David Tiltman
May 13, 2010

All about social media experts

McDonald's decision to appoint its first director of social media in the US underlines the growing importance of channels such as Facebook and Twitter to major consumer brands.

Social media
Social media
It’s also a sign of the way the marketing industry, agencies as well as clients, is trying to work out where social media fits in.

1. McDonald’s is not the first client to appoint a social media expert in a senior role.

Tech brands, unsurprisingly, also identify this as a key position. But the fast food giant’s decision is significant as it recognises the importance that mainstream consumer brands now place on social channels.

Amanda King, president of Tribal DDB Asia-Pacific, who works closely with McDonald’s, is not surprised to see the company taking this step. She argues that it is a reflection of the rapid development of social media as a “direct connect with uncensored customer comment”.

That view is echoed by Jason Kuperman, VP digital development at Omnicom Group. “The ease of broadcasting opinions and the velocity at which these sentiments can spread could make staying on top of your brand in the social media ecosystem a very labour-intensive task. Monitoring it all, nurturing the positive, and responding appropriately to the negative is more than a part-time job.”

2. So what should a social media director be doing?

The person filling the role at McDonald’s is Rick Wion, a former GolinHarris executive who has been working on social media products for the firm since 2006.

His new post is a broad one, incorporating social media into several different marketing activities: managing customer feedback and complaints, for example, as well as targeting groups such as online mothers.

Duncan Cunningham, regional director for Greater China of talent management firm Aquent, says he expects staff like these to have three key areas of focus: developing and implementing a marketing strategy through social media, brand activation, and consumer engagement and feedback.

3. This is still a rapidly developing area.

While clients will increasingly need chief reputation officers to manage all areas of corporate reputation, including social media, Asian companies are a little behind the curve in this respect. In many cases, budgets are not yet there, especially for social media in Asia where many clients are still in an experimental stage. Where client-side social media experts do exist, they are fairly low down the pecking order.

4. According to Cunningham, many Asian clients “are expecting agencies to take the lead”.

It’s certainly true that agencies of all disciplines have been scooping up social media talent, with PR agencies ahead of the game. Fleishman-Hillard hired VP and head of digital integration Napoleon Biggs from a digital background, while Ogilvy PR, hired Thomas Crampton, a former journalist, blogger and consultant, to be its Asia-Pacific director of 360 digital influence. Among clients too, PR has been the most natural partner to date. Indeed, Wion will work with his firm’s US media relations team, and report to Heather Oldani, director of external communications and public relations.

5. Agencies in other marketing disciplines are, however, following suit.

Kathryn Woof, principal consultant at recruitment firm Xpand Group, says that she is now seeing demand from agencies of all types for senior-level social media experts, with many recruits coming from a PR background. Part of their job is simply to educate the rest of the agency.

However, a word of warning is sounded by Pushkar Sane, global head of social marketing for Starcom Mediavest Group. He argues that agencies should not see social media as a vertical discipline, but rather “a horizontal capability that runs across the organisation. All customer-facing functions need to appreciate social’s power in building or destroying brand equity.”

That argument is taken one step further by Andy Greenaway, regional creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi. “If you see social marketing as part of the mainstream, then why would you have a separate chief for it? You may need media specialists to help seed your messages and manage your social network assets. But you still need the big idea men to give them meaning.”

What this means for...

> McDonalds’ move will be followed by other mainstream consumer brands in the US, demonstrating the importance of social media in that market.

While social media channels are undoubtedly growing in Asia, most clients are for now relying on their agencies to deliver expertise in the area. Given the size of the Asian market and the different platforms available in different markets, it would be difficult to create a regional role to oversee this area.

A further complication is developing a defined role for a senior social media expert. There is a clear overlap with the PR department, though social channels and principles can be applied to all manner of marketing activity. A less siloed approach is required to raise social media expertise across an organisation.

> Agencies from all backgrounds are hunting experienced social media practitioners, though PR at the moment probably has the highest concentration of staff in this area.

Don’t expect social media experts to come cheap. True expertise in this field is still relatively rare, and demand outstrips supply.

> Whatever the discipline, it is unwise to see social media as a ‘department’ within an agency. If a company hires a social media practitioner, it should ensure that one of their roles is developing expertise across the organisation.

Got a view?
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This article was originally published in the 6 May 2010 issue of Media.

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