We Are Social: New Kids on the Block


Last week our friend Daniele Fiandaca at Creative Social wrote a fascinating piece on the emergence of social media agencies within the advertising and marketing landscape. As part of his research for the article, he interviewed me about We Are Social, and he’s kindly given me permission to publish it in full here:

What do you offer your clients? I.e. what is your positioning?

We help brands to listen, understand and engage in conversations in social media, giving them the credibility to participate within communities in order to create advocates and generate positive word of mouth.

Who do you see as your biggest competitors?

Incumbent agencies of all stripes that are telling their clients they can ‘do’ social media, despite their legacy models not allowing them to do so properly without cannibalising their existing business. Which as yet, few of them seem prepared to do.

The growth in the last 2-3 years of new agencies, in particular social media agencies, reminds me a little of the growth of digital agencies in the early noughties. Do you think there are similarities?

Having worked in digital since ‘96, I’d say what we’ve seen so far is more akin to the evolution of digital agencies in the late 90’s. Things are changing much faster this time around, but I’d put us at the equivalent of year 2000 today.

We’re just getting to the stage where the platforms and behaviour are stable enough to allow some agencies to get a reasonable handle on how things work. However this knowledge is concentrated in a few places.

Looking back, you can see a similar pattern. During the ten years from 1995 to 2005, digital agencies stole a march on above-the-line agencies by building bigger, better and more motivated specialist teams, thereby innovating faster and developing a critical mass of best practice that accelerated the gap between them and their offline competitors.

Specialist social media agencies will do the same to the tradigital, above-the-line, media and PR agencies trying to catch-up this time around.

To use We Are Social as an example, we have a growing team of 100 specialists entirely focused on social media. Each day’s shared experience and each new hire widens the gap between us and those in pursuit.

There has been a lot of talk about social completely changing the communications landscape and that the old model is dead? Do you concur?

Yes and no.

Yes, in the fact that people’s behaviour has fundamentally changed and that every idea should ideally be social at its core. And also in the sense that no brand can afford to ignore social media, so it’s taking its rightful share of the budget alongside other forms of advertising and marketing.

No, in the sense that not all the old models are dead yet – TV advertising and email marketing (for example) remain sensible ways for brands to spend their money, and aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Of course, there are too many tradigital agencies that don’t seem to realise that flash microsites never were a sensible way of spending anyone’s money (and I worry that Facebook apps are in danger of becoming their surrogate).

Is advertising still relevant in its current format?

I think that’s the wrong question. It’s more appropriate to ask ‘is advertising still effective?’, and the answer is yes.

The work we do in social media is about influence flowing through networks and word of mouth. Things that are grounded in peer recommendation and seemingly rational behaviour.

TV advertising pulls on people’s emotions and makes them behave irrationally, and it doesn’t need to be relevant or even paid attention to in order to work, as people like Paul Feldwick and Robert Heath, with his studies on Low Involvement Processing, have taught us.

Let’s face it, Brian Solis is no Bill Bernbach, and until we have the likes of Les Binet including social media in their econometric models, or Mark Earls builds on his work in Herd and comes up with actionable frameworks, we’re going to find it hard to compete on TV’s terms. However, we don’t need to – what we do is different, and there’s space enough for us both at the table.

How are you as a company doing things differently?

Our philosophy and approach is very different to other agencies.

Tradigtial and above-the-line agencies are obsessed with creating content (or latterly, ‘communications products’) and PR agencies are obsessed with ‘coverage’. In the context of social media, both of these approaches are far too limited.

Forrester’s ‘Connected Agency’ report was right: “facilitating conversations for its clients will become the new role of an agency”. Yes, you need something to activate and sustain a conversation, but it isn’t enough, in the vast majority of cases, to create ‘content’ or a ‘communications product’. Often a series of much smaller, local and in-context interventions, will be more effective than media spend to put an expensive piece of video content in front of someone.

In simple terms, real-time and always-on conversations trump the over-produced and inflexible set-piece campaign plans of yore.

There’s also a reason that we say ‘we help brands to listen, understand and engage in conversations in social media’. We believe that every engagement plan should include insight drawn from a real understanding of the existing conversation. Through our growing Research & Insight practice, we apply this to everything we do, meaning our ideas and approach are based on facts, not supposition.

The other way we’re different, is that we try to be lean and agile, and this is reflected in how we’ve structured the agency.

Tradigital and above-the-line agencies put social media specialists in buckets like ‘community manager’ or ‘social media strategist’ and constrain them within a traditional agency structure. PR agencies naively expect non-specialists to execute well.

Instead, we’ve brought together a group of T-shaped people to work collaboratively together. Specialists with deep knowledge and experience in social media, but literate in marketing & communications theory, strategy and account management – blending both the right skills and the right attitude.

Although it makes it harder to find the right people, this allows us to deliver better work, faster and more cost effectively than our competitors, and to have fun while doing it.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to brands within this marketplace?

It’s still unclear to most businesses how important social media will turn out to be, making it hard for them to make the internal changes required to compete in this new world. Social media affects all areas of a business, and it’s very hard for organisations with traditional departmental silos and budgetary arrangements in place to deal with properly.

We’re starting to see our clients start to make the hard decisions at board level in order to make these changes, just as on a smaller scale, businesses learnt to deal with digital 10 years ago.

Which 3 brands (that are not your clients) do you think have reacted best to the changes in the marketplace?

Dell have been on a very public journey as they’ve come to terms with social media since the ‘Dell Hell’ episode, and are a great exemplar of how a large global organization needs to change to deal with social media.

Best Buy are also another great example, with their Twelpforce initiative standing out by bringing value to the brand inside social media and, with the support of above-the-line, outside of it too.

Pepsi’s global marketing team, in the form of Bonin Bough and Shiv Singh, are making a lot of the right noises when it comes to social media, with Shiv’s thinking around real-time marketing in particular standing out compared to other brands.

Which 3 agencies do you most respect in this new landscape?

Made by Many for their radical rethinking of the digital agency model (and for helping the rest of the industry to do so), W+K for being the above-the-line agency that are bringing their creative pedigree to bear both on digital and social media the most successfully, and Poke for being the one of the few tradigital agencies that get it (and they’re pretty good too).

What 3 pieces of work are you best known for?

We’re extremely proud of the Marmarati work we did with Unilever, and more recently helping to reposition Clothing at Tesco and to reward Heinz’s loyal Ketchup fans.

Which campaign has most inspired you in the last 3 months?

I really like what Poke are doing with The Feed for Orange – although it’s obvious it springs from a digital world view, they’re doing some great work in a way that would be an anathema to most traditional agencies.

However, I recently chaired a panel which included Sony Ericsson’s Ben Padley, where he talked about what they did to grow from 300k to 3M Facebook fans in 9 months. It was like watching a kindred spirit, with the strategy and tactics they applied rooted in a conversational, not content driven, philosophy.

What are you really excited about in relation to the next 12 months? Is there anything we should be looking out for from you?

I’m astounded about the quality of the team we’re building at We Are Social, both here in London and around the world. It really feels like we’re beginning to reach critical mass, and I’m really excited about the type and the quality of work we’re going to be able to do.

Watch out for us opening more offices as we round out our global coverage, and hopefully we’ll continue to pick up a few awards along the way.