Andrew Collins
Nov 24, 2015

What we learned by pitching to Shanghai’s top agencies (It’s not pretty)

Social-media management in China remains underappreciated and under-practiced, to the point where nine out of 10 agencies rely on Excel for planning and other critical tasks. Andrew Collins of Mailman explains the factors hindering improvement.

Andrew Collins
Andrew Collins

For the past six months we’ve been presenting our vision for social-media management in China to Shanghai’s top agencies, with the hope that just a few of them share our vision with KAWO—to deliver greater transparency, more accountability and better results for everyone. What started out as a learning exercise soon made it very clear that the industry was in tatters, and that this was caused by the leaders themselves.

This is made painstakingly apparent when you consider that PowerPoint and Excel are used by 9 out of 10 agencies, making them the dominant agency tools. It’s these antiquated tools that drive the ecosystem for all content planning, approvals, feedback and publishing. Comparatively in the US, 92 percent of brands are using social-media tools like Hootsuite, Buffer, and Percolate, among others, for the same process.

So what’s different?

To begin with, it’s not all bad. We completed over 100 demonstrations to Shanghai’s top digital agencies and teams, and we found that top management were by far the most enthusiastic towards ‘improvement’ and were largely unaware of the inefficiencies that existed within the industry. For many, social media was a ‘slide in a deck’ and not the core focus of the business (media/traditional was). For others, it was critical to their business, yet they hadn’t addressed the obvious questions:

  • How does your team compare with other teams?
  • How does your brand or client compare with other brands?
  • How do you take risk out of teams publishing on a brand’s accounts in China?
  • How do you track and analyze content week to week?
  • How do you make it easy to collaborate and receive approvals?

This is what we discovered as the most significant factors hindering any real innovation within the agencies:

1. No curiosity

We discovered that senior management were the ones mainly curious of exploring broader solutions in the social-media category, but few mid-level managers and execution teams had an appetite for better efficiencies. To put it simply, they just didn’t care about improving.

2. No incentives

When asked how teams were incentivized to improve performance, we found that not a single agency was driving any sort of success-based incentive. Meaning, it didn’t matter how good you did, or how much you improved, you should just feel lucky to have a job.

3. Distance

We observed a significant distance or disconnect among upper management, teams operating social-media accounts, and mid-level social-media managers. What the management thought was important to them was not important to the teams doing the work.

4. Accountability

This was both surprising and shocking at the same time. Very few agencies, management or teams were even aware of industry benchmarks in their client‘s brand category on social media. Few knew what the leading brands were doing and how they compared.

5. Short-term thinking

Agencies typically work on an annual retainer structure with clients, which means that the interest to explore new technologies or efficiencies depended on when the demonstration or pitch would take place. The challenge of ‘changing’ to a new way of doing something far outweighs the potential benefits seen.

Where did we see success?

Whether it was our product or another's solution, we saw success only when management took charge. If management made it a priority for improvement, accountability, or performance it became a priority for the rest of the team—no surprises here. However, it wasn’t bottom up, or even mid-up. We saw a number of agencies agree to onboarding teams to our platform, yet unless top management were really driving it, mid-level management or executional teams were just not interested in anything new.

It’s on the leaders to drive change

In the last three years, we’ve seen Weibo rise, WeChat explode, and RenRen collapse. The industry moves fast. Yet the fundamentals of planning, understanding users, and building workflows have largely remained the same. The challenge with any enterprise platform is staying ahead of the pace of the industry, and we believe the industry will shift. Clients will look for more transparency, better accountability, and ultimately see better results. We hope to be there to usher in a new era of agency sophistication.

Andrew Collins is group CEO at Mailman


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