Debate: does a brand’s social voice belong at an agency or at the brand?

by Jeff Hilimire on April 18, 2010

We spend a lot of time at DIG (Engauge’s Digital Innovation Group) talking about where the social voice — the Facebook statuses, Tweets, whatever MySpace calls their updates, etc — belongs. Should it reside only within the brand/company itself? Or should it be with an expert in social marketing who is trained on the brand (like an agency)?

While I obviously have my own opinions on the topic, I’d like to get your thoughts and see where the conversation goes. Having debated both sides of this issue, I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops because I’m still struggling to figure out where I will eventually land.


  • Maureen Kelly

    This is always a constant debate and I'm someone who comes from both sides. Ideally my answer would be that the social voice should come from the brand. However, the problem is that social media is growing at lightening speed and sometimes a brand is not prepared internally to respond once it sets up its sm sites. That is where an agency can come in. BUT–that agency #1 should know the sm world. I'm sure you think, duh…of course they would, but nowadays there are so many agencies claiming to be experts in sm that a brand needs to do its homework. #2- The expert within the agency assigned to this account should be trained on the brand and work with an internal person within the brand to ensure that they are speaking w the brands “voice”.

    The bottom line is that there needs to be a partnership between the brand and the agency. Both sides need to work together because in the end it is not only the brands reputation, but also the agencies reputation on the line.

  • kellyberd

    The brand has the ultimate responsibility – the agency can advise til they're blue in the face, the brand has to walk the talk.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Maureen, I like where you're heading with this. Agencies are probably more likely to be able to put bodies against keeping the program rolling once its set up. So then the next question would be, can an agency really understand the brand enough to be actively responding to customers?

    I also think, because social media is moving so quickly and the way in which customers use it continues to evolve, that an agency that focuses in this area would be more equipped to ebb and flow as necessary.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Responding to @mkogon's tweet: RT @jeffhilimire: does a brand’s social voice belong at an agency or at the brand? IMO Brand owns, agency facilitates

    Agree, but what do you mean by “facilitates”? Is that the actual tweeting/statusing?

  • Roger Welch

    When I was on the agency side of the fence I obviously thought it should belong on that side…after working on the brand side and churning through agencies that couldn't deliver quality work I am leaning toward it being owned by the brand. I agree with Maureen that if a brand is to rely on an agency they better do their homework AND have an internal expert to oversee the process.

    I do however disagree with Maureen that the agencies feel that their reputation is on the line during these projects. In my experience most agencies just blame the brands when things go wrong for either not funding a project properly, not making the proper resources available, not supporting them enough or responding quickly enough…rarely do you see an agency take responsibility for a projects failure.

  • Maureen Kelly

    Roger- I agree with you that agencies, for the most part, rarely feel that their reputation is on the line. However, lets face it, we are living in the world of social media and word of mouth. So agencies can blame the brand, but word of mouth can also get out that the agency did not do a good job and with competition being so fierce now, agencies really need to back up their work and not just play the blame game. People are too smart for that.

  • Raghu Kakarala

    if your talking about a brand agency then that agency plays the critical role in setting it – that agency is deeply immersed in consumers and has a core competency in understanding how best to position a brand for success – client side a typical brand manager tenure is 18 months, while agency side many of the relationships for top brands go on for decades. So the social voice is a key part of the brand positioning. If it is an interactive only agency, then the brand should own the social voice or the brand agency should own the social voice – the danger being that the brand or the brand agency doesnt “get” social – so a fair bit of collaboration is needed

  • Tim Goleman

    This is one of those questions going around in marketing. I think the direction has to come from the Brand/client side. They have to set the tone on what they want to do in social media. After all it is their brand message being sent out to the public. It should be clarified by the agency.

    But actually doing the work, I think an agency can do it for the client. It's no different to me then placing ads in traditional media. But after reading some of the comments I am thinking it should be shared. Since social media changes so fast its up to the agency to keep up with all the new trends, while its up to the client to give clear direction on what it wants to do in social, i.e. branding, deals/coupons, etc.

    I think it's going to have to be a living arrangement with both client and agency. They are going to have to trust and lean on each other more with social. Agency and Clients need to have really great communication for this to work and succeed. I hope this makes sense, getting over a cold.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Interesting, @interpolate brings up a good point. If an agency has worked with a brand (or rather the people at the agency have worked with a brand) for 5 years, and the team on the brand side has mostly been there less than a year, who's really suited best to be the voice of the brand from a social media perspective?

  • Don Synstelien

    More to the point, if a brand is touting it's social media voice and that voice is originating at and from the agency… We'll, that just isn't very “authentic” is it ;-)

  • Don Synstelien

    More to the point, if a brand is touting it's social media voice and that voice is originating at and from the agency… We'll, that just isn't very “authentic” is it ;-)

  • clouvi

    Major disruption is occurring and will continue to occur in this traditional relationship. An agency that thinks they have a right to the brand will suffer from some level of Darwinism. With so many digital channels and micro-niches, how can you be sure that brand is not cheating on you just a bit? I can think of a few times where I've called on one digital AOR that had no clue that a certain campaign or service was being used b/c it was implemented by another agency.

  • Erik Wolf

    In the idealistic world that exists only in my head, I'd prefer to see agencies stay out if it entirely. But that's not reality and I think many brands are going to require the assistance and guidance of an agency to plan the strategy, provide feedback and likely handle some of the upfront and ongoing effort to maintain the strategy. But I think it is a HUGE mistake for a brand to outsource its social media entirely to an agency as it seems many are doing. As a culture, we've immunized ourselves to advertising in part because of overload and in part because people have become increasingly aware of how “manufactured” advertising is. By contrast, we are drawn to social media because there's still an element of authenticity there that has been stripped out of traditional marketing, advertising and PR over the years. Ultimately I believe that brands need to control the tone, content and tempo of their social media, no matter how impractical it is from an organizational perspective. I believe that impracticality can be overcome in many cases with a combination of effort and creativity :)

    But it's hard to overcome the disappointment and betrayal that our best customers would no doubt feel if they ever discovered that they were being misled. How would you feel if you found out that a company insider you've been developing a relationship with was actually a ghostwriter or a fictional character?

    Authenticity is a prerequisite for a successful social media effort and outsourcing it wholly to an agency is disingenuous at best. Agencies can and should play a role — this is a big job after all, but any scenario that takes the brand out of the driver's seat is a failure in my book.

  • Pingback: Should you hire a social media agency? | Zero-G Creative()

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Excellent points @erikwolf. And while it might only exist in your head, I share the same delusions ;)

    It seems the best way for an agency to work with a brand on their social outreach is to be a strategic partner with the ability to train and if necessary augment their staff when necessary. But turning over the keys to an agency and getting a monthly report is NOT the way to go. Authenticity and credibility should be at a premium when communicating with customers.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    I'd like to ask all that commented on this post what the difference is between, say, an agency managing a Twitter account for a brand or a brand outsourcing its 1-800-customer-service to another country (where the person actually speaks with the customer and acts as if they are an employee).

    What's the difference? Why is one scenario frowned on whereas the other, which seems more personal because you're talking to a live person, is standard operating procedure?

  • Erik Wolf

    I'd say that just because it's “standard” operating procedure doesn't make it the right operating procedure :) There are companies that have done this seamlessly and there are companies who have had their brands/credibility seriously damaged by poor service from an overseas call center.

    But overall, I think there's a very big fundamental difference between these two examples — a call center is very expensive to run and requires a major investment in facilities, equipment and personnel. Outsourcing that function can be a significant cost savings for a company; savings that could help a company compete more effectively in a crowded marketplace. But a Twitter account is practically free to maintain — it requires no additional overhead, can be maintained by almost any level of employee and doesn't require a lot of training to build a basic level of competency. There just isn't a compelling business case to be made for outsourcing a Twitter account where it's easy to argue for the overseas call center despite the same “social” risks to your brand.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Hm, I was with you until your last point that “a Twitter account is practically free to maintain”. While I agree that the head count for call centers is obviously much higher today than with social, that will change very quickly over the next few years.

    But even today I know many companies that have a handful of people working full time running their Twitter accounts, mostly from a customer service perspective.

    I just think to a certain extent its odd for people to say “how could an agency be the 'voice' of a brand?” when most brands outsource the actual voice of their brand via call centers.

  • Erik Wolf

    I agree with you — the result is the same but one example of outsourced biz relations is an accepted fact of life and the other is greeted with full-on-nose-upturned snobbery from people like me. The social stuff is still “special” I guess and there is definitely a double standard. I think you could have asked the same question and replaced the call center example with “media relations.” PR people have been putting words in corporate employees/executives' mouths for an awful long time and we take that for granted as well.

    And you are correct — I was not thinking about social support centers when I made my comment about social being almost free to maintain. But my guess is that if companies are investing full-time resources to build social support centers their hope is that doing so will ultimately reduce the expense associated with traditional call centers and streamline their support organization.

    Anyway, just my $.02… I hereby return your blog to you. Feel free to have the last word and put me in my place :)

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