Social media may be the biggest agency land grab ever. Interactive agencies, PR agencies, creative agencies, media agencies, direct agencies, and even specialty search, mobile, and obviously social are getting into the game. Of course this is driven by client demand.  The massive adoption of social technologies has driven many marketers to rethink their approach while moving at least experimental dollars and resources toward social media. And given how fast things move today, they often look to their agency partners for advice, education, and execution. Over the past year we’ve had a lot of questions from marketers seeking a “social media agency of record” to manage all social media marketing activity. My response to this has been straightforward: Don’t do it.

It’s not that we don’t believe that agencies can help with social media, they absolutely can and do. And it definitely makes sense to bring in outside partners to help with advice and education (full disclosure: We at Forrester do a lot of consulting on this subject).  Yet there’s an inherent challenge with the approach of having one social media agency of record and that’s the fact that social media is not a vertical channel. It’s a horizontal set of technologies that enable sharing across individuals and brands. That means social media can and should be incorporated across virtually all marketing activities. It can be incorporated into your Web site. It can be used to help improve organic search results. It can be leveraged in market research. And it can be used in a slew of other areas such as product development, advertising, public relationship, CRM, etc.  So the question becomes: How can one agency truly be an expert in incorporating social media into all of these channels? The answer is they can’t. Let’s face it, the agencies that claim to be experts in social media tend to be experts in their area of expertise. For instance, PR agencies are typically best at influencer marketing, interactive agencies are best at building communities and platforms, and traditional agencies are best at creating viral content (see Old Spice). Certainly these agencies can talk about other parts of marketing. Are there a handful of exceptions to this? Certainly there are. Some agencies have successfully added new areas of expertise outside of their original discipline, and a few more have even added a wide range of social-specific skills. But those are few and far between.

So if you shouldn’t go get a social media agency of record, what should you do? First, if you still need help with strategy and education, go ahead and find the best agencies or consultants.  The reality is that strategy and education can come from a wide array of partners, so be open to looking across different types of agencies. Interactive marketers are often the leaders of social media strategies, and in that role you may need help. But at the end of the day, you need to own that strategy and you need to determine the importance of social media across your interactive marketing. So as you get into the execution, work with your colleagues across marketing to make sure that all of your current agencies have a plan to incorporate social media into the work they’re doing (or a good reason not to be).