Converseon was founded nearly seven years ago based on the premise that traditional communication approaches, technologies and agency models were largely ill equipped to deal with the rise of social media. Clearly not much has changed.
The natural question we may collectively ask is, “why?” Our response is both simple and complex. The simple response is due to a truism of human nature: if one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Humans, and agencies, tend to do what they best understand and gravitate away from the new and complex. It has been argued by some that we’re just very good pattern matching machines and naturally are quick to arrange all things new into comfortable old categories.
The second part of that answer is a little more complex. Social media strategies require a view of the world (and a skill set) that transcends traditional marketing disciplines. Speaking from experience, within larger, traditional agency environments, I’ve found that the infrastructure is often so firmly cemented that it can’t effectively accommodate innovation. Compound that with the emphasis on “making numbers” in a public company environment, there is a natural bias towards pushing services with proven revenue streams rather pushing forward with the new and innovative. How many agencies truly have an R&D budget? Some of the larger agencies have created new groups to experiment with innovation. The challenge of infusing it back into the parent though still remains.
When Converseon was first formed, a leading member of the board of a holding company (who I’ll leave nameless) said to us that the unfortunate truth was that it was easier to let a company spin out, be successful and then acquire them, than to innovate from within. The challenges of established, larger organizations collaborating across marketing disciplines, across separate P&L structures, added to the natural inertia of organizations and the fear of the unknown makes it difficult to evolve. For far too many, a new piece of business sets off a wrangling for budgets where the most influential groups (i.e. “more established”) often emerge dusty but triumphant.
So while agencies are increasingly using the right social media words, and issuing press releases about new social media capabilities, there clearly is often far more style than substance. While size and heft is useful when negotiating large media buys, it is something of a hindrance in the more nimble world of social media.
As in biological evolution, different species form in the presence of changing environments. Adaptation occurs through the development of new species rather than trying to morph old species into new ones (although indeed have common ancestors).
At the risk of making Stephen Jay Gould turn in his grave, the advent of social media to communications and marketing is akin of changing of transformation of the Toyonian to the Cambrian period (and the resultant explosion of new forms of life).
And in those periods, it is hard for organisms and organizations to adapt. Even today, there is very little cross pollination across marketing disciplines. PR folks tend to go to PR conferences for example. Direct marketers tend to gravitate to the DMA. Advertising talks to advertising. We’ve created mini, marketing discipline specific echo chambers.
The result is that the disciplines tend to view social media from the biased lens of their discipline. This means 30 second spots on YouTube, or an extension of media relations to blogger relations. These are just incremental extensions of current core competencies. It does not get to the heart of what true social media is: community. The result is some traditional agencies awkwardly positioning themselves as something that they’re not quite. Little pieces strewn together awkwardly that may give the appearance of social media adeptness, but look more like the assemblage of incompatible parts upon closer scrutiny: what we call the Frankenagency.
This is not to say that there isn’t interesting work coming from traditional agencies: indeed there is. And there are some very smart people. However, as the survey and our own experience shows, truly effective social media strategies requires new entities with new skills, technologies, infrastructures and cultures designed specifically for this new environment. It is not simply an “add on” to existing services.
Social media clearly is a different. It isn’t just a new channel or a new technology. It requires new cultures with new skill sets and a break with the traditional command and control marketing structures that have governed traditional agencies over the last generation. Some of our most sophisticated clients understand this. They have an advertising agency, a PR agency and a social media agency. They understand the differences.
These new social media entities, like evolutionary biology, do have common, but diverse, ancestors. Converseon has grown in part because of the alchemy that occurs when bringing together search, public relations, computer scientists, direct marketers, advertising creatives, issues management experts, independent film makers, and more. Out of this combination of the diverse comes mutation; and, from mutation, evolution.
And of course, as brands become more immersed in social media, we are seeing a second law of evolution kicks in: that of natural selection. For as long as brands select and cultivate these new entities, they will grow and evolve and be reflective and natural residents of the new social media world.