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By now, just about everyone in the advertising and marketing world has heard about the article that Business Insider ran regarding the 45 day process that digital design and advertising firm, Huge, allegedly took to post a tweet for their client, President Cheese.

President Cheese tweet by HugeI’m not writing this to have any further discussion or enter into any debate about whether it did or whether it didn’t take 45 days to post a tweet. I’ve already had that discussion with Huge and the author of the article.

My problem with the entire imbroglio is what was revealed in the response that Huge put forth. If we are to believe Huge’s account of the article and their business model, and how well thought out everything is, then we must also believe that their response was as calculated and orchestrated as well. Therein lies the problem.

The problem isn’t unique or specific to Huge. In fact you’ll find quite a few advertising agencies manipulating social media for their brand clients. Too much of what they do is designed to mask the truth. Too much of what they do is designed to exhibit a strong degree of social legerdemain. The idea is to keep the illusion going for as long as they can.

There are two aspects to this illusion:

1. Keep the client believing that they need social media and that the consumer actually cares about the brand when in fact what the agency really cares about is cashing checks.

Case in point, the only people who gave a crap about the now infamous “45 day tweet” were other marketers. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find a ton of articles and tweets about the BI article. You’ll find that just about all are from marketing or advertising sites.

Even with all of the notoriety, the President Cheese account still only has 360 or so followers. Other than the subject tweet and some of the snarky responses that followed, the brand engagement is basically non-existent. But in order to keep the illusion going, that’s explained away by Alyssa Galella, Director of Earned Media at Huge, telling us it’s a new account.

WTF does that have to do with the price of cheese in China??? Why is that worth taking note of? If you took the account over earlier and had paid media running, would that have made a difference? I’ll save you the brain freeze. No! It wouldn’t have made any difference whatsoever.

6 months from now I’ll update this article and I guarantee that you’ll still see the same relative engagement because no one cares what a brand has to say on social media. At least not in the manner that Huge is managing this account.

The illusion is to keep the client paying the monthly check while getting them to believe that the agency is doing great work. Ms. Galella’s tweet underscores this. How else do you explain to the peeps at President Cheese that you’re doing a great job? You tell them that it’s only been a month or so, you’re not spending any money, you have strict legal requirements and it’s harder because you’re not like our other clients.

So Mr. President Cheese continues to fork over the monthly checks all the while thinking that social media takes time.

Pop Quiz: If you have something that people want and you’re creating content that audiences give a hoot about, how much time does a brand’s social media agency take to create a following that is engaging and substantive?

I’m so sick of the agency bull@#$! It makes me want to scream.

2. The second aspect of the illusion is to defend the process at all costs. Give Huge some credit. They realized that they were under attack. The problem is that their defense was riddled with more holes than (wait for it…)  a slice of Swiss cheese! They came out guns blazing with an impressive display of PR prowess…or so they thought.

It appears that their “plan” was to attack the article and it’s author. They sought to discredit the BI story as being inaccurate. They decided that they would set the record straight. However, in my opinion, where they erred was in who they chose as their intended audience. They shot all of their bullets going after marketers. Their obvious intent was to show the advertising world that they were wronged. Their approach was to rally the troops in the industry.

Think about that for a second. Actually take more than a few seconds to ponder that. Just who was Huge concerned about? Like most agencies, Huge was concerned about THEIR image. Not the client’s.

What most people overlooked was that this entire ‘thing” was of Huge’s own doing. They wanted the exposure. They allowed a writer inside access. They wanted a feature piece in a well read business publication. It was a Huge spotlight moment. It was supposed to be their turn to take the digital stage and be heralded as masters of the social domain. And then oops…someone pointed out that they were parading naked down Tweeter Avenue.

So they decided to seek refuge in the arms of familiarity. And in doing so they decided to reveal to the world that they are just doing what just about every other agency is doing. Turning social media marketing into social advertising.

Martin Harrison of Huge

Martin Harrison, Planning Director of Huge

I submit to you this from Huge London’s planning director, Martin Harrison:

“Of course it doesn’t take 45 days to write a Tweet. Our intention was to provide some insight into the process behind planning a campaign and I’d like to think that most professionals in this industry take a similar approach to their work”

There it is. Seeking safety in numbers by defending the process. Huge thinks that everyone’s doing social this way. This is how it’s done people! Nothing to see here. Just move along. Business as usual.

That’s just it Huge!! Social media done right isn’t done this way. That’s what advertising is. You’re telling us that posting a tweet is a “process”… a “campaign”…this is the problem with agencies like Huge. They don’t get it. Where’s the authenticity? What’s timely and culturally relevant about a process? How are you showing social users that President Cheese cares about what they care about?

After all, this should be about relating President Cheese to an audience right? It’s not about the “creative” that you post or the copy you generate…is it?

In that regard, I’ll offer you more executive agency speak as evidence from Harrison.

“As social has grown from a discipline emerging from the sidelines into a core pillar of the wider digital landscape, it also benefits from the increased professionalism behind the approach. People aren’t just getting into social because they used to mod a forum somewhere or lead 40-man raids in World of Warcraft. It’s moving from a big experiment to something more scientific in how we deliver value for users in social media channels. We’re approaching it the same way we approach all of our work”

What a pompous, foolish, yet revealing statement. Let’s take a closer look at what Harrison said. Just where is the “increased professionalism” he refers to?

Professionalism, in my opinion, is developed by having trained, toiled, failed, learned and grown within a focused endeavor. In order to be a professional athlete, the commitment to being the best is inherently a prerequisite. It takes years to put yourself in a position to even compete at a professional level.

How many members of the Huge social media team have that kind of measured experience? How many members of social media teams at most agencies have that level of experience? Be honest with your answers. Most social media staffers at agencies have very little experience in engaging or activating audiences.

As for looking down his nose at those people who have led raids on World of Warcraft and dismissing the level of expertise that it takes, maybe Harrison should speak to Stephen Gillett, former Starbucks CIO, who also was President of Digital and Global Business Services for Best Buy and is now Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Symantec. He’s a World of Warcraft master.

Using stereotypes to cover inadequacies doesn’t work. Except maybe to other agency types.

Note: Maybe Huge should contact the social media professionals over at World of Warcraft. They have a metric ton more followers than President Cheese and they actually have an engaged audience. They also seem to understand that social media isn’t all about commercial messaging.

Now let’s look at the value that Harrison refers to. Sorry, I can’t proffer any evidence of value. It’s one of those vapid buzzwords that agency types throw around. It’s a word that is found in decks and articles wherein the agency or interviewee self-declares the merits of their efforts.

Here’s a hint to Harrison and other agency execs. Value, like beauty, is in they eye of the beholder. The audience defines value. The audience defines what matters. You don’t. That’s what many in the agency world don’t understand. They no longer control the message and they certainly don’t have the ability to tell us what’s valuable anymore.

Check the stats Harrison. Your team isn’t providing any real value to President Cheese’s audience. You’re posting messaging that no one cares about. You’re posting brand fodder that will never scale. The reality of all of this is that it doesn’t matter if it took Huge 45 days or 45 minutes to develop, create and post that tweet. What matters is that most agencies are using social media platforms to push out commercials disguised as content.

No one cares. But…you already know this.

“The truth is consumers care very little about brands and spend little effort thinking about them. There is no preference, no rational decision making, no love.”

Interesting. I wonder if that tidbit is included in the Huge presentation deck.

There are advertising agencies who have pocketed their fortunes on creating jingles and ads designed to interrupt us. They’re now using the same tactics on social media. Please understand. This article isn’t an indictment of Huge. As Harrison said, there are many agencies who are doing the same thing.

I don’t fault Huge for defending themselves. I actually want to thank them for showing us all that social media, as managed by some agencies, is just a shell game.

A game wherein they put inexperienced staffers who are directed by inexperienced leaders to simply use social platforms as distribution networks for commercial messaging.

A game that they’re playing at the expense of a brand client too blind to see beyond the illusion.

When agency execs like Harrison tell the world that they have creative people and copywriters concocting “content” for social staffers to post, based upon a month long editorial calendar, they’re describing advertising. They’re not involved in social media marketing that scales or provides any compelling value whatsoever.

Harrison himself clearly understands that no one really cares what brands have to say. Seriously. He says so right here:

Yet Huge, like many agencies, still insists on pushing out pablum on Twitter that their execs already know no one cares about. If you don’t believe me, or Harrison himself, you can simply see for yourself. If brand clients and marketers are really honest in their data analysis, they can clearly see that this approach has no value:

…furthermore it’s like playing a movie to an empty theater…

note: the bitly link has had 10 total clicks!

…but as long as the client sees their name on the marquee and doesn’t look inside, it’s okay to pump out valueless content:

note: wow…this bitly link had a whopping 47 clicks!

Wait…I’m sorry. I forgot. You’ve only had the account for a month. Surely things will change in the coming months. You’ll have thousands of engaged users interacting with this “content”…right?

It’s absolutely mind boggling to see what some agencies seem to think social media is about. As I said above. I really don’t blame Huge for defending their attempt to leverage Business Insider for some press coverage and potential new business. And I certainly don’t blame them for trying to co-opt the conversation after the article hit.

I do however blame them for being yet another agency managing social media that is merely advertising. I understand that the real objective is about creating billable work and making the client think that what they do actually matters when they know full well that it doesn’t. This malaise is systemic. Huge isn’t alone in this regard. It’s the advertising agency version of Three-card Monte.

As marketers, we have a great opportunity to utilize social media for truly meaningful interaction with audiences. Yet time and time again, on brand after brand profile, we’re seeing agencies giving us a head fake of epic proportions.

They’re not managing social media. They’re trying to preserve the status quo. As long as there are brand managers and CMOs out there that lack the ability and willingness to see what’s really going on, the game will continue.

Why? Because as the song says, we must “remember that it’s a grand illusion!”

David Copperfield couldn’t do it any better.

Barry Cunningham

Author Barry Cunningham

Barry Cunningham is an antagonist of conventional wisdom. Check out our case studies. They will give you an idea how we help brands & businesses amplify their conversion and lead gen campaigns by deploying digital advertising campaigns at scale. And I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter.

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