Things to know before hiring an agency for your social media campaign

All articles | Social Media
Published Nov 07, 2013 | Written by Jeremy Knight

Our own Eric Swain is the co-host (with Ann Hawkins) of a weekly podcast called The Social Media Show. We are providing transcripts of select shows.

Here, Mark Jennings joins Eric and Ann for one of the most listened to episodes of the show, Show 27, to answer questions about how businesses large and small engage an agency and run a social media campaign. This is part one of the interview. Find part two here.

So Mark, is it only big brands that use agencies or is it something that a small company could do?

I think that companies of any size could benefit from working with an agency but, of course, many agencies work best when there is a certain threshold of money involved, because they need a certain spend.  I guess it would depend very much on the specific thing you needed to do. The simple test for that is: do you have the skills in-house to do it? If not, then it’s worth looking externally.

Could you give us an example of some of the campaigns that you’ve run, just to show us the range?

At the upper end, I was the Account Director on the Sky account for social media. That was the largest account in the UK. That meant weekly meetings with Facebook and Twitter, as we would be running about 15 to 20 campaigns at any one time, using Twitter’s promoter products, new Facebook products, blogger outreach, engagement, all manner of things.

Then, working with Sightsavers charity, we looked at how to get people to engage via the more humorous side of working with and donating to a charity. That meant a well put-together video for a small budget, and looking at how that could be seeded out to the web, so that their message went further.

Stepping back a second, let’s take it from this starting point: “I’m a business, how should I navigate those waters?”

Well, you never hire the agency, you hire the people.

I think the great thing about social media is it allows you to look very quickly at the people behind the agency. If you’re sitting in a meeting with a bunch of guys, you can go away afterwards and look at their LinkedIn profiles, you can look at how they’re tweeting - not just if they’ve got a lot of followers, but what things are they saying; you can start to get behind the scenes. I think there’s never been a better way to be able to measure an agency on its output. 

You can take agencies of all sizes, from 5 or 6 people up to 500 people, if the core of that team has some good knowledge and good experience, you can probably get a sense of it better than ever before.  If you’re considering an agency’s pitch and seeing behind the scenes that their tweeting is less than yours, or their blogging is perhaps odd - you’re not finding it gels with you - then I would start asking questions.  It’s going to be the person that’s working for you that you’re going to need to have the most trust in, and respect of their ability.

So, slightly controversial question for you, but do you have a preference: social media specialist agency or a more traditional agency with claimed social media skills? Do you think there should be a preference?

The agency world has changed a lot in the last 5 or 10 years, and it’s become much more confusing. In the past you had a very clear line between what an advertising agency did, or a PR agency did, etc. Now, there’s the idea of integration - which is great because working with an agency that understands the wide variety of mix media is important – but, I still think there’s space for “pure play” social media agencies, which just look at social media. It’s still so new; having a hyper specialist - like a surgeon - come in and help you, is still feasible. But in three or four years, we’ll probably see very few specialist social media agencies, particularly very small ones. A lot of those skills will be brought into what you’d call “traditional” agencies, but are going to be “modern” agencies, because they’ll have merged this new thinking together.

Yes, or perhaps even a hybrid model, where a number of smaller specialist agencies are working collaboratively. I think recruiting virtual hybrid agencies is going to grow too, isn’t it?

I think that’s a really good point; maybe one of the things to do - rather than use an agency - is to get a few skilled people to work together, essentially, you curate that agency approach. Sure, it takes more management, but the costs are reduced and you’re much closer to the action there. That, to me, is really interesting: more specialist skills gelling and people understanding more about what agencies do and don’t do.

Well, let’s set this in context: when we talk about campaigns, it’s easy to think of the campaign as just social media, or just PR, or advertising.  Most of the work I do is a blend of all of those, as it should be, because very little exists only in the digital world, or only in the physical world.

In general, the first conversation focuses on “what are you trying to get from this?” A campaign isn’t a long-term strategy - it has a start, a middle and an end.

Typically, the clients I speak to are looking to achieve say an increase in sales, or recognition for a new product, or even just creating overall brand awareness. The first step is always to identify what they’re trying to do, not in social media terms, but in business terms.  That’s really important; if you’re talking to an agency and the first conversation they’re having with you is what social media measures you want to achieve, you’re having the wrong conversation - the social media measures come later.

Once you’ve got a sense of the business objective, then you can set up a brief. That brief, for me, is: understand the audience - who is it you’re looking to speak to (and whether that audience exists in the first place); what it is you’ve got to offer them; and how are you going to engage, excite, thrill, and inform them? Then, as I’ve said, you look at what measures you put in place? You start having sold no product, and you end having sold a million.

From that conversation, you can start to look at the tactics, whether you use social media at all. If you do use social media, what are your channel choices? Going back to the audience is always very important; for instance, if you say “we must use Facebook because everyone’s using it”, but that’s no use, if you’re looking to target a certain demographic, or maybe a different country, where Facebook isn’t used as much. Making sure you have no bias in your brief is really, really critical.

Would you expect, as an agency, that a brief would come in answering all those questions you mention, or is that something that the agency is charged with discovering at the outset?

I think it’s very rare that that information comes in entirely. I would be really worried about an agency that didn’t challenge a brief, however well it’s written. The development of the brief is a great way of understanding how an agency and a client will work; you’re kind of interviewing each other really.

But there are some fundamentals to be considered: I think a strong brief writing process allows the agency to talk in “non-agency” terms, and understand from the client what their objectives are and what drives them. But also the client to be educated on what the agency process is because otherwise there’s a temptation to want “the moon on a stick”. I think it’s really important to get that honed down and defined as soon as possible.

As a client I’m running a business, I don’t know what is going to work well on Twitter, on Facebook; I don’t know how to get my product necessarily to the market in every new dimension. I’m going to write as much of a brief as I can, but I’ll want to work with an agency to develop it, so that I understand more about that process without, frankly, making any gross assumptions too early on.

So, if you’re an agency, what makes a good client?

It’s a great question. It’s easy as a client to go in and say, “We’re spending the money. These guys are going to dance to our tune”. The issue is of course, particularly in the contracted market, many agencies will do that, but you won’t get the best work from them.

The best situation is when it feels like a meeting of equals. In other words, if you’re a company and you’ve got a budget to put to a project, don’t go to ten agencies and say, “What are you going to do for that money?” Take some time to investigate and court those agencies, get it down to a list of two, maybe three. The agency on the other side appreciates that because they feel you’ve done your homework.  The agency will then typically spend more time with you, perhaps helping develop the brief or putting some concepts together, to help you understand more about what they do. Because they know that they’re only one of two or three, and it’s worth doing the work.

Treating an agency like you would want to be treated by an agency is a real fundamental. It sounds silly but it’s so often missed. A lot of clients can come in with the expectation that the agency will solve absolutely everything for them and delight in the money.

I think you’ve got to take a lot of responsibility as a client, not just for getting the briefing right, but also for choosing the right agency, and having a hand in the delivery - not just, pay the money and walk away.

That brings us to the next question, Mark.  We hear a lot of people say if the CEO isn’t involved, if the CEO isn’t writing their own blogs etc., then the campaign isn’t going to have the impact it could have. How do you deal with that situation, if the CEO just doesn’t want to be involved or just hasn’t got the talent, or the time or whatever?

Well, I’m not a great exponent of the CEO having to tweet and having to be on Facebook. I’d frankly prefer if the CEO was great at being a CEO. If they happen to be Richard Branson - and by that I mean a prolific tweeter and a good blogger - excellent, you’re in a very, very lucky place. But the two are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

My feeling is the CEO has to be involved in setting the premise for any strategy that the campaign sits under. They have to be aware of why social media matters. They have to understand that there’s an investment required because that’s what you do as a CEO, you understand new technologies. But, you don’t necessarily have to be involved in every piece of campaign planning.

I think it’s hard to measure the success of something if you don’t have a basic understanding. But, there are some people who frankly just don’t have a great tone of voice, or don’t have a lot of time, and asking them to tweet and blog is going to create a bottleneck and a frustration. Show them how effective social media can be, and then pull them into the process, if you’re finding resistance.

Yes, very often this sort of campaign can actually bring about a culture change in a company.

I think that part of my job (and I say this lightly of course) is as a psychologist. You’re sitting hand-holding very senior people, who just do not understand this medium in the way that you do as an agency or as a provider. But, it’s no different to how it was 15 years ago when the web became commonplace. People had to learn, they had to understand what was required. But I do think that people need to give themselves a break; we’re still in the very early years, the Marconi years of social media, and it’s not settled down as to how much of an art or a science it is. That’s where strong partnering with an agency, early on, means that everybody can benefit.

To read the rest of this interview, go to part two where Mark talks about what an agency shouldn't do.

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Published by Jeremy Knight November 7, 2013
Jeremy Knight