Social media hasn't set the ad industry back, nor is it a poor misguided cast-off. Brands that get it right, benefit from campaigns with greater reach, engagement and creativity

By Ed Kitchingman, MEC

Ian Leslie wrote a much-praised piece last year in the Financial Times on How the Mad Men lost the plot. The article critiqued the ad industry and its previous obsession with digital. It's a good read and makes some great points.

His railing against digital and focus on social as purely an engagement platform, is, however, misleading. It's a look at the 80s-90s, when we made famous stuff, and we made stuff famous that doesn't reflect the fragmented media landscape we live in now and a critique of engagement that by extension makes social seem like a facile, meaningless entity of the marketing mix; a weird experiment (the much-cited Pepsi case is used) that hasn't paid off: "After 10 or 15 years of f***ing around with digital we've realised that people don't want to 'engage' with brands, because they don't care about them."

Leslie might be right about engagement – although others might argue that, given the right strategy and content, people will be engaged (I realise this might leave some people rolling their eyes) – and makes good points on the actual value of engagement (although there's nothing wrong with a brand wanting to engage with their passionate consumers). But what Leslie ignores in the piece is the reach social can provide a brand and, in doing so, he leaves readers wondering why any ad agency, or brand in their right mind would bother with social when it has, in his view, set the industry back and would send any self-respecting adman running for the hills.

  • Reach: It's strange, then, that John Lewis, one of the brands praised in the piece, has not only increased its spend on social this year for its Christmas campaign, but also chose social media, not TV, to launch its Christmas ad.

    Why? Well, in the UK 32.9m people have a Facebook account, 21.5m are on YouTube, 17.1m have Twitter, 10.2m use Instagram – that's an awful lot of people – and here's the value of social, using its ubiquity like John Lewis to reach the masses.

    Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have only made it more appealing for brands to put budget there because of how these platforms have evolved with video and the role they play in helping people discover an ad. Then there are the developments these networks are making with 360 videos, exciting for creativity and, on the commerce side, introducing shoppable videos.

  • Mutually beneficial: Too often, social and above-the-line campaigns are thought of as contrasting entities, not mutually beneficial partners. John Lewis' increased investment in social is a nod towards the benefits of an integrated campaign, where TV and social are mutual bedfellows in extending reach and campaign awareness.

    It makes sense. From a study that looked at 15 TV, film and console gaming campaigns that ran in the US across TV and Facebook, Nielsen found that Facebook, on average, resulted in a 20.3% audience reach incremental to TV – (10 million incremental people) and delivered higher campaign efficiency. Ofcom has talked about the 'generation gap' of younger people switching off TV and radio in favour of Facebook and online entertainment; Facebook is reaching these so-called 'light' viewers, the 26-34 year-olds, who are hard to reach via TV alone.

    It's an acknowledgement that we're living in a mobile age, an era where as broad an age range as 16-44 year olds would miss their phones more than their TV set (Ofcom).

  • Rewards creativity: What all this means is that ads now have the chance to be discovered, viewed and shared more than ever before because of social. A video such as Dove's Real Beauty Sketches, a premise to get more women confident about their looks, can be uploaded in 25 languages to 46 Dove YouTube channels and achieve 163m views globally. The campaign won 19 awards at Cannes Lions, renewed brand meaning and sparked value growth in Dove's biggest categories. An example of brand advertising at its best but channelled via social, not TV.

    Dove shows that for every 'retweet to win' tweet, hit like Facebook post, or Twitter brand 'banter' that we see, and curse under our breath, there are also brands who understand the power of social and are prepared to invest and do rich creative content that can only help boost brand appeal.

    It's another reason why the advertising industry shouldn't view social as some poor misguided cast-off that's intent on spreading the gospel of engagement, but think about the reach their campaigns can have and treat it as a serious creative platform to utilise. Ignoring social is akin to closing your eyes and sticking your fingers in your ears, while the world changes around you.