In Econsultancy's newly released Top 100 Digital Agencies report, Social Chain CEO Steve Bartlett has been voted by his peers as the most influential agency figure in 2017.

I caught up with Steve to find out what makes him and his agency tick.

A social media hot house

If you're not familiar with Social Chain, it's a company that is part marketing agency and part media house. The agency started by finding the people behind several highly popular social media accounts and communities, and bringing them on board to create work for clients.

Social Chain continues to acquire and build its own communities, which become an asset in their own right, as well as a means by which to boost client campaigns where appropriate.

steve bartlett

"You've got the marketing agency that works with the biggest brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Apple etc.), then Media Chain is the big media owner, which owns these large social media communities," says Bartlett.

This idea stems from Bartlett's perception of the importance of social media and its relative under-appreciation in the media world.

"Our play," he says, "is we’ve seen how comms have changed, from print to radio to TV to internet, and now we’ve got social media. In all of those key moments, some of the most influential companies in the world have emerged and become media houses to represent that media – in print there's Condé Nast, in radio there's Global, in TV there's Viacom, then in the social media world who owns the voice of a generation and also the voice of influence? We are endeavouring to be the modern day media house."

The company has millions of followers of communities across sectors such as food, gaming, student life, arts and crafts, and travel. Momentum is particularly important in social media, with Bartlett saying "Once you’ve got a pretty big base, you can share new communities on to your existing ones very quickly in that way."

Bartlett creates the intriguing impression of a hot house for social media - "At all times, our media teams will go and have fun, try and create communities around the things they love. Some of them will work, some of them won’t."

Nice people and education

On the surface Social Chain seems to display many of the tropes of the agency world – crazy offices, a very young workforce and a Director of Happiness. But speaking to Bartlett, you can sense his passion for creating surroundings conducive to success. He says the agency prioritises finding applicants who are "fundamentally a nice person", adding that "nice people create nice places to work."

"If people love working here," he continues, "they’ll do a lot to protect it, which means they’ll take care of the clients," It could sound trite, but it doesn't. Bartlett speaks quickly and clearly and you can tell he believes in what he says.

He does add a note of realism, however, saying "no place is right for everybody, but nor should it be. When I started out I was under the impression we could create a place right for everybody, but it’s not possible because everybody is looking for a different environment. We created an environment that we believe in, that is passionate, a nice place to be, accommodating, flexible, caring."

social chain offices

Bartlett also acknowledges that "with young people it’s especially hard to retain them, there are so many options, and less patience than previous generations." 

The average age at Social Chain has been reported as 21, and is partly due to the fact that many first hires were those people already running their own big social communities, and as such tended to be pretty young. Most of the staff are self-taught, out of necessity.

I asked Bartlett about education, and if marketing degrees teach the right skills. "In terms of how marketing is taught," he said, "I wouldn’t know [what’s missing], because I never studied it. In terms of school in general, I don’t believe schools are doing a lot to teach people about social media and social media marketing, and all the opportunities that exist on social media."

He returns to the theme of social media being under-appreciated and misunderstood: "I don’t think they tell people that you can have a very, very profitable career and earn more than a doctor or a lawyer just by running a Twitter account, or a Facebook page, or a YouTube channel. I think there’s a new digital world being created….and in career guidance, there’s a whole generation of people who aren’t taking social media as a serious thing, whereas other forms of media – print, TV – are all taken much more seriously."

It's easy to see how Bartlett spotted the niche that Social Chain has filled – he saw social media as something incredibly powerful but undervalued by many. 

When I ask him about skills, Bartlett says that "especially within social media content production, people aren’t teaching you how to do it, and it’s changed since six months ago. How you get a piece of content to go viral on Facebook is different to six or 12 months ago, and completely different to three years ago."

He says that knowing what works comes with “experience and trying and failing,” and that no book can be published on the topic, as by the time it is printed it will have expired.

Ever-changing algorithms

Talking about an "ever-changing landscape" is one of the big cliches of digital marketing, and something which many people trot out, but few can successfully navigate. I picked Bartlett up on the the aforementioned dynamic nature of viral success on Facebook, and asked him to elaborate on how Social Chain deals with that aspect of social media. His answer struck me as an eloquent summation of an alogrithmically driven industry, with echoes of the old SEO race.

"Social Chain’s job", Bartlett says, "is to be unromantic about what we’re doing because if we become romantic about it, and attached to a certain way of doing things, we’ll become irrelevant and ineffective."

"At all times, all of the platforms are changing," he continues. "Part of our philosophy, our culture and even our mission statement is that we work in an ever-changing landscape. We even have an award for the ever-changing landscape every Friday, which goes to the person who contributed most to our company forum about the things that have changed in Facebook, Instagram, and the land that we operate in. There’s a bronze, silver, and gold award, given with a bottle of champagne."

Bartlett gives an example of what he's talking about:

"In terms of the changes, some of them are surface level but some of them are deep. For example, livestreaming was reaching tremendous amounts of people because it was Facebook’s new feature at the top of the year, so they were rewarding anyone that used it with increased reach, which meant that us as publishers and creators, we’d double down on it and start using the feature and producing more content. When we analyse the timeline, the 30-day snapshot of what’s in the timeline, you can see 40% of that content is what Facebook are pushing, 20% is maybe video, 20% is maybe picture, then 10% is text. 

"So, it makes the whole ecosystem of creators and publishers follow whatever Facebook are giving reach on, and then six months ago they decided enough people were creating live content now and they brought down the reach. And then you have to go in search of what’s working now."

facebook live

Bartlett paints a picture of an arms race between content creators and social media platforms. "They’ll make algorithmic changes," he says, "when people get smart and start gaming Facebook, they will catch up and stop it. A good example – video has been performing much better than static images, so what people were doing is taking a static image and making it a 30-second video, so it would game Facebook’s algorithm, then Facebook caught up with that and released a statement saying anybody who does that will be penalised."

The ROI chestnut

As Bartlett seems so rooted in the algorithmic realities of doing well on social, I wanted to ask him about the old ROI chestnut and how the company reports on its success to clients. He told me there are a number of levels to how they gauge success. 

"Metrics vary," he says. "Our metric is we want to have a transformative impact on that brand. We want to move the needle, we’re not interested in impressions and Likes or more superficial, vanity metrics, as much as people report on these sort of things. We care about moving that brand forward, whether that’s in the digital realm or the bottom line."

As to how that is achieved, Bartlett tells me they report on KPIs such as video views, watch time and shares. "We also go a bit deeper," he adds, "we track emotional impact – we can tell you for a piece of content we ran for a brand, the emotional impact it has had by monitoring user reactions, which we can gauge with some of our tools such as Crimson Hexagon."

The next level down from emotion is action. "Our belief is if we can get someone truly inspired, emotion is the bit that happens right before taking an action," says Bartlett.

He continues, "If you have mass emotional appeal, you should have mass action. Then that action piece is down to what the brand wants to achieve – it could be more people buying dresses, it could be more people contributing to a good cause or a viral trend by posting a selfie with no make up on."

Finally, Bartlett says that "Longer term, we’ll take a bird’s eye view on the impact the work had on the wider world and the brand’s perception in the world."

The future of social

I took the opportunity to get Bartlett to do some future-gazing and he admitted there are two things he is excited about. The first, he says, "is the development of virtual reality into hardware that can be worn without notice."

Talking about contact lenses already being augmented with microchips (to track blood sugar levels), Bartlett says that "theoretically...I could put on two contact lenses that you could not see, and I could take myself to India, walk around, whilst sat in my boxers at home."

He fleshes out what this might mean for media: "That also changes how social media links to the world, because then real social media becomes almost tangible, where friends instead of logging on to Facebook, we can all go down to a virtual pub in New York, just being sat at home in London, and we can all go to a concert together and experience real-world experiences together in a new social world.

"I’m really interested to see what this new social world looks like – metrics on traditional social platforms are “okay I Like something” but in a virtual social reality, you can go much deeper than that."

Going one step further, Bartlett picks up on the theme of Elon Musk's neural lace: "I completely think people will get to the point where they want to put microchips in their brain...in the much nearer future than people imagine."

"If we are able to link a chip to our brain, the world changes. Memory changes, experience changes. Education will have to change...Social media will become redundant – I don’t need a computer, I will be a computer."

Perhaps Bartlett's willingness to embrace the idea of the future is what makes him so clear-headed about what is happening in media today. Certainly his approach to social media has shaken things up already with Social Chain enjoying a rapid rise.

Make sure you download this year's Top 100 Digital Agencies report, to see who else made it on to our shortlist of influential agency figures.

Ben Davis

Published 2 October, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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