That's led some agencies to reorient the type of accounts they pursue. Deep Focus, a digital shop, was primarily an online promotions agency that worked heavily in the entertainment industry. Its social media chops is leading it in a different direction, according to Schafer, as about eight clients are using it as an "engagement agency." It recently was put on Microsoft's roster, for instance, to serve as social media agency for Bing.
"Clients are waking up to the fact that either their lead traditional agency doesn't get social media or gets [it] enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be effective," said Schafer. "They know it's important, but that's not where they'll make their money."
That's led Deep Focus into competition with upstart social media consulting firms. "There's a hodgepodge of firms who can deliver elements, but ... most are really new, young and underdeveloped," he said.
EVB finds its competitive set shifting as it uses social media to provide the "pixie dust" that gets people talking about a brand. What often happens, said CEO Daniel Stein, is clients know they want to do something in social media, but aren't sure what. That puts the shop in a different position in pitches like the one for VSP. "The client doesn't even know who to call with some of this stuff," he said. "You used to know what the [competition] would bring in. Now you have no idea."
The landscape will only get more confused as marketers shift budgets, agency executives say. Many of 360i's clients are shifting money out of bought media and into earned media, said Wiener. That's led the agency to build out from its core search-marketing specialty and into social media, which has gone from 5 percent of the shop's business to 20 percent in a year. (360i does social media work for brands like Coke and Reckitt Benckiser.)
"There's a lot of dislocation happening," Wiener said. "The media agency doesn't want to lose the budget, so they're building stuff. The creative agency doesn't have the PR and media folks. PR firms are good at planning traditional earned media, but they most likely don't have the people in-house to build the experiences."
See also: "Brands Seek Fans on Facebook"