Seema Punwani
May 19, 2014

Who is in charge of social?

Every type of agency believes it is uniquely positioned to handle social media. Which one holds the true claim? It depends.

Seema Punwani
Seema Punwani

It was a fascinating session to watch. As we were the independent consultant to a large client and its roster of agencies, we were fortunate to sit through an integration session. 

When it came to social media, of course the main creative agency weighed in with its point of view: “The social communication needs to ladder off our campaign approach,” it said.  

The PR agency took the chance to showcase some of the social messaging work it had recently done for another client. 

The digital agency spoke up that this was in its wheelhouse, and that it would integrate this with other digital creative work.

The social media agency saw this as its domain, and talked through its listening tools, so it could monitor and adjust the work.  

And meantime, the poor marketing lead was getting pressure from his procurement and finance team to do more of the work in-house. 

It struck us all. Who is in charge of social? How will brands and agencies truly collaborate to curate, connect and communicate?

Here are the pros and cons of the options as we see it.

PR agencies

With their core expertise in managing press relations, social by default historically fell under the PR Agency remit. Remember, before the existence of the internet, the most proven way to create a buzz was using a PR agency to drive and shape editorial. Some of the best PR agencies have migrated better than others into the world of ones and zeros.


  • Crafting story angles, curating content and developing content calendars is something PR agencies are well versed with
  • Conversations can turn sour and crisis management expertise may be needed
  • PR agencies are naturally equipped to manage bloggers and influencers.


  • Their forte in long press releases versus snappy 140-character messages
  • Often hired by separate departments to marketing, they have limited interaction with other agencies, which means work is created in isolation.

Digital agencies

As social is a digital medium, they would surely be the obvious choice to lead—and most of the companies we work with currently take this approach. One challenge we have seen, though, is many digital agencies are lean operations, and this work can sometimes be outsourced to a local, more nimble social agency.


  • Web agencies understand creative and technology, which means they can ideate as well as develop the work
  • In theory, digital integration across paid, owned and earned media is more seamless.


  • They are often more prone to giving information through own media (websites, microsites) vs. engaging in conversation in social/earned media.

Social-media agencies

Marketers who are moving toward a regular social presence should consider a specialized social agency. They are expert at the more mundane tasks and can bring best practice learnings across their client portfolios. It’s interesting to now see holding companies investing in social acquisitions, such as Publicis Groupe’s acquisition of [email protected] in China and conversely, China’s BlueFocus group acquiring We Are Social globally. This sector is in a dynamic state of flux.


  • The proven ability to curate content and develop evergreen communication is their core expertise
  • Social agencies usually have specific tools such as listening and analytics 
  • Their model is to use specialized teams for community management, as opposed to other agencies that use existing staff
  • They are generally able to better keep up with the back-end changes to various platforms.


  • Most social agencies lack exposure to the overall communications landscape and strategy
  • Because of costs, young talent often brings enthusiasm to the table but without the necessary rigour
  • It’s hard for them to be heard. They do not have enough of a voice when working in a multi-agency environment.

Besides the above, the other contenders are creative agencies, media agencies and the clients themselves. Creative agencies understand the client's business, brand and marketing environment. Here social can be truly integrated in comms plans. Creative agencies are also most familiar with the brand voice and are expert storytellers. However they are not generally nimble enough to develop fast-paced social-media campaigns.

Media agencies have a good understanding of the overall digital landscape but are not well placed in developing content as some specialists. The social teams we have met in media agencies still tend to be for smaller clients looking for a ‘one-stop’ solution. 

Marketers naturally are in tune with their own marketing requirements and thus capable of managing their social presence. Many clients are now hiring community managers. However they would still need outside help in developing the content, building the apps and solutions.  

In a recent ANA study in the US, no fewer than 53 per cent of marketers are looking to replace agencies with in-house solutions, particularly in the area of social where the high-level creative demands are lesser.

So who can lay claim?

The short answer is “all of the above”. Marketers should foremost decide on role of social media and undertake a detailed need analysis before choosing the best partner (check out our most recent whitepaper on this topic here). It should also be remembered that social media can have multiple contributors as long as the rules of engagement are defined upfront.

Seema Punwani is a senior consultant at R3.

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