Apr 8, 2009


This is something I actually wrote a couple of weeks ago but never got around to posting because it seemed like there was too much being said on the topic just then. Consider it vacation filler:

I remember back in the mid-90s, ad agencies (at least the smarter ones) had figured out that this internet thing wasn’t going away and started to talk to their clients about doing web work for them. The answer they often got was “thanks, but WTF do you know about the web, we’ve got our special web agency here to do all that stuff for us.”

And the agencies would look at the “special web agency” and become infuriated because they were generally a couple of programmers and designers who had never worked in advertising before and didn’t seem to understand even the most basic marketing principles.

The situation got even worse as the web agencies grew, Agency.com and Razorfish in particular, which, if you recall, were media darlings with multimillion dollar valuations and 25 year old owners who were alleged to have become zillionaires. I mean seriously, if I had a dollar for every traditional agency type who griped “but they don’t even know the first thing about advertising, they’ve never even worked in an agency before! Why are people paying them so much money” I’d be a very rich man today.

Now the answer to that slam from the newly minted digital types was always “it’s different on the web. Old rules don’t apply.”

But the gripe was eventually heard and clients started turning their web work over to agencies, who hired some of the guys who “didn’t get it” along with some old direct marketing guys (since banners had become nothing more than online DM vehicles) called it a “digital department” and went to work creating what Brian Morrissey calls “matching luggage”: banners and microsites that mimicked the TV campaign.

So the same thing is happening now in social media. Clients are telling agencies they don’t want to hear social media ideas from them since they already have “social media consultancies” in place and WTF do they know about social media.

And the number one gripe I hear about these social media consultancies from agency types is that the people fronting them have zero expertise in advertising, marketing, corporate communications or PR. “Motivational speakers with active Twitter accounts” is the most popular (printable) slam.” (NB: Agency types don’t really see the subtle differences social media types do in terms of who is legit because they have the most Twitter followers or most active blog: they’re looking solely at experience and I suspect that many of those regarded as “top names” in social media would be surprised to hear themselves derided as frauds.)

And once again, the newly minted social media types are saying “it’s different in social media. Old rules don’t apply.”

My gut tells me that as the revenue flows out the door, big agencies will react by setting up social media departments staffed by people who have done some work in the space along with senior people they’ve been able to lure away from PR agencies (PR : Social Media = DM : Web 1.0). Given the nature of social media, they won’t be able to create “matching luggage” but they will be able to create campaigns that tie in to the broader themes of the brand campaign (e.g. “fun,” “innovative,” “chic,” etc.) And while they'll likely be given the same respect (or lack thereof) of agency digital departments, they will help stop the money from flowing out the door.

Which is precisely what the big agencies – and the holding companies that own them—want them to do.

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