Advertising Agencies And Social Media: A Culture Clash - Social Media Explorer
Advertising Agencies And Social Media: A Culture Clash
Advertising Agencies And Social Media: A Culture Clash

Culture Clash
Image by LU5H.bunny via Flickr

Advertising agencies around the country are trying to figure out social media. How do we do it? How do we sell it? Do we have to?

The answer is probably yes, you do have to if you want to continue to offer a full range of marketing services to your clients, and bill appropriately. Some agencies are doing a good job adjusting, hiring smart social media thinkers and getting smart about social media quickly. Others are still cocking their head sideways like a puppy trying to figure out a vacuum cleaner.

Sadly, many ad agencies never figured out Interactive, let’s call it Web 1.0. Now you add a layer of Web 2.0 or social media on top of that and many agencies and their respective creatives (art directors, copywriters, designers) and clients services folks are rendered dumb struck at the thought of all things digital.

Their problem is that there exists a culture clash between ad agencies and social media marketing. The difficulty is the result of both philosophical and tactical problems. The good news is problems can be solved. But it will take some work.

The Philosophical Problems

Social media is, in many ways, the antithesis of advertising. Advertising is one-way communications aimed at large groups of consumers. Social media is two-way communications that requires listening as well as speaking. It can also be said that social media is a multiple-way communications method as brands can speak and listen, but also watch other consumers talk to each other. An agency’s creatives and strategic planners suddenly having to factor in listening and observing to their communications process after decades of just shouting from the roof tops presents a seismic culture shift.

Social media is also about building relationships. Advertising is about driving people to a buying decision. In fact, I would propose that in most cases, advertising has nothing to do with a relationship. It’s all about persuading someone to take action, not discussing the decision-making process and becoming a trusted resource for the person choosing. As Chris Heuer says, good marketing today doesn’t try to sell the customer on something. It tries to help them buy it.

Similarly, it can be said that the essence of social media, in many ways, is good customer service. I would propose that, with exceptions certainly, advertising agencies have never cared about serving the customer. They care about making the sale. Advertising is most often used to drive customers to purchase, not care for them after the fact.

So, philosophically, advertising and social media are very different. Creatives, client services folks, account planners and the like are being asked to undertake a new method of communications that runs counter to everything they’ve ever been taught.

The Tactical Problems

Peel off a layer or two in the social media and advertising comparison and you start to see some of the real reasons ad agencies struggle with social media. Please note that I offer these opinions as generalizations but not as blanket statements. There are lots of creatives, planners and the like out there who understand the social and digital worlds. While I’m sure I may furl a brow or two with this, I’m applying general truths I’ve seen through experience working for and with and asking questions about several advertising agencies over the last few years.

First, advertising creatives are taught and still primarily focus on TV, print and outdoor advertising. Despite the media trends, art schools either aren’t pushing students hard enough toward web-centric, or even web-inclusive, work; or many of today’s creatives are lost in filling their “book,” not realizing digital is the type of compelling art agencies are in desperate need of.

Also, art directors and designers are often focused on the art, not the experience. User experience, whether tactile and off-line or virtual and on-, creates compelling engagement with consumers. Art often times is just pretty.

Interactive or digital (website and application development and programming) professionals typically come from technology backgrounds driven by code and algorithms. They’ve got the function down pat but lack the creative side, or form, to produce effective work.

To make matters worse, creative teams of art directors and copywriters are sent to brainstorm and create campaign elements but Interactive folks aren’t invited to the creative process. The creatives don’t come up with compelling interactive because the web is an afterthought. The interactive folks don’t come up with compelling interactive because they aren’t trained as creatives or they were excluded from the conceptual development process altogether.

Client services and account planning isn’t taught to think web first and often just assumes someone in the interactive department will handle guiding those decisions. The creatives think someone in the interactive department will do it, too. The interactive department is under the impression the creatives are developing the concepts and wait to be told what to build. The ball gets dropped and interactive ideas are added to the concept at the last minute with little to know strategic tie to the overall concept.

Don’t you find it strangely ironic that while most people in the typical advertising agency these days know little about digital and interactive, not to mention social media, that every advertising execution contains one consistent feature besides the logo: The website address?

Another tactical problem is that social media revolves around content creation. Not only are ad agencies not capable or prepared to create the volume and type of content required to populate blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, YouTube and more, but social media content must be nimble, quick, conversational and responsive. What little advertising content is produced has to be run through proofing 47 times before it sees the light of day.

Providing content for clients is also antithetical to the philosophical tenants of social media. If I’m engaging in a conversation about a product as a consumer, who is a more trustworthy person to engage with, the brand manager for the product or some account guy at the ad agency that represents the product? The client is always more qualified to be the person or persons engaging with consumers about the brand.

Content creation also doesn’t scale well and is problematic for billing. Let’s say you have 20 brands producing social media content and you hire two people to produce that content. Depending upon the brand, audience and strategy, if they’re doing a good job, they’re producing an average of a blog post, Facebook content, several Tweets and perhaps video, images or some other type of content for each client every day. Can you write 10 blog posts in a day?

And how about this billing scenario: Let’s say a full-time agency employee producing content for a client is working 10 hours per week on that client’s social media efforts. They’re billed out at roughly $75 per hour. At that rate, which is conservative in price and volume, you’re billing $36,000 per year for their services as an agency. At the same time, you can go out and pay free-lance bloggers $25 per post (and that’s on the high end in most circumstances) and produce a similar volume of content for $6,500 per year (a blog post per day, five days per week, which is an aggressive clip for many agencies). How will you answer your client when they call you with a big, “WTF?”

These are the major challenges that face advertising agencies as they transition to owning and embracing social media. There are others.


Solving the problems does take time and resources. Education is going to play a major role. In order to expedite the list and open the comments for building blocks to add to these ideas, here is a brief list of what agencies can do to integrate social media into their service offerings and disciplines:

  1. Embrace client websites as an opportunity to engage and build relationships with customers
  2. Make content portable so customers can consume it where they choose, even on mobile platforms
  3. Prioritize search engine optimization. People start their web interactions with search the vast majority of the time.
  4. Learn that well-done search advertising and email marketing campaigns have conversion rates that dwarf those of your ROI numbers on billboards and TV spots.
  5. Use social media tools internally to collaborate on projects.
  6. Use those same tools to collaborate with your clients, extending the educational experience to them.
  7. Read industry blogs.
  8. Bring in social media consultants and educators to teach everyone, not just your interactive department, how social media can improve their productivity and outputs.
  9. Incorporate social and interactive experience into the hiring requirements for client services and creatives.
  10. Watch what other brands are doing on the social web.
  11. Embrace the enthusiasm of your resident social media advocates by having them teach you social while you teach them strategic thinking.
  12. Understand that mass media still has better reach but use that reach to build communities around your brands, driving consumers to brand engagement points through social media.

Now it’s your turn. What else can advertising agencies do to turn the corner on social media expertise? The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at

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