4 Challenges Agencies Face with Social – And How to Move Past Them

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By Tom Titulaer, Creative Director at MediaMonks Films & Content

TikTok released in September 2016. In the grand scheme of things that might seem like a short time ago, but in advertising, it’s an eternity. Instagram (2010) and Facebook (2004) have been around far longer. For the advertising industry, these platforms are immensely important because 1) it’s where the user is, and 2) they offer far more targeting possibilities than television commercials. Yet for some reason, traditional creative agencies refuse to adapt, acknowledge or embrace the platforms where the target audiences live.

To me, this is mind-boggling. Not only is a television commercial untargeted, and thus like hunting for rabbits with a shotgun while blindfolded, but it’s also extremely costly to produce and air. So why do campaigns hardly ever focus on social media first? Why is the television commercial the hero product and the “social cutdowns” merely byproducts? Here’s why (I think):

Finances and the traditional agency model

The first one is easy: money. Coming up with an idea takes seconds, not months. And while I agree that ideas need to be fleshed out and improved, what usually happens is that they become watered down, restricted and less fun. If an agency makes money through hourly wages, they must use many people for the task and a long time to do it. I’ve seen too many presentations of 100+ pages whereas an idea for social can easily be condensed into two. But two pages doesn’t take a long time to write now, does it? Sidenote: coincidentally, media budgets for social vs traditional are also way out of proportion, but that’s a whole different story.


Which brings us to the second reason, and that’s relevance. Social media is extremely time-sensitive, and as I’ve just mentioned, traditional agencies are slow. This creates a clash: the agency wants to take its sweet time while the user keeps going. I’ve seen this happen countless times where I receive the first version of a concept, a month later version two hits my inbox and another month later the final version is finished. By which time the idea (that was supposed to be extremely relevant) is now completely outdated. Sidenote: it’s not like there are no tried and trusted methods to create concepts within a shorter period

Throw-away content

In any normal circumstance, a creative team of two (copywriter and art director) will work for an agency for about two years and move on. In that period, the creatives have to make their mark because you’re only as good as your last job. Social media is based around the idea of ‘snackability’. It consists of throw-away content that, once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. On social media, the user makes the rules, not the brand. Side note: This is also why brands can’t keep regurgitating cutdowns and adaptations of their hero content and expect the user to be okay with that. 

A creative agency and its creative teams want to make hero pieces that will blow the viewers away. For their reels but also for their ego. When you’ve spent the last ten years studying and working your way up the ladder, there is no pride in making one-off social posts. The imbalance between what looks good on a reel versus what is culturally impactful forms a direct clash with brands who are, especially since the pandemic, looking for scrappier creative content that fits social channels instead of something super produced.

Right after the pandemic struck our fearless leader Wesley ter Haar said “We’re seeing you can do things without the elaborate components, or travel, craft services; it’s all a bit scrappier…” while discussing how production challenges offered an opportunity to try a new aesthetic (check out the full piece here: APR Virtual Town Square).


Which brings me to a big one: disconnect. If you’re reading this you’re probably a gen X or Y, like myself. We grew up with cinema: horizontal hero content for big screens and big attention spans. I’m sure you’ve looked at – at least – one new social media platform and thought “what the heck is going on here?”. This is also true for the average creative. One might disagree but creativity is never objective, and you can throw all the research and insights into a brainstorm session, the outcome will still probably be something that the creative likes.

The Forrester report “It’s OK To Break Up With Social Media” by Jessica Liu notes that “68% percent of US online adults don’t think brands or companies share interesting content on social media, indicating that brands have no sense of purpose on social networks or of how to cater to the audiences they’re trying to woo.” This relevance becomes more important with the increasing importance of organic and user-generated content.

Thus, there is a disconnect between the end-user and the creative: the pubescent TikTok addict from rural Portugal who is being swayed into buying a pack of ChewChew bubblegum by the two agency yups from Venice, LA strutting Abbot Kinney drinking their Soy Latte Macchiatos.

Is there a way out?

The answer is yes! To be successful on social media, brands should listen to the audience and authentically show up in their communities. Audiences want to be surprised by interesting and relevant content that is to the point (and not just another sales pitch). To reach this goal, the story should have priority. This doesn’t always have the desired effect and results in the form of that cinematic tv ad your creatives were after. But, if we focus less on creating a cinematic piece of art we free ourselves up to shorter timelines, lower budgets and higher engagement. For brands to create authentic and engaging content they need to involve the audience, be it by knowing what content they want to see, or even having the audience create the content themselves, unlocking an endless realm of possibilities.

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