Why Media Agencies Don't Need Separate Units For Social Media

Interpublic's Universal McCann, Publicis' Vivaki Are Building Out Separate Units for Social Media. Should They?

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David Teicher
David Teicher
As marketers shift budgets from traditional media that they buy through advertising to the more labor-intensive social media, it's natural that media agencies would want to grab a piece of that action. This week we learned from the Wall Street Journal that Interpublic's Universal McCann and Publicis Groupe's Vivaki are building out entire divisions dedicated to social media.

But is that a good idea? No, for two reasons that I'll get to in a minute. But first, a disclaimer: I spend the last year as social-media manager at McCann Erickson (Universal McCann's sibling agency within Worldgroup). In other words, until I joined Advertising Age last week, I was that guy.

Essentially, I have two issues with what's being done -- where the social media practice is being built, and that it's being built at all.

Media Buying and Social/Earned Media Don't Mix
Universal McCann's expertise is in media buying and planning, an agenda wholly antithetical to everything that is social-media marketing. Yes, media planning should encompass outlets of all types, and thus must take into account planned activity in the social space when allocating funds. However, it's what UM represents -- buying increments of attention through which brands broadcast messages to consumers -- that I find so contradictory to the dynamics of social media and, consequently, marketing on social platforms.

Namely, in order to generate the buzz and really tap that word-of-mouth potential, the best investment a brand can make is time. It takes living, breathing, human beings devoting their time to converse with consumers to get a feel for what they want from the brand. It takes time to win their trust. Only after the relationship is built can the strategists and creative teams jump in to leverage that rapport for the purposes of a marketing campaign (or customer service). And even then, the goal is to earn the attention of your audience by providing something valuable, functional, or entertaining, not to buy it.

As such, I was quite surprised to hear that UM is the division of McCann Worldgroup charged with housing Rally and spearheading the social-media initiative for the one-stop-shop. While there are many IPG subsidiaries that may lay a valid claim on social media, Worldgroup, IPG's "one-stop-shop," houses only a few viable options. And UM, the branch devoted to purchasing ad units and 30-second ad blocks of attention, is not the one I'd associate with expertise in social media and earning consumer attention.

My only thought is that perhaps as "buying attention" becomes less effective, the intention here is to consciously push UM into a new space via this manufactured evolution.

It's not that they don't have a place in the conversation, they do, and it's in research and metrics or Facebook homepage takeovers that drive to a campaign -- areas that naturally flow from traditional media planning -- not thought leadership, not campaign development, not strategy. That's just too far from their core area of expertise. This is why I am utterly confused as to why Worldgroup chose them as their flagship in this space, especially when they are also made up of McCann Erickson and Weber Shandwick, both of which may be much better suited for the role.

Divisions Upon Subdivisions, When Will it End?
Secondly, beyond the confounding undertaking by Universal McCann, we have the industry-wide movement to continuously create new divisions dedicated toward every novel platform or technology as it emerges.

Creating separate divisions like this is essentially admittance that the rest of the organization is too lazy or too stupid keep up, not something I'd like to broadcast if it were my agency. The solution these agencies are looking for is one of education and consistent reeducation, creating a baseline knowledge that obviates the need for entire sections of company to focus on something everyone should understand.

Is there ever reason for bringing in a few specialists when needed? Of course there is, but in leadership roles. And even then, the goal must be to absorb their expertise to the point that it is fully integrated within the work flow structure. The fractal model of building divisions within micro-agencies within agencies is not a solution.

Think about it: As big agencies evolve and grow their capabilities by adding specialist departments, they are simultaneously, and intentionally, building an added layer of separation into the work-flow process. While it may seem like a necessary byproduct, it will only serve to hider efforts and create discord in the long term, and needs to be addressed at the inception point, not as an afterthought.

The more personnel committed to such exacting specialties (the extreme being embodied by these dedicated divisions), the further the agency moves in the wrong direction. The only reason for building out these sub-practices is for branding and positioning. The ultimate goal of these tactics is the generation of additional revenue, not the legitimate development of services or expertise.

David Teicher is social media and event content manager at Advertising Age. He joined from McCann Erickson, where he was social media manager and strategist. You can follow him on Twitter.
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