-without-a-rope world of social media dialog, Tac.

    The truth is that Waggener Edstrom is the first PR or Advertising agency I've ever encountered that seems to have a feel for experimental innovation, and is therefore the only agency I've ever thought I'd like to be associated with.

    When you talk about agencies, plural, doing these three things, I wonder if you realize how radically different your culture is from most influence firms…. and how refreshing that difference is for those of us who dislike the “madmen” model.

  • http://twitter.com/karensnyd karen snyder

    Hey Tac!
    For the past year and a half we've been working with Mike Manuel of Voce. They have put up with our frequent strategy / goal shifts, and been a great partner as we gain widespread acceptance of the importance of social media at the company. They have done great strategy / planning work for us, as well as top-notch monitoring (usually using Radian6 as a tool.)

    I'm aware of the tactics that other agencies use in making their clients almost dependent upon them. While the guys at Voce have probably had the urge to help us reach out more than we do, they have NEVER proposed posting “on our behalf.” Instead they use every arrow in their quiver to try to empower us to engage on our own. We're getting there ; )

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson


    Mike and the whole crew at Voce are great guys, agreed. Plus, with you as a
    client it can't be all that bad :)

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    I gotta say I don't have a whole lot of agency experience outside of WaggEd
    so I can't speak to others but to me it seems like a no brainer. Having sat
    at the other side of the table I have seen the worst of the “Mad Men” type.
    WE may be in the minority but we're not alone. There are several great

    I'm not familiar with David Galenson but I'll have to check out his work.

    Agency Bias is a real problem. For me it's as much of a joke as Journalism
    Bias. They both try to pretend it doesn't exist but both would be better
    served just admitting it up front and let their audience/clients make
    educated discussions based on full transparency.

    As always, thanks for the comments.

  • ztoryteller

    Thanks for zeroing in on the gist of my awkwardly worded post of last night! I agree with all you say in reply… there have got to be other agencies that think a lot like WE… I've just never encountered any and the kind of fresh thinking I've observed at WE probably doesn't permeate all client relationships even there. In fact, a lot of it depends on the clients themselves… what they expect or need. Plus, you're in a more progressive part of the country. I've worked mostly with large midwest agencies and New York & Boston firms. I'm sure clients as well as agency cultures are different in the Northwest.

    Galenson is an economist who has been studying creativity for a good while. His most recent book is Old Masters and Young Geniuses. Among artists, Picasso and Cezanne are two masters who illustrate the difference in style. Galenson ties it to the age of the artist but my thinking is it doesn't matter how old guys are, there are always 2 distinct ways of approaching creative challenges. For example, among movie directors Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese typify the conceptual innovator type, who know exactly what they want inside their mind when they start.

    More collaborative, “experimental innovators” would be Ron Howard, Barry Levinson, Steven Spielberg, Lasse Hallstrom, Norman Jewison, Rob Reiner, Harold Ramis, Peter Weir, Spike Lee, Nora Ephron.

    I'm not really sure which category Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford fall into. I'd guess they know exactly what they want ahead of time, and see it in their mind, but are highly adept at letting actors and cinematographers make minor contributions without having to throw their directorial weight around on the set. Actors' directors who can give the illusion of collaboration… and use low-key persuasion. The best of both worlds.

    Seth Godin's recent TED talk on Tribes starts with just how big a paradigm shift communicators need to make… and I think the whole game is being turned upside-down faster than most agencies can adapt. In fact, most agencies won't even be needed or wanted within the next 20 years.

  • AmberNaslund


    Hear, hear. I'm so with you on this one, but I'll resist the urge to retype and quote your whole post. :) I'd also say that agencies should be the “training wheels” for their clients, using their expertise to teach the companies to fish for themselves (sorry for the mixed metaphor).

    You are DEAD right that the biggest hurdle to social media adoption and success in companies is *cultural*, not operational. I believe that pretty passionately, and am always glad for someone who shares that view. Keep on fighting the good fight.

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community, Radian6

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    Our job is to teach companies how to fish using their own fishing rod, not to take their rod and apply our expertise because we know what we're doing.

    Humility is key and in short supply on both sides of the equation.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Humility and the ability to do what's right long term not just profitable short term.

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  • http://fauzan.dhezign.com Brian Arfi

    nice post! i find it very interesting and very helpful material for my business :)

  • http://fauzan.dhezign.com Brian Arfi

    nice post! i find it very interesting and very helpful material for my business :)

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