The death of the agency

Ok, I admit, I probably should have used the cop-out question mark there. This is really more about “the death of the agency?”

I was lucky enough to attend another wonderful Social Media Breakfast Ottawa this morning. The speaker was the entertaining Chris Greenfield of clever communications. He looked at the use of social media largely from an agency-client standpoint – very oriented in marketing and public relations. It was a great session and luckily Robin Browne of Conscious Images was in attendance with his digital recorder so I assume he’ll have a podcast of the talk up soon.

The discussion was lively and entertianing and it gave me a good opportunity to think a fair bit about the role of agencies in social media marketing and PR. More specifically, it got me wondering just how long agencies will have a role, at least in that realm.

A recurring theme (not just today but in general when talking about social media in companies and organizations) is that there are pretty much two types of client: those that “get it,” for lack of more nuanced term, and those that don’t. The latter don’t usually last long in the social sphere. They are the ones that create Facebook pages that go unmaintained or launch “viral” campaigns that never go viral. Agencies offer the best advice they can but if the client is unwilling to devote resources (both human and financial), eventually the relationship ends.

The former, though, are the social media success stories. The brands that do it right. But, more times than not, aren’t they also the brands that create an in-house social media team? Or, better yet, those that recognize that social media are really just tools and integrate them accordingly in their overall outreach strategies?

There’s a role for agencies in helping them get there, of course, but these very same agencies are the ones who (should) recognize that social media can’t work for an organization if they remain a tangential element. Just as you need a clear understanding of your audience, which media they favour and what the rules of engagement for each medium are, you also need people on the inside who understand the tools AND the organization.

Agencies have a pretty clear role in the traditional speheres. But a truly successful social media presence, by its very nature, requires the authenticity that only someone working on the inside can bring, no?

I realize that we are nowhere near the point in which every social media practitioner or vendor can simply bring in their shingle and take an inside job. The titular argument here is, of course, tongue in cheek. But I wonder how long it will take for the scales to tip? If agencies continue to preach the importance of authenticity and buy-in from their clients, at what point do these same clients bring the function in house where that authenticity actually means something?

Let’s hear from the agency types. What’s your long-term strategy in this niche?


  1. An interesting thought, which leads to the question:

    If an organization cannot afford the time (people, resources, etc.) to get involved in the online conversation themselves, should they even get involved in the conversation in the first place?

    Many organizations start down the Social Media path with great intentions but without the organizational will to make it happen (dedicated resources, etc). Hiring a surrogate to speak on your behalf is not a new concept. But will it work? And if not, are agencies selling solutions that aren’t maintainable?

  2. In the best social-media, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tradition, here’s my input, Joe, to your discussion coming out of this morning’s Social Media Breakfast Ottawa. (Joe has already weighed in on my much less temperate review of the session at

    I think the traditional agency model has long been under threat, and not just because of the dawn of social media. It’s a top-heavy beast in danger of toppling over under the weight of its overheads and voracious appetite.

    The reality — and you are I are in sharp agreement on this, Joe — that clients have to do an awful lot of the heavy social-media lifting themselves may put agencies out of the running as implementers. But I see no reason why they can’t be the architects of the strategy and, where technical skills are required, be part of the implementation team.

  3. You make some good points, and there are a few things to consider.

    First, if your agency takes you down a path you can’t sustain without doing due diligence, fire them.

    The second thing is that brands have to understand that social media isn’t something you can outsource. Brand managers are used to just dealing with agencies in the capacity of approving media buys and creative, rubber stamping insertion orders and away you go. Social media takes more care and feeding than just that.

    In response to Erik’s comment – if you can’t afford the time, no, you shouldn’t be trying social media. That said, if you can one print ad or cut your banner budget by 15%, you can have someone in house that has the ability to monitor, respond to and nurture a community. The problem is that many measure success by impressions, so creating a vocal community of 10,000 people is nowhere near the 10,000,000 banner impressions you’d get for the same cost. The only difference is that someone would be paying attention to your message instead of shutting it out completely.

    Yup – the agency model is broken, but in the same breath, you have to admit that the client model is broken too. Only when the clients get savvy enough to understand how much they’re getting screwed by the traditional model will things change.

  4. Hi Joe, it’s an important question. Do I think the agency model is broken? I may be biased, of course, but from my vantage, and so long as people look for advice and counsel, I don’t believe so. As Francis states, smart companies will look to “experts” for guidance and support on some aspects of implementation. That has been the role that the digital team at H&K has been filling with some success. We may need to temper our expecations with respect to the longer-term potential and scope of any engagement, but I don’t think we need to bring out the grim reaper yet. I agree with Ryan: out-sourcing social media is (for the most part) counter-intuitive. The larger challenge, as you describe, is ensuring organizations have the mechanisms and resources in place to sustain and expand their social media activities once started. That’s something we can advise them on, but unless they’re willing to invest, it’ll be for nought.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *