The Challenge – And Risk – Of Ad Agencies’ Growing Interest In Social Media

Too much has already been written about the recent Old Spice foray into social media. However, one aspect of the campaign has escaped most commentary – the firm – Wieden + Kennedy – is an ad agency. Not a PR agency, or a social media agency. An ad agency.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story on the growing interest of ad agencies in the social media space. As they put it,

“As more and more advertising dollars flow into social media, some Madison Avenue firms are seeking to grab a piece of the action.”

The story cites several examples of ad agencies who are making a move to grow this side of their business. As they do so, they are moving into direct competition with the PR firms and social media agencies who, until recently, they have partnered with on client projects.

Many public relations folks have harped on the idea that PR agencies are best placed to serve clients’ social media needs because of their focus on relationships and conversations as part of their core business. If nothing else, Isaiah Mustafah’s wonderful social media tour de force last week proved that ad agencies can get it right online, with a combination of creativity, comedy and captivating two-way interaction. Meanwhile, however, the pragmatists among us have been observing the blurring of the lines for quite some time. I’ve argued, for example, that PR agencies can learn a lot from ad agencies including:

  1. How to better scale programs;
  2. How to plan and execute more creatively;
  3. That measurement is critical;
  4. How to effectively target their key audiences;
  5. How to better target messages.

Four challenges to PR firms from ad agencies

Public relations agencies – even those who have been working in the space for several years now – can’t ignore this evolution. The increasing attention of ad agencies raises several critical challenges from a PR and broader communications standpoint:

  1. Advertising agencies typically command bigger budgets for programs. That’s nothing new and PR people have long gnashed their teeth about that fact. However, when social media is brought into the mix, the larger budgets mean that ad agencies have more visibility, more flexibility and the potential for more creativity than PR agencies may enjoy thanks, not to their credentials or ability (though I’m not slighting them), but due to the source of their funding.
  2. Ad agencies have access to the marketing function, which often controls communications in general within organizations. That means that they will often have a shorter route to the top and, linked to the above point, may have greater influence with clients.
  3. Ad agencies are built around strong creative teams. They have the creative chops that can rival those of any PR agency.
  4. Control of the marketing side of communications means that advertising agencies have access to other assets that PR agencies may not have – graphics, logos, actors (once again, see Old Spice)

Risks if PR and ad agencies don’t work together

So, the stage is set for quite the tug of war. Trouble is, I suspect that no-one will win if a tug of war is what happens. In fact, a battle like this may hurt both sides as agencies wrestle over the grey area in client relationships. The risks of not learning from each other, and from not learning to place nicely together, are several:

  1. Fragmented social media efforts: A lack of cooperation between advertising and PR agencies, or between marketing and corporate communications functions, can lead to each doing their own thing in social media. That leads to fragmented, siloed failures as organizations roll out poorly coordinated, ineffective campaigns. As Forrester Research analyst Sean Corcoran outlined in December 2009, the different forms of media each have their own pros and cons. I suggested earlier this year that organizations need to effectively coordinate the various media channels and their complementary characteristics to  make them work together and to obtain optimal results.
  2. Sub-optimal results reduce future budgets: Siloed campaigns lead to sub-optimal results, as the weaknesses of each channel remain present without being offset by other channels. That leads to a reluctance from companies to invest in unproven technologies and techniques, leading to lower budgets for these programs in the future. Traditional approaches, which are losing efficacy over time, will continue to deliver similarly sub-optimal results in the long-term. Companies run a risk of a downward spiral with no end winner.
  3. Short-term spikes less effective: Ad agencies excel at generating attention around ideas, but can sometimes struggle more with long-term efforts – this is where the PR agencies’ focus on long-term relationships comes in, as they can plug the gaps in the timelines with sustaining tactics. Old Spice’s re-branding effort, which even has my girlfriend suggesting I try the product, will fail if it simply stops now. If that happens no-one beyond award judges will remember it in a few months. To really entrench their efforts, the agencies involved need to support the initial spike in attention with tactics that will maintain that velocity over the long term.


Agencies need to agree to work together to integrate their communications approaches. It can be tough – the bottom line is that their business objectives often conflict with each other. However, neither is usually “the bad guy” and it can work. If that doesn’t happen, clients need to establish a framework that ensures agencies work with each other, rather than against each other, with cooperation established as a key criteria when evaluating agency performance. For that to happen, companies need to resolve their own internal conflicts between marketing and public relations. Good agencies can help clients make that happen.

What do you think? Have you experienced this blurring of the traditional lines between agencies? How well do you think agencies can hope to work together, given their conflicting objectives?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.