Big Agencies Face Challenge From Social-Media Upstarts

An Ad Age Editorial

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Everyone's an expert these days -- a social-media expert. Consider the case of Gary Vaynerchuk, the wine-store proprietor who, thanks to any number of social tools, has become a multiplatform vino expert with an influential online video channel and a $1 million book deal. Those same tools have helped the bubble-brained scenester Julia Allison achieve similar heights of popularity, if not expertise.

At Ad Age's Digital Conference last week, Unilever CMO Simon Clift called Ms. Allison a case of what's possible when you have "a dollar and a dream." Mr. Clift, of course, has more than just a dollar at his disposal. He has a few billion, many of which will go to agencies he hires to promote and protect products such as Dove. But just what kind of shops will get the biggest share is one of the biggest and most-pressing questions facing the agency business in the post-advertising age.

Will it be the big, global networks that have suckled on the likes of Unilever for decades, or will it be the little social-media upstarts now multiplying like rabbits? It might bother you to hear that knowing your way around a big budget alone won't get you terribly far. "I'm convinced fat media budgets help make people lazy," said Mr. Clift, "and we've thought about [whether we] should cut media budgets on some specific projects in order to force people to come up with ideas." That should be a scary thought for a creative used to seeing his ideas ride the wave of a multimillion-dollar media buy. The order of the day now is not to inflict creative notions on consumers with mere repetition but to enter into a two-way conversation with them and talk about the issues they want to talk about.

Is your agency ready for this? By now, it should be, because it's pretty certain that the world won't wait for you if you're not. And there are any number of small shops out there -- you know, the ones with "a dollar and a dream" -- who will step into your place and do the heavy lifting on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other websites where consumers are spending more and more time, not merely watching slack-jawed but interacting and controlling content and shaping brand realities on a 24/7 basis.

To remain at the right hand of the brand, ad agencies will have to continue to disrupt their own processes, change out talent, and even reconsider what a brand is -- namely not something they create but something they can help manage. Size certainly won't be enough, especially if Mr. Clift serves as example of where clients are heading.

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