Cautious Sorrell needs to factor in ‘Super Bowl, Super Social’

As a keen observer, I’ve long realised there’s a method and a rhythm to how media and marketing’s best curators communicate their ideas, just like politicians, by trialling and honing them over time.

Many of the more ‘topical’ concepts enjoy several outings, during which they can be tweaked and polished until satisfactory exposure has been achieved, or at least until the next big idea starts to take root.

The absolute master of this process, bar none, is WPP’s founder and chief Sir Martin Sorrell.

His Sage of Soho moniker belies his global reach; an oracle for the media, a spokesman for adland and representative of both British business and global entrepreneurship, Sorrell has perfected the art of the timely sound bite.

The last decade has been framed by his bath-shaped recession and LUVvy recovery, during which he’s identified frenemies, BRIC football analogies and, of course, advertising’s quadrennial highs.

One of Sorrell’s ‘big ideas’ currently doing the rounds concerns his “fundamental doubts” about the ability to monetise social media networks.

“We used to write letters to each other and now we correspond through Facebook and Twitter and other forms of communication,” he told broadcast delegates at the RTS conference last month. “If you interrupt that with a message you may run into trouble.”

Despite making the headlines, Sorrell’s latest caution over social media continues a theme he first aired more than 18 months earlier.

Speaking in Cannes last June, Sorrell drew upon Facebook’s failure in 2007 with its Beacon ad-tracking technology, initially dubbed by a bullish 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg as the “Holy Grail of advertising”, it was changed within days amid a backlash, and later closed-down altogether.

Sorrell asked: “Do you think these [social networks] are media that are not easily monetised … are these media that we should keep pure. That they are editorial media?”

Even then it seemed a surprisingly cautious stance for an adman, and certainly didn’t wash with one the world’s largest advertisers, Unilever.

Keith Weed, the conglomerate’s chief marketing officer, replied that he believed social networking was more like the equivalent of a conversation in a bar than letter writing, and referred to it as “word of mouth on steroids”, which in time, “will and must” find ways to monetise its offerings.

Weed, the man behind the marketing in the world’s second largest consumer goods company, went on to predict that far from polluting social media, brands would become “very much alive on Facebook”.

Fast forward to the present day, and Facebook is reported to have more than doubled its revenues to $1.6bn in the first six months of 2011 driven by advertising, and major brands like British Airways are eschewing traditional media to use the site.

So last month’s RTS conference was a surprising time for Sorrell to reignite the social debate, made even more surprising when you consider who he was talking to.

No other major media has benefited more from the rise of social media, and with it the ability to share content and real-time comment, than television.

As Mindshare’s Paul Rowlinson told me at the start of the year: “Social networking and the internet is absolutely fuelling live viewing, it is no longer possible for some viewers to watch programmes later the next day and not feel like they’ve missed out on an experience.”

Which leads on to one more significant development, in terms of social media in the marketing mix, that has occurred since Sorrell first aired his doubts: Yeo Valley’s success with rapping farmers.

The campaign for the organic dairy company was designed to harness the power of event TV and social media from the outset. Shot on location at a Yeo Valley farm in Somerset, the ad which aired during the final of ITV’s X Factor, became a social media phenomenon.

The brand’s use of blogging, YouTube, Twitter, gaming and Facebook has dramatically changed the fortunes of the family-run business.

It may not have come via display ads, but with more than 500,000 new households being introduced to the brand, and a 15% sales lift in the first few months, it’s a compelling example of “monetising social media”.

Speaking at BrandMax last month, BBH’s Mel Exon described the campaign’s strategy as “Super Bowl, super social”. Four simple words that are loaded with meaning, and place social networks dead centre of the new media order.

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