Mark Ritson: Three reasons having a digital prefix will stunt your career

Marketing was always going to absorb digital, it was never going to be the other way around, so when marketers label themselves with the dreaded D word all they’re doing is limiting their career progression.


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”.

READ MORE: L’Oréal’s new CMO on why brands shouldn’t have a digital strategy

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.

READ MORE: Nissan’s top marketer on why specialist agencies for digital or data are ‘nonsense’

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?

Hide Comments15 Show Comments
  • Julian Pratt 18 Jul 2018 at 10:22 am

    Thanks. We need more people to understand the difference between Marketing and Communications.

    The term “Marcomms” makes my blood boil faster than someone asking me if I can ‘market’ their event next week. If I don’t manage the targets for your business suit – it’s not me that is marketing it.

  • malcolm wicks 18 Jul 2018 at 11:31 am

    A professional builder understands what needs to be built and how it can be achieved. He/she has a set of tools that they know how to use in the right way and they don’t try to fix everything with just a hammer. Perhaps Marketing people should learn from builders and not try to do everything with a Digital hammer.

  • Guy Shrimpton 18 Jul 2018 at 12:45 pm

    It’s something of a conundrum. You’re right that people with Digital in their marketing job title may limit their parameters because of how some quarters will regard them, but equally to others it shows a degree of focus that is very useful. If I am recruiting someone where the work is predominantly digital in nature (e.g. social, email marketing, content marketing etc) rather than full mix, then I wouldn’t be interested in someone without Digital in their recent job titles, or certainly well covered in their CV.

    Unfortunately, what this article is really highlighting is that digital can also be a smokescreen for people selling SEO and is used by people trying to jump onto what they see as the current trend (like ‘disruptors’), but if you can see past that group you’ll see people who have focused and developed an expertise and set of insights that the full-mix’ers won’t have.

  • tom wright 18 Jul 2018 at 1:43 pm

    Digital most definitely won’t consign you to some kind of career limiting ghetto. . . . if Digital is a ghetto, its the weirdest one I’ve ever seen, with the tumble down shacks built 15 stories up in high-rise glass and steel. With nice lifts that run down the outside, that make you feel like Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator, and really good sanitation. Sure people talk a load of bollocks about digital, and martech in general, and there’s a boatload of snake oil and outright quackery on the go from tech suppliers hell bent on selling the New Dream of Perfect Targeting Attribution and ROI, and some suckers whose careers will definitely be limited by sucking it up. Sure its a medium – or media – and should not be confused with having an actual, honest-to-goodness strategy. Sure to all these things. But a ghetto? um, no. For a ton of people over the last two decades its been their ticket to the top. You can’t ignore digital, or downplay it’s significance without sounding like a flint knapper slagging off the iron age.

    • Justin Lines 18 Jul 2018 at 5:44 pm

      But isn’t mark’s article attacking this line of thought.

      People who are focusing their careers on executing tactics instead of designing and implementing strategies are going to be left in the dark.

      Strategy is where the money and responsibility is.

      • tom wright 19 Jul 2018 at 10:04 am

        ‘Focusing their careers’? That’s precisely my point. Organisations focusing on a channel instead of a strategy and going to have a bad ride – ‘digital’ is not a strategy, no contest.

        But marketers don’t start their careers as CMOs leading corporate strategy, they start at the bottom and work their way up the ladder, rung by rung. Digital skills are in demand, and for very good reasons, and have accelerated more people towards the top over the past two decades than pretty much any other sort of marketing specialism.

    • Mark Cichon 23 Jul 2018 at 9:08 am

      I don’t see the article about ignoring digital, very far from it. Rather seeing digital as a tool, one of many, but choosing the right tools can only be effective if you sort out your business and marketing strategy first.

  • Pete Austin 18 Jul 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Re: 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.

    If that’s so good, why didn’t the infamous Russian election trolls do it, eh?

    We just saw a real-life experiment, pitching facebook marketing vs cross-channel. If every mainstream news organization is to be believed, the trolls in the US presidential election achieved a massive result (winning the US election for Trump) from a tiny invesment- about $100k according to Wikipedia – compared to almost $2 billion spent by the traditional campaigns. That’s over 10,000x difference in cost! Doesn’t this prove that facebook-only marketing can be in a different league?

    • Justin Lines 18 Jul 2018 at 5:38 pm

      Not sure if this is a joke?

      The Facebook campaign (although done by Russia and not the official campaign) contributed to the wider election campaign.

      Everything from TV to Baseball hats was used to communicate the campaign message.

      If you were to take away all the other forms of communication and were left purely with Russia’s Facebook contribution, you’d be looking at a pretty poor campaign and the second president Clinton.

  • Jennifer Barhorst 18 Jul 2018 at 4:01 pm

    Excellent piece Mark. Digital is indeed a tool in a toolbox to achieve marketing objectives. I believe the use of the term is appropriate however as it identifies an area of expertise/specialization. Overarching strategists, generalists and specialists all work together in marketing departments to achieve success. All should have a good understanding of marketing principles and the environment in which the brand is being positioned. Delineating digital within a department however helps to bring those together who are technically efficient and have been certified to use various platforms and technologies,- just as those in the brand department work to cultivate the image and positioning, and those in marketing finance develop and manage funding.

  • jesse gilbert 18 Jul 2018 at 4:16 pm

    well said. 4,000 or so years of marketing history pre-internet to draw on.

  • Drayton Bird 19 Jul 2018 at 8:18 am

    It’s even worse. I belong to a group of young marketers (I think the oldest is 50 years younger than me) whose entire interest is in SEO. I have listed ten kinds of marketing I think proper marketers should understand. If doctors had as little grasp of medicine as most marketers have of marketing half the population would die every year.

  • Huw Johns 19 Jul 2018 at 2:27 pm

    Brilliantly said. I completely agree.

  • John Alderman 22 Jul 2018 at 9:39 pm

    this article resonates with me for 2 reasons
    1) it was a bit like when people were prattling on about the “new” economy & the “old” economy, what a load of BS , there is only 1 economy not 2 economies, it is just that now there are different ways of transacting, &
    2) my first Mktg Dtr at Unilever used to ask the grads what they thought the role and purpose of Marketing was and they’d all recite Kotler about meeting consumers needs and wants. His response was “it’s actually about making money for the company and its shareholders”. Simple as that.

  • Tadas R. 24 Jul 2018 at 9:16 am

    Imagine a pastry chef in the kitchen asking to become a chef because the name limits her potential, then other three chefs de partie ask for the same. You end up with a bunch of chefs in the kitchen and nobody knows who is responsible for what. Names are useful, as it helps to distinguish different sets of skills.

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