Do our ad agencies care about social media?

The advertising industry has always been full of paradoxes. It attracts highly creative minds but is the engine of consumerism. It projects a wildly liberal and party-mad persona, yet is renowned for rampant sexism and workaholic tendencies.

Still, as someone who’s worked in a variety of traditional agencies (with a variety of egos), it really is the frontline of consumer communication.

Great advertising moves and entertains. It can inspire people and cause mini-revolutions. Sadly, for all its creativity, the local industry has not embraced the new social media advertising order, even though it is rapidly being adopted overseas.

Take a look at this excellent article on social media for business and this one on measuring social media.

Is the Account Director of Big SA Ad Agency putting either of these into her next presentation to the client? Is the Marketing Director of Big SA Company making notes for his next brief to the agency? No and no.

Living in the 20th century
I used to fight tooth and nail to educate both client service and clients about social media. I once even created a presentation to explain why a Facebook page is better than a group. Both the agency account manager and the client (a multi-million rand enterprise) didn’t know there was a difference. And that’s the problem – it’s not just the clients, it’s the ad industry itself.

Most creative directors are still from the “Mad Men” school. They don’t want to admit that advertising has moved on. They might be on Facebook, even Twitter, but their real passion is spent on TV ads with massive budgets.

Many agencies also tack social media onto the end of campaigns instead of seeing it as an organic channel that needs consistent attention. “We have to do something on Twitter,” is not a strategy. That’s one reason we’re winning less international awards than we used to.

Boardroom battles and boys’ clubs

This lack of digital understanding is unfortunately combined with a cultural resistance to change and the “one-way communication” mindset. Nobody wants to admit that the consumer can now talk back.

Says one industry insider, “A major problem is that senior management aren’t on social media and know next to nothing about it, and they’re the ones having lunches with the senior clients who know nothing about it either. The most attention social media gets is when IT analyses who the worst offenders are for spending time on Facebook every month.”

Of course, clients are fearful of new things, but they’re supposed to be. Agencies are not. It’s the agencies’ responsibility to immerse themselves in consumer communication trends so that they can fully understand and educate clients.

Who’s afraid of @virginiawoolf?

That said, there are a number of local campaigns that have been well planned and executed by agencies. These include Steri-Stumpie and J&B Start a Party. But these are isolated examples that are frequently due to the online know-how and determination of a few individuals, as well as that rare animal – the “brave client”.

One reason the PR industry has enjoyed a huge resurgence is because it embraced social media more quickly than advertising. Unfortunately this has lead to many uninspired campaigns with poor or average content, where great opportunities were missed because there was no creativity behind them.

To fill this gap, we’re now seeing the rise of digital ad agencies that don’t just make pretty websites, but also develop strategies and concepts for social media content.

So do South Africa’s traditional ad agencies care about social media? Basically, no. A few are trying to get the hang of it, not wanting to see their slim margins eroded by the new breed of digital agencies, but this is frequently a cynical attempt to reassure clients.

It’s a pity really. Advertising should be leading the way — just look at what Wieden & Kennedy did with Old Spice — but unless the prevailing culture at decision-making level changes, and until the MD is on Twitter, the local ad industry is going to fall very far behind.



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