“The agency is having to adapt and evolve as quickly as social is,” said Jenna Vandenberg, executive vice president of marketing at Fifty & Five. She told us the story of how the agency grew from one guy sitting on a couch in Starbucks to a bicoastal team serving global clients. In addition, Vandenberg explained how Fifty & Five’s social media philosophy and understanding of marketing has helped it to succeed.
The Early Days
That lone man in Starbucks was Lucas Vandenberg. His previous work was in marketing for brands in the wine and spirits industry. “He saw a need at that time to be able to connect with the consumer one-on-one,” she explained. “He knew that he wanted to get involved and really be at the forefront of innovation as far as marketing was concerned.”
But it was 2009 and social media was still a fresh face on the marketing scene. When his existing clients were hesitant to dive into using the new social media tools available, he started off on the new venture of Fifty & Five.
Jenna’s background was in the advertising world. Her exposure to the power of social media came when she joined a startup focused on viral video seeding in 2008. At that time, she realized that networks such as Twitter had the potential to offer breakthroughs in how businesses and customers could interact. She later brought that interest in social to the Fifty & Five team, helping to round out the extensive professional experience that the agency offers its clients.
Honing The Focus
The world Fifty & Five served at its start had very different goals for social media than today’s brands do. “We were responsible in the early days for just creating content. Relevant, interesting, engaging content,” Vandenberg explained. “That’s still a piece of what we do today, but that’s really what 2009 was all about, putting anything and everything out there to generate loyalty and generate engagement.”
Over time, the agency has shifted to emphasize monitoring and social listening, capitalizing on the potential that both Lucas and Jenna saw in the new tools. “Today, the social listening piece is huge, and I would say that it’s way more relevant than content creation,” she said. “Getting that real-time feedback and interaction is extremely vital, especially for the larger brands.”
Another aspect that sets Fifty & Five apart from the field is a focus on building strong relationships. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on are the relationships that we’ve cultivated online,” she said. “When we compare ourselves to other agencies, I still think most are stuck in that content factory, where we’re going out of the way and we’re creating different programs or we’re bringing in a highly engaged influencer.”
On top of relationships with hip thought leaders, the agency also understands the need for connecting with the customers. In fact, Vandenberg said the individual contact sets social apart from traditional marketing tools. “When TV or radio launch, it’s blanketing, it’s casting the widest net possible,” she said. “The ability to have those one-on-one touch-points in social is huge. No traditional advertising or marketing can do that, and never will be able to do that.”
Vandenberg said working in social media involves two major challenges. The first? Constant change. Anyone who keeps tabs on social media news knows how quickly and how frequently existing networks make tweaks to their algorithms, their marketing tools, or their rules for brands.
“The client expectation is that we know it all at all times,” Vandenberg explained. “And the reality is, we may know it all at all times in January, but in March it could be a very different story.” An agency needs flexibility to react to the latest updates and keep its brands in the loop. “Social is evolving every day,” she said. “So we’re continually having to educate ourselves so that we can stay at the forefront of what’s going on, and through that we’re able to educate our clients.”
She cited continued uncertainty about the perceived value of social media as the second-biggest challenge for marketing professionals. “Skepticism has gone down, but expectations have increased,” she said. “We are the shiny new object in the room still.” While some clients will appreciate what social media brings to the table, others are a hard sell when they can’t see a visible impact on the bottom line.
Despite the many success stories of businesses with social media, there are still negative impressions of social that fold over from the early days of unqualified people claiming to know more than they did. “I think a lot of people tried to set themselves up as ‘social media experts,’” Vandenberg said. “They had a Facebook Page, they happened to be one of the first to be on Twitter, and they’re like, ‘Look at me, I’m an expert!’ And I think that really hurt the credibility of the industry as a whole.”
Vandenberg convinces the skeptics with an analogy to another once-newfangled technology. “I always say that social in 2014 is like having a website in the early 2000s,” she said. “It certainly adds credibility to the business and to what the brand is doing and the brand’s value proposition.” Thanks to delivering real value and knowledge to their clients, Fifty & Five certainly could certainly change the minds of most social media naysayers.
Part of the Marketing Whole
Clients of Fifty & Five have the benefit of many veterans’ years of experience. Not only have the Vandenbergs and the agency’s other execs been around since the beginning of social media, but they were the experts before the new tools hit the scene. “When you look at our senior leadership, we all came from a highly integrated marketing background,” she explained. “Everybody’s coming with 10 to 20 years of marketing experience.”
This knowledge means Fifty & Five can accurately differentiate itself from those wannabe experts in social. “At the end of the day, we’re all marketers who specialize in social,” Vandenberg said. “We are a piece of the greater whole.”
In addition to its vast marketing knowledge, Fifty & Five’s attitude about agency work puts the focus on people. “Our agency as a whole is in customer service,” she said. “We service our marketing clients and our brands, but we’re also the face and the voice of our clients and our brands in the social space.” Vandenberg thinks it’s important for people working in her field to remember who is on the other side of your screen. “You need to be human to be in social, and we deal in humans day in and day out,” she said. “You definitely have to be a people person and have a sense of humor to work at a social agency.”