Digital is dead. Long live digital.
The past two decades has seen the agency landscape change wildly. As digital channels moved from the fringe of the marketing landscape to what is now increasingly being considered truly ‘above the line’, digital agencies are taking an ever-larger slice of the global communications pie. Simply look at the rate digital-first agencies are winning Lead and Agency of Record appointments from larger and larger brands. We’ve also watched all manner of traditional agencies scramble to frantically ramp up digital capabilities, from the bread and butter areas like media production and community management to the more leading edge territories of innovation, VR and data science. This scramble is resulting in a lot shared and ultimately undifferentiated services amongst agencies in a way we’ve never seen before.
Today we find ourselves in a truly digital world filled with anyone and everyone claiming digital expertise. As a result of this global stampede, we have begun experiencing a conscious shift away from ‘digital’ as a defined capability all together. It feels that as soon as agencies of all stripes add digital to their repertoire, they also begin to disassociate themselves from the ‘digital’ idea itself.
This issue has been bubbling under for some years. Way back in 2010, Managing Director of BBH Labs Mel Exon, gave a presentation entitled ‘Digital, can we kill this word for good?’ Exon deliberated that because ‘digital underpins much of what we do, it becomes next to meaningless as a descriptor’, but she went on to question this assumption asking ‘What word would replace digital?’
More recently, Tony Quin of SoDA (Society of Digital Agencies) in his piece entitled ‘What do we say when digital has lost all meaning’, argues that the word has become obsolete because it ‘is an irrelevant word… everything is now digital, and so it’s a distinction without a difference’.
Are they right? Has digital lost all significance as it reached mainstream ubiquity? Is having digital marketing capability nothing more than a perfunctory adoption of omni-channel media delivery? Is it that easy for agencies of all stripes to simply become digital experts?
It appears that most traditional marketing and media professionals would likely confirm a yes to these questions. But it’s a point of view based on the premise that human behaviour is immune to evolutions in the media landscape; that people will inherently act in a certain way no matter how they consumer our advertising messages.
The idea that digital capability can be assimilated so easily into our marketing practice can only come directly from very old world thinking – a world in which the media landscape is static, where the mediums are rarely the message. But our story is not that simple. The mass adoption of digital media is not just shifting where and how we advertise. I propose that digital technology is not merely channeling human behavior, but is actually orchestrating and actively changing human behavior. Therefore, a sociological understanding of the media landscape is fundamental to an understanding of human insight.
As an example, in the wake of the unprecedented viral spread of the Ice Bucket Challenge, many brands and agencies undoubtedly began frantically ideating for ways to activate their own version of the phenomenon. But the phenomenon wasn’t a product of traditional human insight as the advertising world tends to practice it. It was the result and demonstration of how much media, and it’s increased participatory and connected nature, inspired human behavior at a fundamental level. Without digital media having allowed us the opportunity to act in a certain way on a daily basis, would we otherwise have behaved in that same way? If digital had not allowed us to record, share and dare each other to participate, would ‘ice-bucket challenge’ have been possible at all? And two years later, is it even possible again?
Therefore, any agency looking to create such phenomenon like the IBC are wasting their time unless they are busy mastering the nature of digital behavior and its pace of change. Media doesn’t just deliver ideas. It allows us to be a part of the idea and in today’s world, the nature of participation as well as individuals’ emotional expectations are constantly evolving and changing.
Digital not only facilitates behaviour, but it actively encourages us to act in more novel ways. Digital technology and culture fundamentally changes human behaviour as a direct consequence of the new possibilities and tools open to us. And if we accept this view, then it is fundamental that digital be embraced (not only as a facilitator but) as a fundamental force of change in our daily lives, the future and beyond. If we are able to get beyond old analogies or our analogue mindset and see the impact and evolution of digital with fresh eyes, we will find opportunity wherever we look, ultimately opening doors of creativity and impact that we never dared imagine.
If digital is the most revolutionary change agent in the history of mankind and there is not an experience in the world that won’t be transformed by digital technology. As we sit front and centre at the edge of its advance, how the hell can we possibly conclude that the word digital is obsolete? Any marketing who says so is ultimately looking to diminish its power, its necessity, and convince you their more traditional approach contains less risk. The opposite couldn’t be more true.
Digital capability is not a channel, nor is it an organisational department, a media landscape or even the formats our ideas are delivered. Quite simply, digital is a fundamental and disruptive force of change. The marketing partner that brands most need to help navigate the changing world, are the ones that understand that digital is more than an evolving channel strategy but that digital world is an omnipotent force that is profoundly affecting human behavior. And the practice of insight based idea generation must be tightly interwoven with a sociological obsession with the evolution of digital behavior.
Real digital understanding and capabilities are more valuable and relevant than ever before and will continue to be even more relevant tomorrow. And because digital technology will continue to change human behavior in an ongoing basis, the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can get on with the job of achieving the extraordinary.
This article was originally written in 2014 with the collaborative help of Raj Randhawa.