Digital Communications: More response-ability

Digital has taken centre stage in communications, and consumers are rejecting the traditional ‘being sold to’ messages. So how should brands respond to this major behavioural and technological shift, and how do digital agencies fit in? asks Alan Rutherford

Alan Rutherford
Digitas Chief executive officer 

2007 Chief executive officer, Digitas
2004 Nominated one of the ten most influential people in media
1998 Vice-president of global media, Unilever
1987 Director, Ogilvy & Mather Europe

In a world where consumers are in control, where customer habits are changing, where they’re blocking ad messages, scheduling content for themselves and even creating it, it’s imperative that brands align their model of communication to keep up. But what should brands be doing to respond to this? 

Digital is playing a dominant role in consumers’ lives. You only have to look at the incredible growth of sites such as Facebook and YouTube to see that’s true. But more interestingly, these sites have grown and developed because they satisfy a consumer need. The consumer is the one in control – and if we fail to follow them, we fail, full stop.

A behavioural revolution
Media consumption habits are changing – people only pay attention to what interests and engages them. And crucially, the way consumers absorb brand messages and interact with brands has changed. Key cultural trends have emerged. Online content sharing (on sites such as Flickr and Facebook) has led to an aggregation of communities – a mass communication channel that’s capable of “entertaining”.

Yet digital doesn’t just reside in the online space of course – it affects all content, from radio, television and mobiles to music, outdoor and in store. It hasn’t escaped the notice of more traditional companies either. News Corporation paid half a billion dollars for MySpace, announcing that it can now tailor messages to the personal information its active users leave on their profile pages. Even the traditional dinosaur of ITV in the UK paid over £100m for Friends Reunited.

The age of engagement
But what does this all mean? Essentially it means that brands which rely on the traditional models will fail in the long term. Marketers must change their models of brand communication. In the world of high clutter and product parity it becomes the idea, the level of engagement and loyalty that is the differentiator. John Hegarty calls it the “age of engagement”. Instead of speaking “at” the consumers, we should talk “to” them – engage them in a message they actively want to consume in a way they want to receive it, which these days generally means digitally.

Screen content and visual messages have an increasing role to play in this new screen-based world, but not in the way they used to. TV isn’t dead per se, but the old delivery and style of messaging are. As online begins to deliver video content on demand and via live streaming, it’s likely that TV’s emotional attachment will deteriorate. As users spend more time online, and blur their onand offline lives through social networking sites, they’ll spend less time with traditional media. Brands need to respond to this if they are going to survive a world of unlimited fragmentation and the demise of tightly controlled distribution channels.

Marketing 2.0
If Web 2.0 is about creating a more positive relationship between brands and consumers through participation in a connected world, then Marketing 2.0 is about creating co-operative, life-affirming marketing in a networked world of freer, but more discerning, consumers. It’s a world where time spent engaging with the brand is respected and participation is the new consumption.

But this is more than just “digital marketing”. It’s a shift in human behaviour. Marketing 2.0 strategies can be seen in several areas, both onand offline, namely through: personalisation (Nike iD), co-creation (Amazon reviews), social connections (Facebook), community and clans (Starbucks “perk up your life”), causes and values (Dove), and crowd experiences (Nike Run London). The common thread in a lot of these examples is that the business is the brand: if your brand is Google, say, it becomes enough just to act or behave like Google.

Marketing 2.0 is about big ideals; where there is a meaning and purpose to belonging to a brand. If a brand can stand for more than the function of its products (like Apple for example), it stands a greater chance of being talked about. That’s when consumers willingly become ambassadors for the brand. And with consumers increasingly connecting with each other digitally, the digital space is where brands need to join the conversation.

Flickr%20campaignBut how do we do it?
I think there are three areas that can deliver this approach. They are creatively and channel driven, and reflect a massive blurring of the lines. The development of digital and digital technology has accelerated the blur and digital can deliver all three of these areas.

The first is “pop culture” – where a brand changes how people think about certain aspects of their life. The Dove Real Beauty campaign is a prime example, but notably, it wasn’t until the launch of the viral that the impetus really started.

Another area is “entertainment” which delivers engagement, giving the consumer something they can value and share. The Vauxhall Astra Flickr campaign engaged consumers in a fun and irreverent way, re-defining Vauxhall’s middle-of-the-road brand perception. By pulling in images from Flickr in an immersive online road trip, it was branded entertainment in the true sense of the meaning, and it used Flickr to bring people together.

Finally, “social networking” enables brands to collaborate with groups of consumers who have shared identities. It’s about creating talkability – for the right reasons, of course. After all, the strongest brand message comes from a friend who recommends it.

Now, despite all this putting digital in pole position, I maintain that agencies need to deliver key services to maintain this place. They should have an inherent understanding of consumers’ media channel habits, and they must employ creative talent that harnesses digital for brand building and transactional campaigns. It’s also important that they are at the forefront of technology and not simply reacting to it. And finally, they should be working in harmony with media companies and consistently measuring their communication performance on an ongoing basis.

Ultimately the new role of the digital agency is to orchestrate the content it brings to each consumer. To successfully manage thousands of creative assets with a proactive consumer set. It’s different, exciting and challenging, but a challenge that I and Digitas are ready and well-placed to accept. 

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