It makes sense for the world’s biggest brands to want to bring social media activities in-house. Social media offers unprecedented scale, reach, and speed that allows them to communicate directly with their customers.
But why are some brands bypassing agency relationships on their way to building in-house teams?
Perhaps they feel chronically underserved by their large creative or media agencies, which have historically treated social media like an afterthought, or even worse –– a “take for granted” deal-sweetener to retain control of traditional activities (TV, print, OOH, radio, faxing, etc.).
Hey, I get it. Established agencies, steeped in years of TV
budgets, don’t put their best people on social media –– and I don’t blame them. It’s not where they make their money.
But there’s a risk in bringing social in-house, including losing the cross-client and multi-industry learnings an agency can bring to the table. Also, when an in-house creative team is focused on brand, internal politics and approval hierarchy can become major roadblocks.
Between nailing down the brand voice, differing opinions on ethos, and getting messaging approved, brands can quickly lose sight of what customers love--and actually talk about on social--apart from themselves. Being too close to the thing you’re selling has advantages, but it can also mean a loss in perspective.
People –– real human beings out in the world who don’t know or care about our industry –– don’t sign up for social media because they want to see and share more ads. They want to engage with content that serves what they want to talk about –– themselves. At their best, social agencies help users express their passions using brands as the canvas. A great agency can guide a client on how to walk the line between serving both itself and its audience. Having some institutional distance can be a good thing.
Of course, cutting out the middle-man has advantages in efficiency and cost, but my worry is that in house social teams will quickly lose their initial freedom, eventually bending under institutional pressure for compliance.
A Healthy Partnership
I’m of the opinion that great ideas come from a healthy partnership between insiders and challengers. Authorities and rebels. Having multiple points of view –– beholden to different visions -– can elevate the work while keeping it grounded. Agencies –– and the people drawn to them –– feed on cultural relevancy, new trends, and first-mover innovations, while client-side staff keeps the work connected to business goals. If you don't have both parties playing a strong role, the work can fall flat.
If we’ve learned anything from the recent Pepsi misstep –– or even the United backlash –– it’s that instant, mass awareness and intense cultural sensitivity hold brand perception in a vice grip. Endless articles have covered the Pepsi commercial, and I won’t pile on here. I’m empathetic to anyone who puts their best foot forward and doesn’t find solid ground.
And yet, it makes sense that internal brand pressures can cause compromises. I would never guarantee that an external agency wouldn’t have made a misstep, though many do, but the odds are definitely decreased when the very value you bring as a vendor is cultural awareness and sensitivity to memes and social norms. Gut checks can sometimes hurt, but screenshots live forever.
While I’ve been hard on the brand side of things, I’m potentially even more critical of agencies (including my own). I absolutely believe clients should hold high expectations when it comes to their agency partners. Agencies need to walk the talk of a true partner by listening and responding to business benchmarks with innovative ideas –– not flashy campaigns that fulfill creative goals.
It’s also important to know when to stick to your guns of expertise and push back on clients, and when to pump the brakes on ego and play along.
The answer to the question of whether brands should go in-house or hire an agency isn’t black and white. It’s not either/or, but rather, finding the right balance of both that pushes creative boundaries, delivers results and delights audiences. If that’s happening, it shouldn’t matter whose house is doing what.