Media Perspective: Social media can be great for business. If only agencies knew

I was recently talking to a potential client who was looking to move agencies, and I asked why they were unhappy with their current arrangements.

The client shot back at me: "They don't give us any leadership in social media ... I know it's something we should be looking at, but don't know what we should be doing."

I wasn't that surprised as I know there are still media agencies, and I suspect some creative agencies too, that have not helped their clients embrace social media. How important is social media? It has permeated society in a very short period of time; 30 million people in the UK have visited at least one social network in the past month.

A year ago, Facebook penetration in the UK was at 11 million. Now it's 19 million, and still rising. That's more people than watched England's highest-rating match in the 2006 World Cup. But it's not the size of the social networks that's important; it's the way people behave within social networks that is fundamentally changing our industry.

In direct contrast to mass media, people aren't all doing the same thing at the same time in social media. They are forming communities around the things that have always interested them: sharing, talking, collaborating, creating. They're being social.

By putting identical, flat advertising messages where people are being social, an advertiser can't be too upset when they're largely ignored by the vast majority.

But wait; surely there were always "inefficiencies"? Not everyone who watched your TV ad went out the next day to buy your product. The real opportunity social media represents is to change this way of thinking; rather than reaching "millions" to affect "thousands", social media affords us the opportunity to just target those "thousands" from the off.

If a media agency's purpose is to connect clients with the people who will value their products and services, and social media has made making connections easier, then leadership in social media is something clients should expect from their media agency. Now it would be arrogant of me to suggest that across the Omnicom Media Group UK network, we have cracked all areas of social media, but what we are doing is actively exploring, testing and learning. For instance, at PHD, we have helped Cadbury hold a live Facebook wedding for Bertie Bassett, his blushing bride and 23,000 guests.

Through initiatives like this, we have been helping clients learn to use social media to not just talk to people, but deliver extra value to conversation when they do. The smart media agency is no longer fixated on the big, bulk buy; the future is about creating smart, social connections with the people our clients really wanted to talk to all along.

- Philippa Brown is the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK.

- Ian Darby is away.