Choosing the ultimate online agency…

by Steve Seager on May 14, 2009 . Views: 27

In his blog post earlier this year, Jason Baer discussed who is best placed to ‘control’ social media. He puts forward four main candidates: advertising, digital, pr and the client. I want to take a look and see what makes sense from a client perspective. It’s not about who is best set to ‘control’ social media’ rather: how the hell do you choose who to trust with your online communications? This will be a long post, but it’s an important topic.

The advertising agency. Baer’s rational for choosing an ad agency is that because social media requires making stuff and impacts brand perception they are best placed to ‘take control’. For me this simply doesn’t make sense. As the Ad industry knows all too well, advertising – broadcasting – to sell stuff. Social media, and online communications are all about people. Conversations. Dialogue. Trust. As every report from global research bureau TNS, through to Edelman shows, people simply don’t trust online advertising. (This recent post from Professor Eric Clemons Wharton business school, on why advertising is failing, has caused quite a stir)

So, as ad revenues continue to drop like a stone, as business find new ways on communicating online, Ad agencies simply don’t make sense. In addition, Ad agencies also have horribly high production costs (and values) for online media, which is simply not necessary in our ‘social world.’ So, I guess that’s a ‘no’ for Ad agencies. Great at advertising, rubbish at having conversations.

The digital agency. Baer’s second candidate is Digital, because social media is, as he says, an ‘online construct’. Plus, they know a trick or two about SEO. They certainly have some great tools. But is social media an online construct? Nope. We already know it’s about the content, not the channel: people not technology. Digital agencies tend to focus on designing and building web tools and sites – so no content or people there. Plus, in the social web, a web presence is even more important than a web site. So, a digital agency – probably not your first port of call.

As for SEO, great point! Good digital agencies usually have great SEO skills. But SEO is just one discipline. The basics are important. As a writer with plenty of online experience writing I have had to learn them. My experience is that many SEO experts don’t know as much as you think: even as far as building an optimised site goes! But don’t take my word for it. One of my favourite quotes is from Guy Kawasaki – Apple Fellow and marketer and venture capitalist: “here’s my best advice on SEO: just write great shit!” If I need advanced SEO advice, I hire a freelance SEO specialist – not enough value for a client to base a whole business relationship on.

The public relations agency. Baer reckons that because social media is ultimately about conversations, and is non-linear, public relations is best equipped to manage social media efforts. Yep. Couldn’t disagree with that in principle. However, there are a couple of big weak spots. In my experience they know a lot about mass / media relations and very little about one-on-one communications. Online pr is about talking directly with consumers, not talking through a media channel. It’s a completely different skill set.

SEO tools and skills are a must too. So far, PR agencies simply don’t have the experience in network analysis, keyword research and analysis, and the like. And this is essential research for inline pr. It’s unfortunate too that, 90% of PR agencies have business models built on the infrastructure, skills and disciplines of mass media. For most that’s simply to much inertia to adapt quickly enough to the needs of online communications today. So who’s left?

The client. Ah, now we’re talking! Baer argues that: ”because social media is ideally an extension and manifestation of the brand’s operations and culture, and requires near-constant vigilance and engagement, the client is best able to oversee social media.” Great point. But he said ‘oversee’, right? So what about developing strategy? What about content production? What about online pr skills?

The client dilemma. This leaves clients with a dilemma. Who should you choose? Well, I’m afraid I don’t have an easy answer. But over the course of working client side for many years, and looking for agencies, combined with my own experience of on online communications, I have come up with the key disciplines for my ultimate online agency. Here you go:

The ultimate online agency

  • PR Skills: the ability to build meaningful relationships with highly targeted communities
  • Marketing skills: goal driven objectives and metrics in driving people through decision cycles
  • SEO: expertise in creating sustainable, cumulative, white hat SEO
  • Social media: expertise in the social media landscape to find the right online channel
  • Creativity & Journalism: expertise in creating fresh, imaginative content.

Disclaimer and the key to choosing who to work with

I would be being disingenuous if I didn’t claim that ‘we do communications‘, my online communications agency, has all of these skills above. I have always thought that public relations is about building relationships with real people: not the media. Michiel Gaasterland, my co-founder thinks that unless you sell your stuff, it isn’t worth the webspace it is written in. Healthy scepticism of social media abounds. Unless it can be used to both engage – aaaaand sell.

And I think that’s the key for you as a client – be sceptical. Don’t go with any one agency because they are ‘experts’ in their disciplines. Being an expert in something is only good for you if you need it! Instead, focus right down on your business objectives. Then, determine which specific disciplines you need to achieve them. Then you can start looking!

  • Jon Marks

    Interesting. I notice you’ve left out technology. How important is it that your chosen agency also builds it? Or do you think it is enough for those building it simply to work very closely with the Ultimate Agency to ensure they plan for things (like SEO, Analytics and Social) properly?
    My thoughts on a Full Service Digital Agency here:
    Disclaimer: I’m a techie that works for one of the bigger agencies.

  • Steve Seager

    Thanks for the comment Jon.
    I’ve got a semi-tech background myself. The reason I don’t address technology directly is because it is not the driver. For me, the driver is always business objectives (pr, marketing, social et al.) No client wants a 50K website or ‘social media’ plan that doesn’t deliver business results.
    Wouldn’t you agree that the best clients you have worked for have all this in place before design? It makes a brief clear as a bell and build, a breeze.
    So to answer your question, I do think it is enough to work very closely with the ‘ultimate agency’. Selecting the agency to design and build comes after the steps I described in my post.
    I do think digital agencies have the edge as regards tech, but the best value for clients is to have the right people for the specific job – the ‘ultimate agency’ for setting the brief, and a digital for design and build.
    Would you agree?

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