The Social Media "Department" & The Law of Diminishing Returns

KaidMany agencies looking to capitalize on the Social Media wave decided to create specialized groups — an “agency within the agency” — to hone in on this area.

Don’t be fooled.

This Social Media stuff looks like a scary hairy mosh-pit to traditional marketers, so it’s safer, cheaper and easier to devote resources to a “separate” division.

Safer because failure is a less frightening option when confined to a small group.  If the “Social Media Department” fails, it can be shut down or re-tooled without impacting the agency’s core business.

Cheaper because these agencies tend to hire one expensive rockstar and surround them with a handful of freshly-graduated (read: cheap) worker bees.

Easier because it is actually quite hard to get up-to-speed and stay current on this fast-moving Web 2.0 stuff, especially when the traditional Media Relations and Client Service work continues to be quite intensive.

Time is money.  Training is arduous and expensive.  Failure (especially in this economic climate) is scary as hell, especially cuz failures nowadays tend to be more public and more impactful.  Betting everything on making the entire agency Social Media savvy is a tough pill to swallow.

But what is safer, cheaper and easier for the agency is rarely in the best interests of the client.  In fact when you “bolt on” a specialized group of Social Media rockstars, you do a disservice to the client (short-term) but also to the rest of the agency (long-term).

The Social Media Dept. in this scenario is likely to be in ever-higher demand.  But, tasked with serving the needs of ALL of the firm’s clients, their ability to focus and counsel on both fundamental issues (“what’s our social media strategy?”) and little flare-ups (“somebody tweeted about us!”) becomes increasingly diluted.  This is an issue of SCALE.

There’s also the question of “where’s the line?”  Say a journalist starts tweeting or becomes a freelance blogger.  Who now owns the relationship — is it OK that the “traditional” PR pro wants to maintain the relationship, even though the channel supposedly “belongs” to their peers in the Social Media Department?  This is an issue of RESPONSIBILITY.

Furthermore, the Social Media Dept. will tend to drink a li’l too much of their own Kool Aid.  It’s not long before both clients and their fellow staffers from the “traditional” side of the agency start to question their rationality.  To a man with a hammer, every challenge looks like a nail.  “Social” is not always the right answer.  This is an issue of STRATEGY.

Most egregiously, the agency that takes the time to create and market this specialized unit is looking at it as a standalone profit center.  In other words, they’ll often charge extra for Social Media counseling and services.  This to me seems like a cynical exploitation of the clients’ fears and doubts re: these new shiny objects.  This is an issue of GREED.

Meanwhile as social technologies become a more ever-present part of the media landscape, the PR staff working the mainstream end of the business will find themselves sucked into Social Media in order to do their “traditional” jobs well.  This may be mostly tactical work like “following journalists on Twitter,” but, as Social Media infiltrates this workforce from the bottom-up, the heretofore All-Things-Social-Media Dept. will be relegated to increasingly “strategic” discussions: a trendline that eventually requires less staff and more ROI proof, which is threatening both to the fiefdom owner and agency owner, respectively.

An integrated approach is not only increasingly essential but just plain smarter for all concerned.  And that is an issue of INTEGRITY.

Posted on: October 9, 2009 at 10:52 am By Todd Defren
89 Responses to “The Social Media "Department" & The Law of Diminishing Returns”


  • Data Quality says:

    Interesting thoughts here, thanks for sharing. I would definitely have to agree with your full integration approach, it seems like most useful strategy to employ.

  • Ranbir says:

    I think where an agency can, all PRs should understand social media and online PR and divvying up the traditional and online is a mistake. Every campaign needs to embrace both the old and the new and understanding and applying social media and online media strategies, should be as essential as understanding how to pitch journalists was.

  • There are in fact many agencies still building social media “departments.” There are also many agencies that are still trying to ignore social media all together. In order for any agency to be successful, integration must be part of the plan.

    Allow everyone in the office to work in social media. Give everyone the opportunity to be that social media “rockstar.” You shouldn’t need an entire department to handle social media for all of your client. To me, that’s just a waste of time and resources when it’s highly likely that your other employees are just as capable as those “experts.”

    Tessa Carroll
    VBP OutSourcing

  • Karen Purves says:

    There are still of agencies, and in my experience predominately small ones that do bits of social media without having the understanding or strategic overview of what social media marketing is, how to use it and be smart with all the different elements.

    The big shift is from push to pull and that means the way the agency manages the relationship with client and gets the client to offer more content also has to shift.

    I am always wary of agencies who offer to produce blogs,tweets and other material without referencing the clients USP, differential in the market place.

  • KatFrench says:

    Todd, with all due respect, while the comments have clarified things for me and moderated the discussion a bit, I think that your post itself is a little heavy handed.

    I respect any traditional agency or firm that wants to embrace social media, even if it means a big cultural shift. And a cultural shift like that is going to take time, effort and a core group of people who are deeply passionate about the ethos of social media.

    There are a lot of different paths to integration. Starting with a dedicated team can be one of them. I think declaring there’s One True Way, and this isn’t it, without really clearly stating what is the One True Way, is a little bit of a cop-out. And I admire you too much to not point that out.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Kat, Amy (et al.) -
      This post is not about how Social Media organically spreads throughout an agency (which to be clear is GOOD, APPROPRIATE and COMMON): rather, it’s about agency leaders who quite purposefully create a distinct Social Media unit for the purpose of upselling for upselling’s sake, and, to mitigate the amount of training/passion required for the rest of the agency to get hip to the scene.

      Does that help?

      • KatFrench says:

        That does clear things up considerably. It just wasn’t clear from the post itself.

      • amymengel says:

        Thanks for clarifying a bit more. It’s a matter of intent: If an agency is creating a social media department to merely “check the box” and milk the clients for extra money for services that the agency isn’t truly equipped to provide, that’s certainly no good. Especially if this department is not there to start organically building internal capabilities among the rest of the staff. Eventually social media needs to be everyone’s job, and not just the group of gurus in the department. Agency owners shouldn’t be trying to stave that off by cobbling together a department and charging a premium for it.

  • amymengel says:

    Not trying to be combative here, but the first thing that popped into my mind when I read this post was your “Guerillas in the Midst” post from earlier this year. In some way, weren’t you then proposing SHIFT as a “bolt-on” for clients whose agencies weren’t up to speed yet with social media? How would it be handled if a client’s traditional PR firm had a relationship with a journalist but then SHIFT wanted to approach the same journo from a “social” perspective – who owns the relationship?

    I’m in full agreement that an integrated approach is best and liked Len Kendall’s comment about social media expertise organically spreading throughout an agency (like a disease, but a good one). However, that takes time. It may be a bit of a stopgap measure for an agency to hire a handful of social media experts/rockstars/gurus so that it has some capabilities and can address client needs in SM while it continues to work on integration.

  • ADAM mOORE says:

    Not sure I agree with everything in this post. I do however agree that social should very much be considered part of a wider marketing strategy.

  • Sean Dougherty says:

    Public relations agencies have always integrated new disciplines this way. I used to work for Michael Klepper, a former NBC producer who founded the TV division of Burson back in the 60s. He told me in 1968 he could get a pen on the today show because at that time most PR people were former journalists who didn’t understand how to pitch television.

    In 1995, I knew guys at Edelman’s technology practice who could get a pen on CNET. At the time, pitching internet media was considered a specialty and most people didn’t do it.

    Now, social media is new and agencies are using specialists to increase their understanding of how it works as they integrate the disciplines into everyday activity.

    I’ve worked with specialists and they are super-helpful in making sure you don’t accidentally do something stupid. Of course, the account teams need to get up to speed on this but unless you are willing to argue that the whole history of how agencies respond to change has been wrong and hurtful to clients, I don’t see a valid argument.

  • Steven Moore says:

    Isn’t interesting that companies that are tasked with delivering the social business strategy face the same issues as the companies paying for them to be implemented. If I were a buyer I would want to see an agency that is eating its own dog food.For us big picture folks this is a fundamental shift of power thru the business ecosystem and has implications in all areas of the business.In almost all the companies that I have worked with it starts with the small group of pirates and they have built some momentum and need help growing it. It will be interesting to see what groups like Dachis and Altimeter go with whole scale Social Business Design.

  • George Snell says:

    I don’t see many big or mid-size PR agencies not using a fully integrated approach. But I do see the “rock star” stuff happening at the smaller agencies that are built up around a lead dog (usually someone with a new book) and devoted to just handing out social and digital media strategy.

    These small agencies jump in – give a lot of strategy – but really can’t execute or integrate with existing communications and marketing (nor do they have the tools to measure and monitor it).

    What companies need are PR and communications firms that already now how to do “traditional” communications but have successfully integrated in social and digital media.

    The best way to hire a firm for social media? Forget the rock stars. Ask for case studies and look at the client portfolio that the firm has worked with. Then ask to see the creative work. That’s how you’ll know.

  • Matt says:

    Hey Todd,

    Just want to let you know your few posts have been on fire! I recently met with a SM Dept ‘head’ as well as his traditional colleagues who were less than savvy but extremely accomplished. He was the exact type you described. The Kool-Aid guzzling, SM evangelist that told a bunch of students that he wouldn’t even look at a resume if the person didn’t blog. In doing so, he effectively scared away a great group of talented and strategically minded students from his employer’s agency. The same group who will most likely be the future crop of practitioners in that region.

    He might have been great at establishing online relationships but in person he was awful.

  • In my humble opinion, there’s one more person to whom this approach does a disservice: the “rock star.” This person will inevitably be pulled six ways to Sunday, and with the “freshly graduated read: cheap” team, he/she will also need to do a lot of internal coaching. This isn’t a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for burning someone out quickly.

  • Tom Ricci says:

    Todd, I saw a similar phenomenon occur on the client side many years ago while working with a very large advertising agency during the early stages of the “interactive age.” The agency “bolted on” an interactive division, staffed it with young Flash Design rock stars, and did in fact charge us healthy fees. Unfortunately there was never any connectivity with agency’s traditional account team and hence no smooth integration with our traditional marketing creative – and, at the time, we thought they all were a bit wierd too ;)

  • TIM ALLIK says:

    There is broad agreement about the importance of an integrated approach to social media and PR. But with new publishing, social networking, content distribution and media monitoring platforms being created every day, it’s both smart and efficient for agencies to have social media specialists. These experts are able to provide feedback and ideas related to social media initiatives, keep tabs on new technologies and services, set social media policies and standards, and educate and inform the agency as a whole. The media landscape has transformed considerably over the past five years. It will inevitably change dramatically over the next five as well. Dedicated social media specialists enable agencies to exploit disruptive media technologies to their advantage instead of getting steamrolled by them.

  • Shel Holtz says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Todd. In fact, not too long ago I posted an argument for cross-functional governance to address high-level social media challenges and issues in an organization. This approach ensures that the very people who might, as you note, start to question the decisions of the staff of a dedicated social media department. It has other benefits, too. If you’re interested, the post is here:

  • Len Kendall says:

    I don’t disagree with your full integration approach, but I think it’s important to start small and branch out. Think of it as a virus (in a good way). A small group of individuals contract a disease of knowledge and begin to share that condition with others. The knowledge spreads throughout the organization at an exponential rate. The original group can then help funnel knowledge as technology evolves and continue to grow all aspects of an agency as not everyone can devote their time to both building relationships and developing new opportunities through

    An integrated approach sometimes comes off as “flipping a switch” and with an org larger than 10 people this is a very difficult goal to accomplish. I’m a big fan of discussing agency models so I look forward to seeing where this conversation goes.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Hi Len – Thanks for stopping by! Your point is well taken (and true) but you may be missing the nuance here, i.e., I am specifically talking about agencies who attempt to a) bolt on separate SM divisions, and b) try to get more $$ for it.

      The ORGANIC spread of SM concepts – which as you say tends to happen via a small group of evangelists – is perfectly cool with me!

  • Nice. Okay, maybe I overuse that word almost as much as I overuse Social Media. But seriously, integration is where it all is. IMHO, if your Social Media department isn’t already working with everybody else in your agency, I’m not so sure that you’d be an agency I’d recommend for use… yeah, like people ask *me* what agency we should be using… I’m just saying. Looks good.

    PS I’m loving the use of the word “infiltrate” to describe what Social Media should be doing to “traditional” jobs… snicker…

    FULL TRANSPARENCY: #iwork@novartis . That said, any opinions expressed here represent mine alone and in no way, shape, or form should be seen to be representative of my employer.

  • Chip Griffin says:

    I agree in large part, but disagree in part as well.

    I completely agree with your notion of an integrated approach. That said, I think you can hire specialists and rock stars as long as they work closely with their colleagues and not in a separate silo. This is not a new issue. I remember when I was working on Capitol Hill nearly 20 years ago that we had communications folks who focused exclusively on one medium — like talk radio. They were experts within that sphere and that made sense. Of course, they needed to work closely with their colleagues who dealt with print and other broadcast media to be effective.

    There are legitimate reasons for having a digital communications group that specializes in social media and other online/mobile outlets. Modern PR is no longer simply about convincing others to carry a message, but can often in fact be putting the message out independently via blogs, Twitter, web sites, etc. These things do require specialized skills.

    Ultimately, the strategy must be unified and the tactics need to be integrated, but the implementation can be done with specialists quite effectively.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Hi Chip – I understand that there is something to be said for specialization but in practice I see too many examples of the “bolt on baloney” to think it is typically executed well. To your point, integration must happen at some point, but I’ve seen lots of eye rolling across the different teams when they’re brought together.

      The integration is best achieved at the get-go, and the BULK of the digital savvy should be spread amongst the entire staff, as much as possible.

  • Paul Holmes says:

    I can’t help thinking this is a bit of a straw man, Todd. I can’t think of any top PR firm that still approaches social media this way. Some firms started out hiring a few superstar bloggers to create a social media group, but it lasted about a year. Today, some firms have digital departments — but they are primarily for digital creative (which is to say websites, podcasts, widgets, etc.)– but social media is integrated. They realize it doesn’t make sense to have a separate social media group than it does to have a magazine group or a radio group or whatever.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Hi Paul – If you look across the entire landscape of agencies, from tiny boutiques to the Big Buys, I think you’ll still find plenty of examples where Social Media is still put in the hands of specialized teams. These agencies may not always call them out as such, anymore, but the fact is that the “experts” are still often seen as smokejumpers. (“Oh, we gotta call Joe Mouseclick on this one, he knows all about the bloggers and tweeters.”)

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