On December 21, 2010, Jeremiah Owyang published a comprehensive post titled, “Trend: How Social Media Boutiques Are Winning Deals Over Traditional Digital Agencies.” Given that I work for an agency (I’ll get to the word “traditional” in a minute) the post attracted my attention. I think the post raises a lot of interesting points, but there are also some facets of the post that I really take issue with. So, I thought I would explore some of those thoughts and see if you agree.

The new traditional agency

I’ve been confused all year about how people define “agency.” It seems like everyone has their own definition, with the only commonality being that talk of agencies is often tied to disdain. This particular post refers to a traditional agency and a traditional digital agency, which I thought was even more confusing. So I did some research. I found this article from October 2008, which is called How to integrate a digital agency into a traditional one. Among some of the points that THIS post brings up:

• In a traditional agency, the creative personnel have no idea how to develop creative for the online world

• Traditional agencies are afraid of change (and programmers)

• “Hosting, Bandwidth, Email, Load Balancing, Database, Privacy Policies, Proofing Sites, Backups, Milestones, Testing – terms that traditional account management has never heard of”

Well, I of course can’t speak for all agencies, or really any agency other than the one I work for (which is my family’s agency). However, none of this accurately describes us, and I would venture to say that any agency that is striving hard to survive would not find these descriptions accurate either.

Factually, the new traditional agency is what one might call “full service.” Our agency does print ads, sure. We also do digital ads, news releases, e-newsletters, websites, SEO, and Social Media. That’s right. Social Media.

It’s not clear to me how “traditional digital agency” is defined in the context of Jeremiah Owyang’s post, but I am coming to it based on the understanding that a “traditional” agency is probably not traditional in the “old fashioned” kind of sense.

“Immature Brands Naturally Rely on Traditional Agencies”

This is where some of the wording started to rub me the wrong way. This part of the post basically says that:

• most corporations are not trying to engage with customers

• and therefore, using a “traditional” agency works just fine

The post states that traditional agencies might educate companies but that traditional agencies “lack flexibility or don’t have a business model for social engagement.”

This kind of painting with a broad paintbrush is what I find most disturbing in the realm of Social Media, not just in terms of talk about agencies but in terms of, well, just about anything. An agency can be good at this, a Social Media boutique can be good at that, so you need to pick one or the other.

However, there is some research behind this, so let’s dig a bit deeper.

Agency as hub

Let’s say that you are working with an agency but you really want to engage in an aggressive Social Media campaign. Let’s say that your agency has helped you create a great strategy and has helped you develop a corporate policy (yes, we can do that), but you need help with implementation. One advantage to working with an agency that people seldom think of is that we are able to use our expertise and connections to connect you with who you need. Think of us as a hub, and lots of different firms and specialists can plug into us on your behalf. An agency can work WITH a Social Media boutique or consultant. We can serve as liaison so that you don’t have to sit and explain your whole business to the firm. We can provide background information on where you are in your process, and we can help you monitor the Social Media campaign both as it exists on its own and as it interfaces with other marketing channels.

This is not to undermine the fact that an agency can also focus personnel on  your Social Media strategy. I know how to engage and build communities in Social Media, and I also know how to order space in a print magazine. Is that a weird disconnect? I don’t think so. I think, rather, that it’s an essential mix. I would feel I was doing a poor job if I dropped either portion of what my experiences have taught me. If you are a marketer in this world, I don’t think turning your back on any portion of what a client may need to do is a wise move. Absorb everything. Learn as much as you can. And pass it on to your customers.

Campaign versus Long-Term Goal

The kernel that I found most disturbing is under the sub-head, “Why Social Media Boutiques Differentiate, and Win Deals from Advanced Buyers.” The post contends that “corporations know they need these specialists” for several reasons, one of which is, “Rather than be “campaign” focused, instead are more long term focused such as building a community with customers for the long term.”


Suzanne Vara wrote a great post a couple of months ago called Social Media is Not A New Conversation. She points out that marketers have been talking to their customers for … well, forever. It’s a necessary part of the job. It’s just the method of conversing that has changed.

With that in mind, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that corporations can rely on agencies for “campaigns” but can only rely on Social Media boutiques for engagement and community. In fact, what seems to be missing from a lot of marketers’ toolboxes is the fact that your customers are the same people, whether you reach them via an ad or a tweet. Why start from scratch as if you are new to the market? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Howdy, Partner

Social Media boutiques, PR firms, marketing firms, agencies, web development firms – we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses in this ever-changing world. The advantage that an agency can offer is that we can interface with you and with everyone else you need to work with. We can partner with you. We can partner with the Social Media Boutique. It does not have to be a situation where we are “winning deals” over each other.

What is your vantage point on this issue? I’d love to have a conversation with  you.

1st Image by Franci Strümpfer. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/1041992

2nd Image by Mohammad Salman Ehsan. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/graphican