We’ve been lucky enough to be getting a lot of ink lately, both in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, as well as Report on Small Business magazine, which ran a profile in the Spring issue. This has of course been great – it’s really nice to be recognized for your work, and I know the whole SMG team feels that way (as they should – they consistently pull together truly amazing stuff for our clients, and I am very, very proud of them and their work).
But something very interesting has emerged from all this press – no one seems to know quite what to call us. We’re referred to variously as a marketing or an online PR agency, neither of which is a particularly accurate or complete description. The truth is that SMG, and we believe, social media agencies in general (or at least the good ones), are an entirely new breed altogether, blending the best of business consulting and the traditional agency model, but leaving all the “bad” stuff behind.
Together, we’re defining an industry.
The Business Consulting Model
This is basically bringing in subject matter experts to help you solve a business problem. The consultants come in, they research, investigate and explore to determine what your needs and realities are, and make recommendations based on their expertise that will allow you to meet your objectives.
- * Consultants have an amazing opportunity to get to know your business from the inside out – recommendations are based on hours of research and exploration inside/outside the company, and should ideally be completely aligned to your business objectives.
- * Solutions can sometimes be unrealistic (there’s no obligation to make them work – implementation is someone elses’ problem)
* All the money is made in the consulting phase – the longer it is, the more money the business consulting firm makes
The Agency Model
Creative agencies pitch clients on ideas, and if the clients like them, they buy them (the initial idea is often created before a business relationship has been established). The agency then produces the idea (web, print or broadcast). Interestingly, agencies do not make most of their money on production, but rather on purchasing the media, or placement, for things they make, i.e. television commercials, newspaper ads, etc.
- * Creative ideas generated by creative people in a creative environment, with (ideally) limited constraints
* Full-service implementation – they’re not going to suggest anything unless they know they can deliver it
- * Initial solutions and ideas are generated often without an official business relationship. In other words, the tactic comes before the strategy and sometimes without the context of the clients’ overall business objectives
* Large profits generated from media buys means agencies are reliant on them, whether they reflect the new reality of media disruption or not. This creates an actual disincentive to explore non-traditional methods of communication, like social media (which has no media buy and often limited production costs)
So where does the SMG model lie in all of this? Squarely in the middle, both by design and experience.
The SMG Model
All engagements begin with a strategic consulting phase – we get inside your company and interview key stakeholders to determine business objectives/strengths/opportunities/weaknesses/threats. We look at important areas outside your walls (you don’t do business in a vacuum) and ensure that our recommendations are also well integrated with what your other agencies are doing (both from a branding, timing and objective standpoint). Then we tell you what we think you should do with social media, based on your reality.
Instead of walking in the door with the “big idea”, we take the time to develop the “right idea”.
Then we implement. SMG is full-service, but we don’t do anything but social media generated projects – no banner ads, no website redesigns (except as they relate to your social media programme), no print or TV ads. Just social media.
Because we’re responsible for implementation, we’re both realistic and honest – we have to live with what we propose. We don’t make any money from media buying (there is none), so what we recommend is what you need, not what we need.
We take the best of both worlds – the thorough, process-oriented practice of business consulting, used to uncover real needs and business objectives, combined with the creative, exuberant energy of a top-flight creative design shop (many of us are refugees from that world), with the added bonus of being solution agnostic – we don’t have an old-media business model to prop up. We’re going to tell you what we think is the best way to meet your marketing or communications objectives. Period.
This has both ethical and practical roots – we do it this way because it’s right and it makes sense. I’d like to borrow a few value statements from a colleague named Susan Goodman (who runs an amazing Marketing consulting firm in New York) because they perfectly encapsulate how we do business and the value that we bring to our client relationships. We strive to always:
* Champion innovation over complacency
* Serve as an objective third party
* Speak plainly and courageously
We do it this way because it’s right and it makes sense. It’s who we are as a company (as all of our clients will attest) and, I hope, as an industry. It is a very exciting time to be us!
Maggie, another compelling read. However your agency model failed to describe the importance of ‘___ &golf’.
Ha ha ha, Chris – shall I tell everyone what the first blank is meant to be?
The agency model you put forward doesn’t really describe PR agencies. Your agency model seems to focus more on an ad agencies. Most PR agencies are the hybrid “best-of-both-worlds” type that you describe (at least they are trying to be, not saying that all actually are. High Road is).
I think the key differentiator is, as you describe it, that you “don’t have an old-media business model to prop up”. Many PR agencies, like ad agencies, are trying to adapt to new realities or re-invent themselves. Some are more successful than others.
In a way, this reminds me a little bit of the old business software discussions, when it was all about “best-of-breed” vs. “one integrated platform” (or “one throat to choke”), and then all of a sudden the rise of software-as-a-service is starting to change the whole approach to business models in the industry. Marketing is going through a similar change, and “social media” is kind of what SaaS is to the old software model. Exciting and fun times indeed.
I agree with Martin: the “media buy” debate is squarely targeted at our friends in the ad biz.
The jockeying going on right now, both within corporations as well as in the consulting world, is which marketing discipline takes ownership of social media. Most of the marketing disciplines have tidy little silos that they’ve practiced under for years. But where does this fit? Ad guys want a piece because their discipline has been more advanced on the technical side of engaging with the web (websites, microsites, etc.). But the PR guys see social media at its core as unpaid-for communications and creating conversations, which is their specialty. In the consulting world, there’s not even an established category yet, as you point out, for social media specialists.
I think one of the primary issues is in branding: Is the industry called social media? New media? Online communications? Heck, there’s a Society for New Communications Research. How come the lack of consensus?
The flip side is, you don’t want to over-administrate a burgeoning discipline/industry, especially while it’s at its formative stage. But some clarity will help minimize confusion among potential buyers of social media services, including establishing that discipline internally within corporate marketing departments. And maybe somewhere down the road, establishing an industry association — not unlike the advertising or PR disciplines — will bring further clarity and credibility.
Maybe Mark, Matt and our friends at Mesh might consider “industry branding” among the topics of discussion at next month’s conference.
Interesting discussion but isn’t who different to what? I support your ‘full service’ concept having seen the early days of e-recruitment software (early adopters for SaaS [in theory!]) ignore real implementation. What I mean by that in today’s terms would be to implement a social network for a client and then move onto the next customer leaving the previous customer to make it will work. This may of course be a typical software project i.e. sell and run but with social media more technology vendors ‘appear’ to be wanting to take a full service approach.
We get pulled into e-recruitment scenarios to fix the problems and there are way too many to make it fun so with social media we are instead leading from the front and retaining client ownership throughout. Some of the tech vendors don’t like this approach i.e. we want to own the customer not you (which I understand but won’t support) whereas vendors such as Awareness seem more open in their view.
Bottom line: Assuming strategy etc is clearly defined (dangerous assumption) the key person to a network is the community manager; and they have to be part of the customer infrastructure (not necessarily employed).
I’ll be looking out for you in the UK!
Clearly, I’m in agreement with you and admire what you’re doing there, as it’s so similar to what we’re doing a bit south of you. Congrats on the affiliation with Geoff. Nice move. He’s very smart.
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