Thoughts on Traditional Agencies and Social Media Boutiques

On December 21, 2010, Jeremiah Owyang published a comprehensive post titled, “Trend: How Social Media Boutiques Are Winning Deals Over Traditional Digital Agencies.” Given that I work for an agency (I’ll get to the word “traditional” in a minute) the post attracted my attention. I think the post raises a lot of interesting points, but there are also some facets of the post that I really take issue with. So, I thought I would explore some of those thoughts and see if you agree.

The new traditional agency

I’ve been confused all year about how people define “agency.” It seems like everyone has their own definition, with the only commonality being that talk of agencies is often tied to disdain. This particular post refers to a traditional agency and a traditional digital agency, which I thought was even more confusing. So I did some research. I found this article from October 2008, which is called How to integrate a digital agency into a traditional one. Among some of the points that THIS post brings up:

• In a traditional agency, the creative personnel have no idea how to develop creative for the online world

• Traditional agencies are afraid of change (and programmers)

• “Hosting, Bandwidth, Email, Load Balancing, Database, Privacy Policies, Proofing Sites, Backups, Milestones, Testing – terms that traditional account management has never heard of”

Well, I of course can’t speak for all agencies, or really any agency other than the one I work for (which is my family’s agency). However, none of this accurately describes us, and I would venture to say that any agency that is striving hard to survive would not find these descriptions accurate either.

Factually, the new traditional agency is what one might call “full service.” Our agency does print ads, sure. We also do digital ads, news releases, e-newsletters, websites, SEO, and Social Media. That’s right. Social Media.

It’s not clear to me how “traditional digital agency” is defined in the context of Jeremiah Owyang’s post, but I am coming to it based on the understanding that a “traditional” agency is probably not traditional in the “old fashioned” kind of sense.

“Immature Brands Naturally Rely on Traditional Agencies”

This is where some of the wording started to rub me the wrong way. This part of the post basically says that:

• most corporations are not trying to engage with customers

• and therefore, using a “traditional” agency works just fine

The post states that traditional agencies might educate companies but that traditional agencies “lack flexibility or don’t have a business model for social engagement.”

This kind of painting with a broad paintbrush is what I find most disturbing in the realm of Social Media, not just in terms of talk about agencies but in terms of, well, just about anything. An agency can be good at this, a Social Media boutique can be good at that, so you need to pick one or the other.

However, there is some research behind this, so let’s dig a bit deeper.

Agency as hub

Let’s say that you are working with an agency but you really want to engage in an aggressive Social Media campaign. Let’s say that your agency has helped you create a great strategy and has helped you develop a corporate policy (yes, we can do that), but you need help with implementation. One advantage to working with an agency that people seldom think of is that we are able to use our expertise and connections to connect you with who you need. Think of us as a hub, and lots of different firms and specialists can plug into us on your behalf. An agency can work WITH a Social Media boutique or consultant. We can serve as liaison so that you don’t have to sit and explain your whole business to the firm. We can provide background information on where you are in your process, and we can help you monitor the Social Media campaign both as it exists on its own and as it interfaces with other marketing channels.

This is not to undermine the fact that an agency can also focus personnel on  your Social Media strategy. I know how to engage and build communities in Social Media, and I also know how to order space in a print magazine. Is that a weird disconnect? I don’t think so. I think, rather, that it’s an essential mix. I would feel I was doing a poor job if I dropped either portion of what my experiences have taught me. If you are a marketer in this world, I don’t think turning your back on any portion of what a client may need to do is a wise move. Absorb everything. Learn as much as you can. And pass it on to your customers.

Campaign versus Long-Term Goal

The kernel that I found most disturbing is under the sub-head, “Why Social Media Boutiques Differentiate, and Win Deals from Advanced Buyers.” The post contends that “corporations know they need these specialists” for several reasons, one of which is, “Rather than be “campaign” focused, instead are more long term focused such as building a community with customers for the long term.”


Suzanne Vara wrote a great post a couple of months ago called Social Media is Not A New Conversation. She points out that marketers have been talking to their customers for … well, forever. It’s a necessary part of the job. It’s just the method of conversing that has changed.

With that in mind, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that corporations can rely on agencies for “campaigns” but can only rely on Social Media boutiques for engagement and community. In fact, what seems to be missing from a lot of marketers’ toolboxes is the fact that your customers are the same people, whether you reach them via an ad or a tweet. Why start from scratch as if you are new to the market? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Howdy, Partner

Social Media boutiques, PR firms, marketing firms, agencies, web development firms – we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses in this ever-changing world. The advantage that an agency can offer is that we can interface with you and with everyone else you need to work with. We can partner with you. We can partner with the Social Media Boutique. It does not have to be a situation where we are “winning deals” over each other.

What is your vantage point on this issue? I’d love to have a conversation with  you.

1st Image by Franci Strümpfer.

2nd Image by Mohammad Salman Ehsan.


Agreed, in "social media marketing" the real important word is "marketing".

I see so many social media people jumping into offering services that are just nonsense like, listening and responding to everyone on the planet and their dog ....

It should always start with a strategy, segmentation and value proposition development (one can't be everything to anybody), then develop specific value add for their target audiences.

There are important changes that "social" is bringing to marketing as:
- marketing bottom up and the reverse funnel
- marketing to non-customers and customers in public
- marketing for attention and for engagement and not for eyeballs

This video of Seth Godin is to me a great introduction of what's different:


Jill Manty
Jill Manty

Hi Margie,

I'm just now getting around to reading this excellent article. As someone who comes at things exclusively from the digital perspective, I would love to hear more discussion about how to build cooperation between "traditional" agencies and the new fangled online folk :-)

My limited experience with marketing/ad agencies locally is that they know very little about digital/social media and yet provide online services (badly) to their clients- if they've never written a blog and know nothing about Wordpress or Twitter or Facebook, and they don't even have a website themselves, how can they even start to make recommendations for building an online presence? I'd love to work cooperatively with them serving as a hub, but they're too busy hoarding nuts for the winter to expand. Frustrating and not sure how to begin to build bridges.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

sounds like a new blog topic for me, dedicated to you! Thanks for the comment, insight, and inspiration :)

Suzanne Vara
Suzanne Vara


First, thank you so very much for linking and referencing to the post. I took some time to think about this article and the ensuing comment. Ok here goes:

Traditional agencies that have established a strong brand presence in the marketplace for themselves through the work created for their clients have for years understood their clients' industry and customers. I believe the key to their success was having a complete understanding of the industry that their client was in. The behavior of the industry as a whole which encompasses the buying habits of the consumer, how the industry reacts to certain changes and how the consumers react to the changes. The competition is also a factor as if are you trying to better them or better the industry or going a step further better the consumer in their buying power. Traditional agencies that were really good found success in all of the aforementioned.

Now, let's look at social media. I have strongly and openly voiced my opinion on this - it is advertising which is encapsulated in marketing. Traditional agencies that are good, know advertising and how to effectively advertise but moreso know marketing. Is the medium different in social media, yes. And, is the way we view traditional advertising a different mindset than social media - yes. However, there are many that are claiming to be the marketing social media expert who have little or no experience in advertising. This concerns me as the brands are confused and leaning towards social media "experts." This is not to say that there are not successful social media agencies as there are. They focus on the industry and the consumer. There are traditional agencies that have created a "new" social media department that are failing. They do not see the tie to the medium and the consumer.

I really think it all comes down to knowing your agency strengths and the industry for which your client is in. The industry plays a big role as once you truly understand the industry you can create a plan that meets goals and expectations of the client but also has a clear focus on the consumer.

Great article Margie.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks so much, Suzanne. I think your analysis is directly spot on. The point is not that all "traditional" agencies are great. Obviously there is some reason for the findings that Jeremiah posted in his own blog. Obviously there are reasons why some companies swear they'll never work with any type of agency ever again. Not everyone is a good egg.


Not every Social Media boutique or expert is a good egg either.

So, taking perfection out of the mix, what are you left with? And I think you nailed it.


Paul Flanigan
Paul Flanigan

Margie, solid insights. Allow me to add some perspective...

In my experience there were a couple of situations that pitted the brand against the agency. First, Jeremiah is correct in the sense that the 'traditional' agency would lose the deal because the boutique would swoop in. I saw that happen at Best Buy with BBDO and Crispin Porter. Because of this, the boutique makes the traditional look bad, look like the traditional is not a hub. And it led to the second situation:

For a long time brands kept saying that agencies "don't get it and don't care," and would take it upon themselves to do the social media. The big contention was the battle over handling it. Who's going to run the twitter accounts? The facebook accounts? Who will manage this over a campaign or long term goal? The brands would get finicky when the agency (or retailer!) would tell them how to do it. Who knows the customer? Gillette? Or Kroger? Or BBDO? More often than not, the company closest to the customer would with the argument by default because of their position. But, that doesn't mean they know anything about it. So who would they turn to? The first agency that could tell them how to do it, or do it better.

To me, there is very little differentiation between boutique and traditional any longer - except maybe size. They are rapidly morphing into the same kind of agency - a lean, efficient agency capable of anything. The challenge is, and I believe always will be, the reluctance - or degree of enthusiasm?- that brands have in working with agencies to get the message out there.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

I agree - that is why I'm a major proponent of integrated marketing and inter-channel cooperation. I think inevitably companies are going to want to be able to tie a long-term social media campaign with a burst of advertising or a flurry of PR. Whoever is out there will need to at least be able to address all facets of that set of needs. Otherwise someone else will swoop in.

My concern with the "boutique" idea is that experts, whom Owyang notes many might refer to as ninjas, though he disagrees with that kind of nomenclature - they don't really seem interested in the cooperation idea. The conversations I see from them tend to be "Social Media or bust." I find that quite worrisome.

Paul Flanigan
Paul Flanigan

I agree about the boutique. There are some in it for the namedropping glory - get the gig, get the $$, get out. Not a good approach - and the big agencies will wise up to it.

I have long thought that after a while, there won't be such a thing as a campaign because the marketing will be year-long across all channels. You're right - a burst of info around a date - that's all. And that's all that is needed in some cases.

Thank you for the dialogue, Margie. You have a new fan!


Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks so much, Paul. That's interesting, too - if you are able to work for even a short while with a huge company, it can be like having a trophy pinned to your wall. Or your website. "Hey, I worked with so and so." It's true, but no one knows for how long. People probably seldom ask.

Great perspective.


No matter what the tools are the brand owner will call the shots. And the brand owner will choose, in most of the cases, to have one partner of discussion: a full service agency. The fact that the agency is partnering with a social media boutique or is hiring SoMe freelancer is irrelevant, as long as they deliver results.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

That is what one would think, but Jeremiah's post/research shows different results. It indicates that new companies might want a single hub for marketing, but as the company matures, they may turn to a boutique to address those needs. Seems weird to me, though.

Thomas Moradpour
Thomas Moradpour

Great post Margie.@tommoradpour
The argument you attack is absurd on multiple levels. If is obvious that starting from non-existence, some new shops will win some business over incumbents. That's the nature of the business. Any business. And it does indeed prove nothing.
Your point re: agencies as hubs is particularly relevant. The "best of breed" approach to working with agencies is not new, but will become more relevant. An agency's ability to recommend strategy and big idea, and then find the best talent in any "execution" field, will be the most important going forward. It's not new - "traditional" agencies did not shoot TV ads themselves (they hired directors and production houses). Likewise, they will find social media operators for hire, and other specilized kills as needed.
The key skill is brand strategy - this is the "hard" one.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

That's a great point. Agencies have been working as the hub for decades now, probably since the beginning. We work with printers, we work with videographers...but as I mentioned above, I think cooperation, not just among agencies and other marketers but amongst everyone in the marketing world - PR firms, Social Media "boutiques," etc., it's all going to become so much more important as the world becomes more complex. What do you gain by saying, "Social Media is everything?" What do you lose?

Thanks for popping by!

Juan Pablo
Juan Pablo

We are a small agency and things don't quite work if we don't bring TV stations, print services and traaditional media outfits in order to round out our efforts. As I read in a tweeter chat yesterday, SoMe is not the end-all solution for marketers. Cooperation is as important as ever.

Thanks again for your insights, Margie.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Excellent point. In fact, I would venture to say that cooperation may, just may, be more important than ever before. With the marketing industry fragmenting into different niches of specialization, it's really important that we all learn to work with each other rather than against each other. If we do not, it's our respective clients/customers that will suffer, and ultimately marketing will end up being something that doesn't benefit anybody.

Thanks for your comment!

Gerard McLean
Gerard McLean

If we take this a little bit further along, a good agency that works with CPG is also linked to the types of companies I like to call "boots on the ground" that execute the POP, displays, facings and other displays at retail.

I wrote a quick post following the Old Spice campaign this past summer that was the darling of the social media boutique crowd who trumpeted "Old Spice gets it." Well, in the end they did NOT get it because they failed to connect back around to the at retail space. If P&G worked in concert with a traditional agency who understood HBC CPG, this loose end would have been wrapped up.

They claimed an increase of 109% in sales shortly after the campaign (I'm baffled as to where if their at retail strategy everywhere mirrored my local Kroger, 60 miles north of the P&G HQ) but had they invested a little bit more and coordinated their at retail efforts with the SoMe efforts, think of the sales lift they could have generated for not a whole lot more effort.

It has been my experience that SoMe boutiques want to push the sales activities to the eyeball when it's really the belly buttons that eventually buy. And belly buttons are the only thing that ultimately matters unless your product is digital.

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

It's very true, and I'm very interested in the points you make about the Old Spice campaign in particular. Clearly there was some integration (can even say the word "campaign"??) because there were television commercials first. In the end though, even though there was a lot of buzz and maybe a lot of traffic tied around the name Old Spice,what was done to complete the circle?

There are a lot of conversations out there about how you can't win with Social Media. There seem to be an equal number of conversations about how you can't win without it. Truthfully it's all about integration, with Social Media building on and enriching other channels.

Thanks for your comment!