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The real problem with social media strategies? Traditional agencies

Media strategists are slowly starting to understand digital as both the client and the agency demand a more holistic approach, but what about social media?

For many, the environment is daunting as it goes against what most media strategists are trained to investigate (such as reach, frequency and Gross Rating Points). Social media means consumers have the voice to talk back, but for many, it doesn’t even feature as a blip on the radar as a channel because it’s foreign to traditional media strategy which is all about broadcast.

To me, social media fits in the media mix just as much as TV, radio or print. However, the current agency briefing model doesn’t lend itself to this type of thinking. A few different approaches I’ve seen are:

  • Creative agency leads communication strategy with TV thematic
  • Media agency develops media strategy based on campaign objectives (separate to creative)
  • In a few cases these two align in some way or form to discuss an integrated big idea but the social media team is still left “to make it social”
  • Social is an owned channel, and therefore it’s someone else’s problem because it (most of the time) doesn’t require a budget.

In all of the examples above there’s a serious problem in the way “integration” is taking place. TV execution should not lead your communication strategy. We’re so obsessed with ARs, reach and TV in this country that we are falling flat when it comes to thinking beyond TV as the core of strategy. Media agencies shouldn’t be developing media strategy independently from creative communication strategy; these should be developed together around the central communication idea.

Social media might be an owned channel, but that owned channel in many cases is the largest base of loyal customers you have who are willing to engage, respond and share your messages. That’s a powerful thing and should be at the core of your communication strategy. You need to ask yourself, ‘How do you leverage that audience first?’

Social media does one thing better than any other medium, and that’s facilitate engagement and create communities. Where TV and radio can reach masses and print satisfies certain niche needs, social media captures the conversations around those niches and allows the brand to leverage and engage over the long-term. Yes, Facebook now reaches over eight million people in an emerging market country like South Africa for example, and large brands can generate over ten-million impressions on owned Facebook pages, but that’s not the channel’s strong point yet. Mxit in itself is South Africa’s (and indeed Africa’s) largest social network, that not only provides the reach, but also the engagement and community.

I encourage media strategists to include the role of social media into campaigns, building social at the core. As a strategist, I find that being involved in the briefing and construction of the communication strategy is the ideal time to make sure social is baked into the core. These communities and platforms are where the people who use your product or service and endorse your brand will have their conversations, resulting in lasting impressions. Create or curate the space for them to do this, target them and channel them there. Campaigns should drive these platforms to start thinking beyond the campaign, and on to the larger, more lucrative community and conversation.

When media strategists start thinking beyond the short-term campaign metrics of reach, frequency, efficiencies and target GRPs, but include social media’s long term metrics, we’ll see brands that care more about community and conversation, and less about campaign and cost.

Author | John Beale

John Beale
John spends his time doodling. But not just any type of doodling .The doodling that requires ones brain to actually function. He spends this rest of his day dreaming, sleeping and eating cars (not literally eating, that would just be weird) and wondering about how he can come to own... More


  1. Guest

    October 3, 2012 at 10:29 am


  2. David Pinto

    October 3, 2012 at 10:34 am

    The real trouble is that traditional agencies have clients, but they don’t have know-how about Social Media strategies. Therefore when they have contact with clients they promise the impossible, because they dont’ want to lose client and they can’t realize what they’re doing, and they often sale something useless.

  3. Dan Pinch

    October 3, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Agree but the best examples of social media done at scale in SA are coming from the few traditional agencies that get it. I’m over seeing this as a problem though. The more people that screw it up the easier it is for clients and agencies that do get it.

  4. Kevin Welman

    October 3, 2012 at 11:54 am

    As a strategist this article makes perfect sense however there are distinct differences in the role of the various agencies for different clients. Again there are different needs and wants from social media for different clients. A client in the midst of a huge crisis, for example, should be led by a PR company (an agency that understands the uncontrolled environment) while a client positioning a new brand / product should probably be led elsewhere. If there’s one thing I know about social media its not a one size fits all approach. I agree in principles with your thoughts though.

  5. Suzanne Morton

    October 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    you are spot on – and its a battle i fought for years. Time for agencies to rethink their approach and make it more client driven than fighting over how big your piece of the pie is.

  6. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm


  7. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Fully agreed with you Kevin, thanks for the feedback

  8. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks for the comments Suzanne, as with everything in advertising, the ego and the budget get in the way of client objectives more often than not

  9. Johan Giliomee

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm


  10. Simon Espley

    October 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Well said. Totally agree.

  11. Ruan Benade

    October 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I’m finding it hard to believe that “traditional agencies” still don’t take social media that seriously… Does anyone still watch TV?

  12. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    If you look at where the real distribution of the population sits, then radio and TV are HUGE. Social hits nowhere near that on reach, so it’s not taken that seriously. Really my point is just to make sure that the role of social is taken into account by the media strategist earlier on – not leaving it up to the social media strategist to “make this social”

  13. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks Simon

  14. John Beale

    October 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks Johan

  15. Edward Chamberlain-Bell

    October 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Most traditional agencies are scared of social
    media marketing because an effective SMM budget could undercut theirs by 99%,
    and quite possibly deliver the same results. It’s a shortsighted outlook
    because they could offer the same social media marketing service, in
    conjunction with their existing marketing campaign, and deliver a disproportionately
    higher ROI.

    My pet hate is when companies waste massive
    budgets on social media just to advertise that they’re giving away free prizes.
    They’re not giving anything- just old stock.

  16. Norman Smit

    October 3, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Authenticity is a hallmark of social media and as such, social media strategy requires the time and expertise of qualified staff at organizations talking directly to people seeking that expertise. So, for example, a widget engineer at a company can use social media to talk directly to customers implementing or using the widget. As such, his expertise cannot be subcontracted out to an agency. Consequently, many agencies won’t address deep, integrated, strategic use of targeted social media using a variety of digital media, simply because it bypasses their infrastructure. It’s much more profitable producing a TV ad campaign for an agency than guiding and training clients’ staff on digital and social platforms and letting clients talk directly to their customers and build an engaged following.

  17. Charl Diener

    October 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    “make this social” or “Now make it go viral.” And often it’s a case of putting lipstick on a pig. I couldn’t agree more, John. But it must have been the same deal for TV strategists back in the day. Imagine trying to explain AR to a client back then – it’s like tackling ROI in social media nowadays. Thanks for the article.

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