Helen Roxburgh
Dec 4, 2014

Social-media management: Battling for control of the digital realm

Agencies are facing growing competition from their own clients as top brands move to build in-house social media teams.

Mission control: Philips' digital command centre in Singapore
Mission control: Philips' digital command centre in Singapore

There was a time when social media hubs were run by specialist digital agencies, who dealt with everything ‘real-time’ for major brands. But recently a gathering trend has seen many companies take these operations back in-house. Is this just sensible business practice, or does it reflect some kind of failure on the part of agencies?

Nike, Philips, Mastercard, Unilever and Nestlé are just a few examples of major global brands that have set up in-house social media hubs, choosing to bring in their own talent to replace agencies.

Many brands believe it will bring a more organic approach to their wider digital strategy, with it being more cohesive to bring all marketing operations into one company base. Technology giant Philips has reworked its social media offering this year, launching a new ‘digital command centre’ in Singapore that sits inside its office.

“The biggest challenge when working with agencies is that they are geared towards creative production and not community management or engaging customers in real-time,” says Damien Cummings, chief marketing officer at Philips ASEAN and Pacific. The physical launch of Philips’ hub is only the start,  he says, adding “the real goal is to mine the data for insights into designing the best content for our customers”. 

General Motors is another global giant that has cited data analysis as a key motivator. Industry news site Digiday.com reported in May that the brand’s strategy behind bringing social media operations in-house was partly “to ensure GM doesn’t lose social media data were it to change agencies”. The website quoted Rebecca Harris, GM’s head of global social media strategy, saying the brand hoped to “plug social into all the other CRM data” it had collected in order to create a “full portfolio” on customers allowing service to be personalised.

Gathering data is clearly a key factor in the decision to take these services in-house, as is frustration caused by clunky reporting lines. But other forces are at play too.

“There are many motivations, and it is not necessarily to do with a prevailing dissatisfaction with the current set of services,” says Roy Sudipto, chief client officer of Mindshare APAC. “In most cases, from what I have seen, the motivation is to make a bold statement to the world. To say, ‘Look, the only way we can do this is to make it an inherent part of our culture.’

“Many clients want to test out whether they can make this sole arrangement work by embedding operations into their marketing system; whether it becomes more efficient not just in terms of cost, but speed of response, and being true to the brand.”

For agencies, running an efficient social media service is a developed skill that presents many challenges. Agencies can offer a lot more flexibility in responding to these challenges, says Alessandro Carniel, managing director at Done Asia-Pacific, along with giving fresh perspectives.

“Agencies naturally bring to the table a great deal of knowledge and specific expertise when it comes to social media, which is just a consequence of many different key factors,” he says. 

“These include having a lot of agency people who are truly passionate about social media and keep themselves updated on all the latest trends, technologies and interesting case studies from all over the world; the experience of having worked for a number of clients across different industries and countries; and having previously worked on or tested almost all platforms, tools, softwares.”

Few companies have the resources to build a social media team that can respond at any point of the day or night. Agencies also argue they can mine various points of talent as needed, such as in a crisis, or for a particular launch.

Nonetheless, if agencies want to retain clients, it might be time to think of different ways of working. Changing the frequency of reports, integrating social media data with sales data and company figures, and working out a slicker reporting system can all win favour with clients.

Another increasingly popular concept is a hybrid or embed model — this is the strategy being followed at Philips, where the company has integrated in-house talent with agency staff. “It’s not a true in-house model, but a hybrid model where we have built the infrastructure for listening, content creation and social media management but have asked our agency partners to work alongside the Philips marketing team in a combined set-up,” explains Cummings. “The advantage of this is that it brings multiple agencies together into an environment where we have best-in-class digital infrastructure for social and traditional media listening and content creation.”

As brands continue to experiment with different ways of running their social media operations, agencies need to be equally flexible in order to stay competitive. “This is the future of marketing,” says Cummings. “Fast-forward three to five years and what I believe you will see is more agencies set-up around their client’s data needs, with integrated digital command centres at the heart of their agency set-up. 

“Any brand that values its customers and has a significant marketing spend will need to set up their own version of a command centre to stay competitive.”

Our view: Agencies may need to  restructure their services towards delivering tech consultancy services.


BIG IDEAS Social media hub: in-house, outsource or hybrid?

Mark Bowling, senior consultant with TrinityP3 for Singapore and Hong Kong

‘In-house’ social media hubs have became this year’s ‘marketing must-have’, and images of dim rooms with a ‘mission-control-style’ set-up adorn many industry column inches.

Agencies have also created dedicated social media teams, and advertising groups have boutiques focused on social, content and analytics.

This raises the ongoing challenge of the client-agency symbiosis: no agency has the knowledge, experience and internal access to handle all of a marketer’s responsibility, while no marketer has the people, experience or tools needed to execute all their marketing. The management of social media sits awkwardly in either camp.

Taking social media in-house has obvious benefits: direct decision-making ability; easy access to internal stakeholders, and being highly responsive when required. But dedicated in-house teams also risk becoming insular, losing out on an agency’s ability to work on other brands and categories, interacting with specialist agency functions. The hub’s work and output must be fresh, progressive, and constantly engaged.

I have three suggestions for alternatives:

1 Embedded agency: The client provides the space, technology and clear lines of access into the organisation, reducing time spent reporting and approving. The agency provides people, tools and expertise to get to work fast, using the flexibility of the agency model whilst reducing long-term commitments to the client.

2. In-house core team with rotating contributors: While the team is purely ‘client’, the agency provides a rotating mix of copywriters, analysts, designers and strategists to constantly sit at the agency ‘desk’, contributing a new perspectives and expertise.

3. Agency-client hybrid: By essentially creating a JV between client and agency, the in-house hub benefits from all agency resources yet can still make snap decisions and access the client network. Key hires are mutually agreed, while agency experts assist with training, development and ongoing contribution.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for marketing management in the digital and social age. What is true, though, is that it will all be different in five years’ time. That’s guaranteed.


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