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Agencies Start to Get Really Anti-Social

Once a sought-after label, social marketers say it's now too limiting

Ian Schafer

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Just a few years ago, legions of businesses practically tattooed themselves with the label “social media agency” so they could ink deals with brand clients looking to get on Facebook. But as the marketing landscape shifts toward cross-digital solutions and demands for big data, the term is beginning to be seen as too limiting by some.

“As I start to talk to more people about the state of the quote-unquote social media agency, I vehemently deny that we are one,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. “That stance is probably not good for business in the short run.”

It wasn’t terribly long ago when Schafer was growing his now 10-year-old interactive firm by successfully pitching brands like HBO on the company’s prowess in creating MySpace and YouTube ads. But when it comes to social channels like Facebook and Twitter, he argues that modern agencies should know how to fit those pieces into cross-channel advertising mosaics.

“Hiring a separate agency or person to do social is probably anathema to achieving that objective,” he said. “When brands lean on social media experts to find marketing solutions, they are generally barking up the wrong tree.”

Jeff Dachis, president of Dachis Group, a social media marketing and analytics firm, also dislikes the term “social media agency,” but for different reasons. It’s not so much that the term pigeonholes companies, he said, but it misrepresents a data-driven future of advertising that eschews shouting copy at consumers.

“I bristle at that term,” he added. “[Social media marketing] is about providing brands with the ability to engage with their passionate consumer communicators at scale. Engagement at scale does not mean buying media or mass communications, which is what the term ‘agency’ implies…. We do not take your traditional brand message and pump it into social channels because that isn’t going to work.”

Agencies have always adapted to a changing media world. Just as brands some eight decades ago began seeking ad services that facilitated both print and broadcast, companies may soon routinely expect that digital services (display, retargeting, search, etc.) and social get packaged together.

When asked if there was a danger in getting branded as social-only, Dan Coe, founder of Portland, Ore.-based Coexist Digital, replied, “Any digital agency resting on their laurels should be concerned.”

But then there’s Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, who founded his services company a half decade ago and says he “absolutely” still likes the ring of “social media agency.” He contends that his specialty shop has advantages over PR agencies and email service providers that have swiveled toward social in recent years.

“Social is a totally different discipline,” he countered. “It’s part SEO, it’s part [audience] development, it’s part advertising and it is part PR. There’s a lot of interest in specialists out there.”