Agencies shoot down Sorrell's take on Twitter

WPP Group chief executive Martin Sorrell's belief that Twitter is more a PR medium for brands, rather than an advertising opportunity, has been widely shot down by rival agencies and social media practitioners.

WPP Group chief executive Martin Sorrell's belief that Twitter is more a PR medium for brands, rather than an advertising opportunity, has been widely shot down by rival agencies and social media practitioners.

The 68-year-old adland leader told the Harvard Business Review that he views Jack Dorsey's microblogging site as “a PR medium.” Highlighting Twitter's 140-character limit, he added: “I think, because it's limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.”

But as our analysis in this week's Campaign highlights, Sorrell's outspoken view holds little traction with many agencies.

Havas Media's Amy Keen believes the lines between PR, advertising, and even customer services were blurred a long time ago in digital. She adds: “Anyone worried about the ‘lack of characters' on Twitter clearly never saw the ‘hello boys' Wonderbra campaigns of the 90s.”

PHD's Nathalie Coulibeuf noted how the best campaigns are now integrated anyway, while We Are Social's David Gilbert, notes “advertising success on Twitter can be achieved with a carefully thought-out strategy and tight targeting.” He adds: “As marketers, it is our responsibility to adapt our strategies according to the platforms and technologies available.”

Jam's Wayne Deakin was less diplomatic and simply accused Sorrell of “old-fashioned, atomized thinking.” He says: “Consumers – and marketers – don't care how it's defined. They don't pay more attention because they think it's advertising as opposed to something else. It's about engaging with people creatively.”

The whole debate about the potential commercialization of Twitter takes me back to sunnier times, during the Cannes Advertising Festival 2010, and a lively debate between Sorrell and Unilever's global CMO, Keith Weed.

Talking about the ability of marketers to harness social media through ads, with particular reference to Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg had talked on stage earlier that week, the WPP boss said: “It strikes me that social media is the modern form of letter writing in many cases. What we do is communicate with one another and express our preferences, likes, and dislikes. It's basically an editorial thing.”

He went on to highlight Facebook's problems in monetizing the site. “When you try and monetize it, and they tried for example in the Beacon context and one or two other contexts,” he said. “They've fallen foul of even their most loyal users and have changed their approach within 24 hours, 48 hours.”

However, Weed, WPP's biggest global client, fundamentally disagreed and did the best job I've seen by anyone of telling the Sage of Soho he was wrong. He took Sorrell's analogy on the hoof and ran with it. Social media was not the new form of letter writing, he said, but rather more like the modern day equivalent of a pub or bar chat, creating a buzz in much the same way.

Weed dubbed it “word of mouth on steroids” and said that social networking sites “will and they must” find ways to monetize their offerings.

Fast forward nearly three years, and the social media space has become increasingly sophisticated, but as debates about the ability to commercialize it rage on, it's perhaps worth remembering Facebook generated more than $5 billion in advertising revenues alone last year.

This blog post originally appeared on The Wall, the sister outlet of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.

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