Close-Up: Do clients need social media shops?

Use of social media has exploded, but are traditional agencies right for the job, Noel Bussey asks.

In the past couple of years, the take-up of social media as an effective advertising tool has been steadily increasing.

And, as such, a number of specialist social media agencies - such as Essence, i-level's Jam and Yomego - have begun to reap the rewards of offering clients a specialised service that they claim is more innovative, focused and quicker than traditional agencies can offer.

Joe Leon, the associate partner at Essence, a digital agency and social media specialist, says: "What most people don't realise is that their social media footprint is much, much bigger than they think and defining and managing it is much more than just putting up a Facebook page. There is PR, customer response management, media seeding. Without this specialist knowledge, mistakes can be extremely costly."

The Beta/Mumsnet debacle is an obvious recent example of where it can go badly wrong.

Another area where the specialist agencies feel they have the upper hand on their traditional brethren is in ROI.

Steve Richards, the managing director of Yomego, says: "I don't think the bigger agencies know how to quantify and measure the effectiveness of social media - they can try to bluff their way through it, but it's not convincing."

However, many from the traditional side disagree and believe that much of what a social media specialist does is just outsourced customer service, something that the client could, and often should, be doing themselves.

Peter Charles, the marketing manager at Doritos, says: "This ensures that we control the tone of voice and allows us to be open and transparent, which is paramount."

Recently, in the US, companies such as Best Buy have begun employing teams of people dedicated solely to conversing with customers in real time, which it calls a Twelp Force.

If this takes off in the UK, it could be that the need for a social media specialist will diminish - especially if traditional agencies can get on board quickly enough.

Amelia Torode, the head of strategy and innovation at VCCP, which created the "meerkat" campaign, says: "The social media specialists are in the same situation that the digital agencies were in ten years ago. They have the market now but we're closing that gap.

"Good agencies are now thinking less about social media as a platform and more about real time as a concept, where everything will be joined together."

However, David Bainbridge, the vice-chairman at MCBD, believes that as the industry moves towards integration, it is counterintuitive to look to one agency as the answer and it should be about getting the best results from the campaign.

He says: "It's not about shifting budgets, which assumes a siloed way of working. It's about working closely with your media partners and recognising that reaching communities and developing creative solutions with built-in PR and cultural reach should be inherent in every campaign, no matter what agencies are working on it."

It's clear that some traditional agencies are capable of grasping the complexities of social media. However, it is also clear that with a concept that is so wide-ranging, a number of specialists can be extremely effective if used properly.

Leon says: "There is a lot to be said for standalone expertise, but a specific skillset is not enough and ignoring our knowledge of brandbuilding would be completely against the point of making social media effective."

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PLANNER - Amelia Torode, head of strategy and innovation, VCCP

"We reckon that the next ten years is going to be the post-digital decade. The idea of siloed separate entities just as we're all reintegrating seems very old-fashioned.

"The next move is going to be into real-time advertising, and traditional agencies have the chance to take the initiative if they have smart clients.

"A lot of what social media agencies actually do is outsource customer service, such as having people answering Tweets etc, but they don't have the depth of planning and creative to produce in-depth, fully formed campaigns."

DIGITAL AGENCY HEAD - Joe Leon, associate partner, Essence

"Two years ago, clients said: 'I want a viral.' Now they ask for social media without really understanding it.

"It's about starting conversations, communicating directly with consumers and building new insights - but big advertisers aren't set up to deal with this. They're not sure who should be maintaining things and how to do it cost-effectively.

"At the moment, the general solution is to buy pages everywhere and have one graduate doing the upkeep.

"Something as complex a social media needs an integrated offering, not just a specialist in one area."

CLIENT - Peter Charles, marketing manager, Doritos

"You can't just use a specialist. I expect all of my agencies, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, OMD and Frank PR, to have a good understanding of social media and work together, with the brand in the middle, to give me the best results from any campaign.

"Social media allows us to target our core demographic, but it has to be executed perfectly or the result can be irreparable damage to the brand, which some agencies don't take seriously enough."

AGENCY HEAD - David Bainbridge, vice-chairman, MCBD

"You don't need social media specialists, you need socially and culturally aware communications professionals. We are all in the business of social ideas.

"A good social media business won't just be thinking about comms, but about all the ways a business should change itself to listen and respond to its customers through a range of touchpoints.

"Traditional agencies can sometimes make the mistake of not stepping back in this way. Modern agencies, though, view the horizons of their remit in wider commercial and creative terms, blending this perspective with the rigour and expertise that comes with a deep understanding of brands and their clients' business."