Ashley Friedlein: We need to agree as an industry about the ‘death’ of digital

The ‘death’ of digital is an overblown idea that forgets we need experts in digital marketing tactics, even though they shouldn’t be separated out from the wider marketing strategy.

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Ah, the death of digital. Over two years ago, I wrote about the many ‘deaths’ of digital marketing and it felt like a tired conceit even then. But still this is a hot topic, even if it has often metastasised into full blown ‘digital transformation’.

Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson confirmed last year that the death of digital was upon us and he duly consigns digital marketing to hell in this great presentation from Marketing Week Live.

And yet. And yet.

And yet the appetite for ‘digital’ is as rampant as ever. And yet the skills and roles in most acute demand are digital. And yet digital teams appear to be growing and subsuming others, not the other way round.

The strange thing about all this is that the most sophisticated and long-in-the-tooth digital marketing types I know are the least excited by digital the name, digital the badge, digital the rallying cry as a solution to all ills. Me included. What is exciting is business models, growth, creativity, change, culture, innovation, new markets, learning, data, agility, customer experience. Yes, a lot of those things are catalysed or enabled by digital but they do not have to be digital, nor about technology.

These same digerati would rather ‘digital’ was not in their job title. They recognise that the term is somewhat meaningless, encourages silo-thinking and actually limits their own career progression. They also increasingly find themselves in the strange position of advising internally against over-zealous digitalness.

One senior digital executive at a global fashion brand I spoke with recently lamented of his employers: “They have decided to put all their marketing spend into digital. They want to spend all the launch budget on a [nameless social media platform] campaign. Are they mad? How can I tell them to stop doing this crazy digital stuff that I know won’t work, when I’m the digital guy?”

So where does this leave us?

I have suggestions and would love your feedback and comments to see if we can agree on some things, as marketers, as an industry, so we do not need continued existential anguish around whether digital is dead.

Things I hope we can agree on:

  • Digital marketing is tactical, not strategic. Digital marketing should play its part in supporting the marketing strategy, which in turn supports the business strategy.
  • Digital marketing is a subset of marketing. It is ‘just marketing’ but there are a number of specific disciplines (such as email marketing, search engine marketing, social media, digital analytics, optimisation, etc) that can legitimately be described as ‘digital marketing’.
  • These disciplines will not die. Indeed, many will grow and new ones will emerge. Specialists in digital marketing will continue to be in demand, as well as marketing generalists.
  • To be a C-suite marketer it is not acceptable to be only ‘digital’ or only ‘traditional’. You must be customer-centric and media neutral (aka ‘multichannel’).

A question I am still pondering is whether marketing itself, as a function, has changed. I believe it has. Specifically in a widened remit that encompasses ownership of the customer experience and thereby the product or service itself in some cases. This is especially evident in the product marketing role common in tech businesses. There is also much more content creation involved in marketing than before and more requirement for alignment with sales.

After 20 or so years, it feels as though we have reached the end of the beginning for digital. But is this also the beginning of the end? Yes and no. Strategically, yes; tactically, no.

And let us not underestimate the value of tactics. Tactics are about execution. Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu supposedly said: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” We need the right marketing strategy to win, but we may well need digital marketing to get us to victory quicker.

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