Ten years ago, almost to the day, an old professorial friend from America asked me if I could teach the marketing core course on the MBA programme at MIT. The offer stopped me in my tracks. The Sloan School of Management is one of the great business schools and its MBA course is legendary.
Long before I knew what I would be paid or when they needed me I had already mentally packed my bags and was half way to Boston.
The next two years were among the most enjoyable of my life. MIT was just as good as its reputation promised and to be at such an amazing school with so many astonishing thinkers inspired me in ways I could never have predicted. America invented business schools and while, like burgers, baseball, or a tightly wound Old Fashioned, you can experience one outside the USA, it’s simply not the same thing.
I still follow MIT today, and in the spring edition of its academic journal, the Sloan Management Review, there is a really rather splendid essay by George Westerman, a research scientist at MIT, who has published several weighty tomes on technology and digital and its impact on business. His new paper, entitled ‘Your Company Does Not Need A Digital Strategy‘ is just about the best thing I have read all year.
His point is as simple as it is profound. Westerman notes that “as sexy as it is to speculate about new technologies such AI, robots, and the internet of things, the focus on technology can steer the conversation in a dangerous direction”. That direction is one in which the technology itself becomes the focus and not the broader implications of what the technology does to the existing corporate approach.
The dreaded D word anchors you in a tactical ghetto for the rest of your career.
“In a digital world,” Westerman concludes, “a strategic focus on digital sends the wrong message. Creating a digital strategy can focus the organisation in ways that don’t capture the true value of digital transformation. You don’t need a digital strategy. You need a better strategy, enabled by digital.”
His words contradict the army of digital marketers that continue to plough their furrow with the dreary D word limiting their potential and progress. They also jar with the senior managers who jumped on the digital bandwagon and are reeling in six and seven figure salaries as the head of digital something.
If Westerman is right, and I believe he is, then the whole focus on digital stuff will soon fade away as the new normal takes hold and we return to a focus on just strategy and just marketing – minus the silly and unnecessary digital appendage.
That prediction aligns with many of the smarter marketers who are not afraid to stick their heads above the corporate battlements and point out that this inane focus on “digital marketing” not only smacks of tactical thinking, it’s also increasingly outdated.
L’Oréal CMO Stéphane Bérubé is the perhaps the most notable marketer to go public within the pages of Marketing Week. Who can forget his fabulous interview last year where proclaimed “we need to stop talking about digital – it’s all part of marketing”.
There is increasing evidence that Bérubé is at the vanguard of a shift towards common sense and a more nuanced view of marketing.
As another example, after an astonishing rise in popularity, Google Trends now shows a drop in interest in digital marketing for the first time in this country. If Google is to be believed we reached “peak-digital” at the end of 2017 and it’s been declining ever since. A trend that is also born out in American data too.
There are, lest we forget, three very good reasons why the term digital marketing should and eventually will disappear up its own ISDN slot.
Everything is digital
The whole notion of using the prefix ‘digital’ is entirely nonsensical if you stop and think about it for more than about thirty seconds. When I get to my class on marketing communications I always begin by asking my students to give me the names of non-digital tools to help frame the difference. And as they volunteer the usual suspects I let the mental marketing samurai that lurks within loose for a few violent seconds and cut their suggestions to tatters.
“Newspapers” some poor bastard in the front row ventures and I pounce! More than a third of the circulation revenues for The New York Times and almost half of its advertising income now derive from its digital editions.
The newspaper’s digital paywall business is growing as fast as Facebook and faster than Google. Sounds pretty digital to me.
“Outdoor” another hopeless lemming shouts out. Over half of all British outdoor advertising is now digital making out of home literally more digital than traditional.
So is radio, which, as of Q1 this year, saw digital platforms deliver more listened minutes than traditional broadcast in this country for the first time. TV broadcasts have been 100% digital since 2012.
Nicholas Negroponte, another MIT all-star, predicted all this 20 years ago. “Like air and drinking water,” he told a sceptical Wired magazine in 1998, “being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence”.
It was the late great Douglas Adams who described Negroponte as someone who “writes about the future with the authority of someone who has spent a great deal of time there”. So perhaps no-one should be surprised that his prediction is becoming business reality before our eyes.
Why create the silo?
Of course, that previous argument is a pedantic one. Clearly when a digital marketer introduces themself they are taking for granted that everyone knows the tacit boundaries between what digital marketers do (Google, Facebook, Instagram and the like) and what they don’t (TV, radio, outdoor and print). When someone announces that they work in broadcasting no-one assumes that their shire horses are waiting outside. So is it really fair to be so literal about digital?
No, not really. But even if we accept that there is an amalgam of skills and platforms to which digital marketers can claim some form of legitimate and distinctive speciality, it still makes no sense to claim to be a ‘digital marketer’ or worse a ‘digital native’.
One of the great travesties of so many digital marketers is they reject the history and lessons of marketing because everything traditional is “dead” and everything digital is “new”.
That’s a shame because among the many things they could learn from proper marketing training is their multiplication tables. We’ve known for several decades – ever since the great Don Schultz started messing about with integrated marketing theory at Northwestern University – that there are significant synergies between different platforms.
Put more simply, you get more punch for your marketing pound if you spread it across multiple tools rather than plopping all of it down on just one option.
Rather than doing just Facebook, for example, if I take a small slice of the budget and put it into a parallel radio campaign, the two tools will deliver more impact than if I were to have just gone with Facebook. Or just radio for that matter.
That synergy continues, provided we have appropriate budgets, across three, four and even five different media channels.
You want to spread your money across many options. Which makes calling yourself a ‘digital marketer’ and limiting your options to four or five rather than nine or 10 options pretty much the dumbest thing you could ever do in communications.
You get more punch for your marketing pound if you spread it across multiple tools rather than plopping all of it down on just one option.
Just as anyone who claimed they only invest in TV and print media would look like a jackass, so too should anyone who christens themselves a ‘digital native’ and refuses to look at anything that does not immediately download from a smartphone. You are limiting your options, which limits your campaign’s impact, which limits how good a marketer you are.
I met a very smart young marketer last year (note the absence of the D word there) who told me he thought of TV advertising as search engine optimisation. It took me about an hour and three more pints to work out what he meant. But the penny dropped in the end. He is what I am talking about. Integration. Synergy.
Media neutrality produces mongrel campaigns that dance circles around incestuous, limited, one-tool approaches.
Tactics before strategy
And even if there is ever a case for just spending money on Instagram and nothing else, you still don’t want to call yourself a digital marketer. George Westerman’s whole point is that it’s not about the digital knobs and dials, it’s about how those knobs and dials enable you to play the game differently in the future.
The dreaded D word anchors you in a tactical ghetto for the rest of your career. It’s like deciding to call yourself an ‘HR executive that likes laser printers’ or an ‘Excel accountant’. You are signalling that you can handle (some) of the tactics but that you will never be able to rise any higher in the organisation because you keep putting the tactical carriage in front of the strategic horse.
Marketing is three things: it’s working out what is going on in the market; it’s coming up with a clear strategy; and it’s then selecting and executing tactics to deliver that strategy successfully.
A generation of digital marketers are unable to properly achieve the first stage, completely skip the strategy stage, and spend their lives focused on just tactics, usually just communications, and usually just the digital half of those communications.
Media neutrality produces mongrel campaigns that dance circles around incestuous, limited, one-tool approaches.
Trust me. On numerous occasions this year I have watched the subtle ‘realignment’ of the once proud digital marketing team into the broader marketing function. Most companies are starting to realise that having a separate digital marketing team makes no strategic sense, and the reporting lines and organisational charts are rapidly being redrawn.
Marketing was always going to absorb digital, it was never going to be the other way around. There is no doubt marketing has changed because of the osmosis that has taken placed over the past few years. But there is also no doubt that when the ancient history of early 21st century business is described, the phenomenon of ‘digital marketing’ will occupy similar territory to Fordism or TQM: important, so much so, that its importance and centrality rendered it ultimately invisible.
My advice to digital marketers
Don’t take this column to be a criticism of your skills or career journey to date. Clearly an appreciation for the revolutionary new tactics of the past few years will stand you in very good stead. Old 38-inch fucks like me are not the future of marketing. But we are wise and we have seen it all before.
It’s time to see the storm coming and ask the immortal and enduring question – how can I make money from this? I recommend five stages to achieve marketing nirvana.
1. Buy a large bag, at least 20kg, of pre-mixed concrete. Any brand will do.
2. You need to move sideways – fast – and embrace the other communication forms. Don’t stop executing digital stuff but look for opportunities to learn your trade in outdoor, TV or news media.
Other tools like direct marketing and PR have long and valuable hinterlands too. Each of these approaches will stretch you. They will also make you into a better marketer.
3. Around the time you are completing stage 2 it’s time to buy a stiff drink and rename yourself. Take all your business cards with the dreaded D prefix, make them into a little pile in front of you and set them ablaze.
If your company will allow it, ask to be redesignated as whatever your digital title was without the prefix. If your company won’t allow that accept their point but start looking for a general marketing role elsewhere, where they want digital marketing skills but also expect a little bit more.
4. It’s time to push up and out of the communications silo and try a more general strategic role. You are looking for a marketing manager or brand manager role where you get to do more than just tactics.
Look for a role that expects you to do research and that will subsequently allow you the chance to segment and target and position. This is the fun part of marketing. The bit most marketers never get to do. The bit that pays the most. Your digital skills will still come in handy but so will all the other communications platforms you have mastered.
5. Finally, start getting runs on the board. Everyone is a great technical marketer by the time they are 30 but nobody gives a shit any more. We do marketing to make money (well those of us that know what we’re are doing) so start building a track record for not only creating good marketing plans but also executing them well and delivering on the numbers you claimed in the initial plan.
You will meet a lot of numpties on your journey who will tell you marketing is about this or about that. Ultimately marketing is about making very large amounts of money for your company that, without marketing and you, they would not have been able to make.
Oh, and the concrete? That was just to make it hard. You don’t want everyone working this out and dropping the D word overnight do you?