If The Population’s demise means big social media agencies don’t work, there may still be room for small ones

Before anyone starts dancing on the grave of social media agencies too vigorously, I’m not sure The Population’s demise (sorry, merger) necessarily spells the end of the social media agency concept.  

But it does demonstrate that not every model works.

For starters, The Population always had a relatively big cost base. Eight staff including boss Tony Thomas who’d come from a couple of big marketing director roles, was never going to be cheap.

I’d imagine that outgoings over The Population’s 15 months would certainly have been more than half a million bucks, and possibly a bit more again.

But I suspect that this is a specialty that demands that everyone gets their hands dirty. I never felt that Tony Thomas was particularly active on the social media scene.

His blog hasn’t been updated since June, while he hasn’t been on Twitter for more than a month, and only ever tweeted about 100 times in total. It doesn’t smack of someone who was leading the social media charge from the front. In other agency structures that may not matter – the MD brings other skills.

And with the sort of head count it was carrying, The Population was going to need to pick up a lot of projects just to break even.

However, its launch – which was prominent in the AFR at the time – probably did Photon’s image no harm at a time when it needed it. Its failure will have a far lower profile with Photon’s investors, I’m sure.

So what is the model? Something far more lower cost, I reckon. A small head count, with everyone working directly on clients.

With clients sceptical about signing up for recurring cost, the model may well be about helping marketing teams get set up to maintain their own social media profiles, and perhaps occasional involvement in campaigns.

But the retreat to a tie-in with C4 does make sense for The Population’s corpse. There are some elements of social media campaigns that need easy access to traditional production facilities.

For instance, there’s no way that One Green Bean’s social media campaigns like American Werewolf In A Yaris or iSpyLevis would have been as successful without having the solid in-house facilities of sister agency Host to call on.

But I’m not sure though that digital agencies (or PR agencies) simply hiring a social media person is the answer. For social media campaigns to work they need to be front and centre of an agency or team’s thinking and culture.

I reckon the next successful  social media agency will be small, and attached to a traditional, PR or digital agency. Or at the very least have easy call on a collective of supporting disciplines.

For now the big social media start-up has lost credibility – at least until marketing budgets have shifted. But there are other social media agency models which will work, I’m sure.

The time for the big Australian social media agency will come, but as the Population has proved, the moment is not yet.

Tim Burrowes


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