Why Brands Need a New Kind of Leader

When it comes to social media, Ford is an admitted neophyte. It dipped its toe in the water with its well-received “Bold moves” campaign in 2006, and it hired a social-media consulting firm to create blog-friendly press releases. But for the most part, it has remained on the sidelines when it comes to using new technology tools to foster two-way conversations with customers and its employees.

The company hopes to change that, in part with the recent hiring of a social-media expert, Scott Monty. The well-known blogger and exec at new-media shop Crayon is trading a “virtual company” of a handful of people for a 250,000-employee monolith that’s struggling to reinvent itself.

“They needed an internal evangelist, someone who can work within the company to bring all the disparate groups together,” said Monty, whose background includes a stint as an account director at b-to-b agency PJA Advertising + Marketing. Monty’s new boss, vp of communications Ray Day, agrees: “Frankly, we were behind the times. We need to leapfrog where we are and move really quickly.”

Monty is one of a new breed at Fortune 500 companies. Social-media experts are in high demand as companies attempt to figure out how to adapt how they talk to customers and even among themselves. Companies like Ford, Intel, Dell and Pepsi have concluded the best way to change is by bringing in a social-media czar to lead their strategy.

The hiring of dedicated teams reflect the rising importance of social media in companies. Once thought of as an interesting new media channel, social media is increasingly seen as a catalyst for changing how companies operate. It points to a new corporate structure that favors open over closed, dialogue over monologue, and decentralized power over command and control.

“The biggest challenge is moving away from thinking about it as marketing and PR,” said Peter Kim, a Forrester Research analyst. “It’s about product development, it’s about IT. It’s got to cut across all functions of the company.”

After hearing many clients tell him they are not prepared internally, Kim decided to join a startup that’s focused on helping large companies organize better for social media. Backed with $50 million from Austin Ventures, the still-unnamed company created by Razorfish founder Jeff Dachis hopes to repeat the trick the Web shop did in the mid- 1990s: sell consulting and software to companies looking, in this case, to harness the power of social media. A fast-food company, for instance, could use social computing technologies to tap the wisdom of its thousands of young front-line employees to develop new products.

“This is a major shift in how businesses operate,” Dachis said. “Businesses are inherently antisocial. … They’re silo oriented and they don’t talk to each other.”

It was this realization that led Ford to bring in Monty to lead a five-person social- media team. Monty’s group will reside within corporate communications at Ford, but its work will extend into other parts of the company, said Day. The diverse charter of the group is evidenced in the 50 candidates he interviewed over the past six months: some were in PR, but many more came from marketing or even technology backgrounds.

The risk of specialized social-media czars is it becomes yet another marketing function, said Dachis. Indeed, some companies approach the role with a definite focus on finding new ways to market to consumers. Pepsi, for instance, describes its nascent social-media team in a job posting as “responsible for reaching new audiences, bloggers, Facebookers and other key influentials that live in the online world.” (A PepsiCo rep declined to make an executive available to discuss the role, e-mailing a statement that the company is “willing to put more resources into new media as it evolves to ensure that our message is heard.”)

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