Case study: Why ad agencies make horrible marketing partners


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Last week Sir Martin Sorrell gave an interview in the WSJ India. In it he discussed his thoughts and attitudes towards social media. Money quote:

“… [social media is] not a medium that really lends itself to commercial exploitation…The more you try and invade it with commercial messages, the more at risk you are.”

On its face of course this statement is correct. Despite the most fervent desires of their owners, consumers have resolutely rejected the idea of receiving commercial messages within social networks.

But I think there’s a more interesting (and unintentional) point Sir Martin makes with these comments. Ignore for a moment the aggressive Mad-Men language (“exploitation”, “invade”) and his apparent confusion of social networks with social media (networks constitute a tiny percentage of overall social activity). My key take away is that despite everything we now know, Sorrell and by extension the agencies he oversees (O&M, JWT, etc, etc) continue to think of social in the black and white terms way they see all other media – as a channel that is either useful as a platform for traditional corporate messaging, or (in this case) not.

What’s wrong with this point of view? For WPP, perhaps nothing. The agency holding company is in business to make money. It believes (still, perhaps) that the best way to do that continues to be through traditional brand advertising, direct marketing and PR. And Sir Martin is paid handsomely to do what’s best for WPP.

But his agencies are hired to do what’s best for their clients. And in this era of consumer control, corporate success will be increasingly determined by their ability to understand and serve customers – listening, engaging, learning, responding – not by continuing to bombard them with the kind of one-way messaging WPP’s agencies have specialized in for 50 years.

Agencies are not yet financially motivated to get ahead of the communication curve. But their clients are (or at least they should be). It would be nice to imagine there were some heated client/agency ‘discussions’ about the implications behind this interview.


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