Mark Ritson: It’s time to shut down digital marketing teams for good

Consolidation of teams to remove duplication by specialist digital marketers can’t come soon enough, and will allow us to focus on the consumer instead of the media channel.

The news that the Co-op Bank has disbanded ‘digital marketing’ should come as no surprise.

For several years senior marketers have been wearily signalling that the need to maintain a digital marketing team separate from the rest of the marketing group was disappearing. And the ultimate manifestation of that realignment, the merger of the digital and marketing teams into a single unit, has been happening across marketing departments with increasing frequency over the last 12 months.

The reason for that integration should be obvious. Despite the recurring use of the dreary D prefix it has become harder and harder to isolate exactly what isn’t digital any more.

READ MORE: ‘There’s no such thing as a digital team’ – Co-op Bank rethinks marketing

TV is digitally delivered and increasingly focused on an addressable, highly digital future.

Any decent newspaper in the 21st century – starting with the New York Times – is now making more money and seeing significantly more growth from its digital platform versus its print edition.

Radio in this country is now delivered to more listeners via a digital platform than broadcast.

Outdoor advertising is demonstrably a digital display business – albeit on big screens that consumers don’t own.

Even skywriting is, I am reliably informed, projected using digital technology these days.

The world has become completely digital and – as my fellow Marketing Week columnist Tom Goodwin has noted – just as referring to your computer as an ‘electrical laptop’ would strike everyone as odd, using the D prefix in any marketing in the near future will come across as slightly batty.

We have come full circle and marketing, as it has done so many times in the past, has absorbed and accommodated a new advance and emerged triumphantly changed as a result.

Of course, that does not mean that it’s back to the marketing coal face like it’s 1995 all over again. There are manifest implications of marketing in the ‘post-digital’ age that will affect all of us. Let us make a quick expedition around the main areas where we can expect significant change.

Marketing departments

If you still work in a company that has a demonstrably digital team sitting separately from the marketing department, take a deep breath, a few pictures for posterity and then prepare for a reorg. The Co-op Bank is not an exception and the binary divide between these two teams is about to come crashing down as financial savings, and the realisation that both groups are effectively engaged in the same work, become apparent.

While idiot digerati will be exposed, so too will those who aren’t open to the potential of options that have appeared over the past decade.

As we speak, most senior marketers are making their power play and ensuring that the head of digital is being shifted horizontally towards the nearest window while they unite the two teams under their direct leadership.

Initially that means a lot of sensitivity toward the conjoined team and, given there are no marketing teams being swallowed by the digital group, that means playing lip service to the importance of all things digital during the transition. But quickly normal marketing service will be resumed.

Job titles

Inevitably, the merger of groups will mean that duplication will result in some downsizing. It’s essential that any decent marketer caught up in this integration communicates both sides of the marketing coin.

On the one hand you need to avoid being precious about your digital creds. Signal early you are entirely comfortable losing the D prefix from your title and, for good measure, add something re-assuring like ‘I do not even know what digital means anymore’ or ‘isn’t everything digital now?’.

The merger process means that anyone who is a member of the extreme digerati will be the victim of the new regime. You know the type: obsessed with AI, convinced in the long-term value of VR, boastful that they don’t own a TV. They will be the first to go when the revolution comes.

Digital experience is a prerequisite

But make no mistake, it’s no good proclaiming that digital is wank and it’s time to get back to basics, pull all the money from Facebook and get it back into ‘proper’ media. The post-digital era cuts both ways.

While idiot digerati will be exposed, so too will those who aren’t open to the potential of all the new research and media options that have appeared over the past decade. When Alastair Pegg, the leading marketer at Co-op Bank, noted that that there was “no such thing as digital marketing” he followed up with the corollary that all “all marketing is digital marketing”.

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

While we might be dropping the D word and returning to calling it marketing, the 2019 version of our discipline looks very different from 20 years ago, when most marketing executives were learning their trade. After the digerati get their pink slips, anyone who refuses to open themselves to the potential of digital tactics in the mix will almost certainly follow.

Integration

Which brings us neatly to the fervent hope that integration will come back to the fore in the post digital age. It is entirely and utterly obvious that the answer to the digital versus traditional question is an unqualified ‘yes’ to both.

You want multiple channels in your mix. They are more than likely to come from all kinds of media and you want to integrate them into a coherent campaign that uses different tools to do different things, at different stages, and sometimes to different consumer segments.

That’s been bloody hard to do over the last decade with alternative, warring factions within client companies and agencies attempting to show their superiority over their rivals. It’s like trying to win the 1940 World Cup with a team built from Nazis and Allies, and an Italian fascist as the coach.

Only the smartest, most independent thinkers were able to hang on to the idea of media neutrality, integrated marketing and 360-degree campaigns. Now we’ve entered a digital armistice, we can only hope that the era of digital campaigns will come to an end and we can get back to integrated marketing in which diversity wins out.

It will start when we stop having silly charts showing the share of digital media that Facebook has versus Google (like this one). We all use this information but carving out digital media into a subcategory is increasingly unhelpful. And things will really start to take off when we stop giving awards for digital marketing and just start rewarding the campaign that achieves the most effectiveness.

It will be tough because there are so few marketers equipped to manage across so many different channels and integrate them properly. But in a post-digital era those who can jump from a meeting with ITV to one with LinkedIn, managing both fluently and with élan, are who we are going to need.

Digital transformation projects

digital marketing data analytics

Digital transformation has been a long and lovely gravy train for a huge army of consultants working for all the big audit firms but the work is about to dry up. Either the company in question has digitally transformed itself or it is so behind the times that it will go about that transformation within a cone of silence because it is so embarrassed to have not got its digital ducks lined up by now.

I was around when we all went mental about the Y2K bug and the risk it placed on global systems. You could not get on the Tube for a while without a couple of yuppies banging on about their role in preparing their clients for Y2K. Obviously, that talk died out very quickly once we survived New Year’s Day with nothing worse than a hangover, a mysterious bruise on our left leg and a vague recollection of a traffic cone somewhere in Clapham.

The same will now happen to all those bright young people and huge old firms making billions from digital transformation. The barrel full of fish is running dry.

Agency structure and offer

One area where we might see the D word remain is in the offer of some specialist communications agencies. Just as public relations agencies do a lot more than PR these days but retain the moniker, we may well see digital agencies continue to prevail. But even that looks increasingly unlikely.

Mark Read, the daring new head of WPP, made many things clear during his radical restructure of the holding company late last year, but one of the major insights came in the short shrift he gave digital in his plans for the future of his mega-agency.

“Digital is a word that has been banned from WPP,” Read noted at his investor conference late last year. “That artificial distinction between analogue and digital is not helpful.”

It was more than a soundbite. Read’s new strategy for WPP involves taking demonstrably full-service agencies like JWT and more ‘digitally savvy’ companies like Wunderman and merging them together in an attempt to prepare for the post-digital world ahead.

M&A in advertising

And internal WPP mergers of offline and online entities are only the start. With the realisation that all media are now, essentially, digital we should also see an increasingly competitive and confusing media M&A scene.

Given the growth and cash reserves rest with the digital giants these days, expect some big plays to come from that direction in the coming months.

At the moment most companies labour under the belief that they can only acquire assets in the immediate vicinity of their own operations. A big outdoor advertising firm like JCDecaux buys a smaller one like APN. A big digital giant like Spotify acquires a smaller up-and-coming platform like Gimlet.

But with the digitisation of everything and the integration mandate from clients likely to increase, expect more cross-media acquisition deals. Digital media companies should start to sniff around traditional firms and vice versa.

There is no reason, for example, why Facebook would not want to buy a TV station. Or, for that matter, why LinkedIn would not be well served by starting to buy up outdoor space in specialist B2B locations like airports and train stations.

Given the growth and cash reserves rest with the digital giants these days, expect some big plays to come from that direction in the coming months. Channel 5 is not going to make a move on Google, if you catch my drift.

Training

In a post-digital world we should finally wave a fond farewell to all the specialist courses and training programmes in digital marketing. Sure, there is room for technical skills at the lower end of the training totem pole but the idea that you need to be trained separately in digital marketing should disappear in the near future.

I’ve endured my fair share of these courses over the years. They inevitably start by declaring marketing to be effectively dead or outdated, then re-present the classic marketing syllabus with some digital examples to illustrate how everything has now totally changed. It’s not segmentation any more, oh no, its digital segmentation and here is an example using mobile phone companies to illustrate the point.

Ideally, marketing training will re-surface as an essential input in any marketer’s career path. That sentence should not present itself as radical but unfortunately it almost certainly is. A majority of marketers still believe that training in their craft is a non-essential element in their abilities and one of the prime reasons for that ignorance has been a preference for overtly tactical, second-rate courses in digital marketing.

That said, there should be a renewed pressure on those designing and offering marketing training and degrees to ensure that the syllabus is updated to the post digital age. Separate courses in digital marketing are likely to go the same way as degrees in international marketing. But we must, must, must update the content of marketing degrees to ensure integrated marketing communications is not TV, radio and ‘internet marketing’, a la 1995.

Most marketing undergraduates will take 10 years to make their first strategic decisions – when they start out in the business they are engaged in exclusively tactical occupation. While it’s important we arm them for their strategic careers down the track, it’s essential we give them the up-to-date insights in campaign building.

Longer-term focus

The biggest opportunity I can see in the post-digital age is probably the ability to unite the top and bottom of the funnel together again and remind everyone that these two stages are actually one and the same thing.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Marketers are clueless about media effectiveness – here’s the proof

One of the most unfortunate implications of separate digital and marketing teams has been a bifurcation of objectives into longer-term effectiveness goals at the top of the funnel, led by traditional tactical investment, and shorter-term efficiency plays at the bottom using predominantly digital tools.

The great lesson of Peter Field and Les Binet’s work is that we need both long- and short-term objectives. Uniting the marketing department should also mean uniting the two ends of the funnel. It will give marketers a chance to make the case for building awareness and consideration over the long term, and showing that these investments can actually provide a better route to enduring, sustainable profits than simply going after the low-hanging fruit of click-through rates.

There are many reasons for the short-termism afflicting most organisations but the separation of digital and marketing was one of the main ones. Let’s hope it helps lengthen the average trajectory of marketing in the near future.

Renewed focus on the consumer (remember them?)

The irony was that as we wanked on about the superiority of digital media over traditional media, and vice versa, the target consumers carried on as if the whole distinction was totally fucking meaningless. One evening in any household in Britain would have revealed consumers reading magazines, checking Facebook, watching TV, sending emails – almost as if the whole idea of an online versus offline consumer was total cock.

It has become customary to produce charts in which you showcase a consumer’s typical digital media consumption, showing the various minutes in the day a consumer spends on Facebook, YouTube and the like but which ignores all the radio, outdoor and TV these same people are exposed to each day.

Ask Mr and Mrs Smith if they watched TV or checked Facebook last night and they will, of course, say both. All we have to do as an industry is be as adept and media-neutral as the consumers we target.

By dropping the D word I am ever hopeful we will use the C word more often in our day to day interactions. That came out wrong. But you know what I mean.

An end to the paradigm wars

Too many paragraphs have been wasted on why digital media is better. Too many hours have been spent presenting the case for one medium over another. Too many bar charts show how our media is more profitable than yours. None of this helps in the true battle of marketing.

We need to understand our consumers better. We need to build proper brand strategy that is actually fit for purpose. And we need to blend and fuse the different tactical elements of marketing together to achieve the best possible result for our stakeholders.

Let’s hope the newly conjoined marketing departments of the post digital age are now well set to do just that.

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Comments
  • John Cove 20 Feb 2019 at 8:55 am

    My favourite part of this whole article is actually the ‘Job of the week’ to the right of Mark’s column. What do they want….. A Digital Marketing Manager!

    • Sanjay Dove 25 Feb 2019 at 3:56 pm

      I’ve work in B2B and I agree with Ritson — to distinguish between ‘digital’ and ‘traditional” is absurd since most tactics are now digital. I accept there are a few ‘traditional’ channels in existence still but irrespective of whether things are ‘traditional’ or ‘digital’ Ritson’s point is that, by talking just about the ‘tools’, senior marketers sound like tactical unstrategic buffoons.

  • Tom Edgington 20 Feb 2019 at 9:26 am

    With far more channels available in the mix than there was 20 years ago, it’s unfeasible for a single marketer to know all the channel intricacies AND hold a suitably in depth understanding of their market and customer groups. While I completely agree that marketing vs digital marketing is absurd, the industry will need to find a new standard for dividing responsibilities in order to make things manageable, all be it pointing towards a single marketing leader.

    • Mark Cichon 21 Feb 2019 at 2:48 pm

      Thats why media and channel strategists exist, as they always have. Just that now they have also added digital channels to their ‘reportoire’

  • Tadas R. 20 Feb 2019 at 10:44 am

    While the marketing department was arguing whether to use wooden or digital pencils to colour in a new ad, the rest of marketing tools were stolen by other departments. We have to take back control. Good article though, always a pleasure to read.

  • Alan Charlesworth 20 Feb 2019 at 11:14 am

    Absolutely spot on Dr/Professor/Mr Ritson
    I used to say digital marketing is marketing first.
    I was wrong: digital marketing is marketing. Full stop.
    For example: advertising on digital platforms is advertising. Email marketing is direct marketing. E-commerce is retailing. And so on and so on.
    ‘Digital’ is not, and never was, a panacea for bad marketing.
    Some aspects of ‘digital’ are right for some organizations in some situations.
    As Michael Porter famously said: ‘The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.’ Marketers have to recognise that digital is sometimes (often?) what NOT to do. That, however, requires ALL marketers to have education or training in marketing’s key models and theories. Being able to do SEO/Google ads/website design does not even make you a digital marketer, let alone a marketer.
    A caveat – so that at least someone might buy my books – is that marketing education and training must include at least a working knowledge all of the digital stuff alongside all of the other non-digital stuff.

  • stephen carville 20 Feb 2019 at 1:46 pm

    I’m going to get this made into a damn t-shirt. Preach!

    “The biggest opportunity I can see in the post-digital age is probably the ability to unite the top and bottom of the funnel together again and remind everyone that these two stages are actually one and the same thing”

  • Richard Fullerton 20 Feb 2019 at 3:39 pm

    Glad you’ve won your battle on this Mark, you weren’t alone but you were the vanguard. I would prefer it if we talked more about ‘channels’. Digital offers a set of channels, and so does analogue/offline. Email is just another channel and part of ‘direct marketing’, as one of the other commenters said. Ditto social media – it’s just another channel. I do take issue with your comments about everything being digital now. I disagree. I still listen to analogue radio. Why bother buying an expensive digital radio is if the analogue one works just as well? Last time I checked most oudoor was still print. Press advertising is still alive and kicking. Again they’re just channels. PS can you stop banging on about Brexit? You’re in danger of becoming the Gary Lineker of marketing.

  • David Cuddihy 21 Feb 2019 at 8:47 am

    We’ve always had channel marketing specialists regardless whether its digital but key takeout is the focus on the consumer instead of the media channel. Digital may not be the answer for the type of segments you’re looking to target

  • Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 21 Feb 2019 at 11:22 am

    This article is a few years early, because it confuses two meanings of “digital” which are very different from a marketing perspective:
    (1) Individually-targeted digital, such as websites and social.
    (2) Broadcast digital, such as DAB radio, where the same programming goes out to everyone, just using digital encoding.

    For example when you say e.g. “Radio in this country is now delivered to more listeners via a digital platform than broadcast”, this is true but it doesn’t count, because it’s almost all DAB and this is practically identical to old analog broadcasting.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_radio_in_the_United_Kingdom#/media/File:UK_digital_radio_listening.png

  • Richard Fullerton 21 Feb 2019 at 12:46 pm

    Correct

  • Hannah Walley 21 Feb 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Everything is now digital – I couldn’t agree more! Mark you’ve hit the nail on the head again.

    We’ve been banging the effectiveness drum for integrated campaigns for a while now so why not the teams? We know from Kantar’s recently released Getting Media Right study that fully integrated campaigns work better. However, they work even better when the creative is customized by channel. While you don’t need separate teams to lead the customization, it is important that the skills and lessons learnt during the digital revolution, are not lost.

    There are nuances in how every media work, and how audiences consume them and react to them. Even within specialist Digital Marketing teams we see plenty of brands getting their ‘traditional digital’ campaigns wrong. Channel specific skills need to be shared across marketing teams to avoid making these mistakes time and time again.

  • Al King 22 Feb 2019 at 5:57 am

    Yes, yes, YES! You’re finest yet.

  • Mark Chapman 24 Feb 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Ritson is uninformed about digital if he thinks the complexities digital requires can easily be ‘consolidated’ into marketing teams inexperienced with digital (marketing) tech. Once again, like politicians, we see people like Ritson living in the ‘ivory tower’ of commentator or pundit saying ‘cut, cut, cut’. Any fool can cut. Try investing by planning a successful business strategy accommodating necessary digital ingredients alongside other important business elements. Look what fool’s cuts caused in the Grenfell housing disaster … cut digital outof your business at your peril, believe me

  • Heather Johnston 24 Feb 2019 at 12:57 pm

    It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if new channels were not simply new ways to make old mistakes. Message overloading, “s’obvious, innit” targetting, tin-eared brand propositions (what have all the car company people been smoking?) and a relentless chase to the bottom in production values (taking brand quality perceptions with them). Branding itself is in a parlous state; just look over the water to Kraft Heinz this week. We’re back to the days of Chainsaw Al (now setting zero budgets in heaven) and that is not going to be helped, or hindered, by some metaphysical bickering over how ‘digital’ something is. Elephants, room, consumers, credibility. Arrange.

  • John Sinke 24 Feb 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Mark, great article, I couldn’t agree with you more. But to merge the Digital Team with the Marketing Team without making sure the whole team is up to speed on “digital”, doesn’t sound like a good idea. A bit of technical and strategic digital training to smoothen the integration will really help. And that should include the Head of the “newly conjoined marketing department”!

  • Simone Castello 24 Feb 2019 at 4:12 pm

    Quite. I have found the anti-Godin in Ritson, both deeply irritating to me. I could not even finish the article as my brain started fuming. Traditional marketing still exists in B2B and perhaps Ritson should leave academia once in a while to find this out. So the digital distinction should stay put. Greetings from Silicon Fen aka Cambridge.

    • Sanjay Dove 25 Feb 2019 at 4:00 pm

      I’ve work in B2B and I agree with Ritson — to distinguish between ‘digital’ and ‘traditional” is absurd since most tactics are now digital. I accept there are a few ‘traditional’ channels in existence still but irrespective of whether things are ‘traditional’ or ‘digital’ Ritson’s point is that, by talking just about the ‘tools’, senior marketers sound like tactical unstrategic buffoons.

  • Cathrine Long 24 Feb 2019 at 9:02 pm

    Spot on Mark, Im surprised at the reactions you are getting to this piece. You are not saying digital marketing isnt a role, you are just saying it should report to head of marketing. Makes sense. Loved the comment about the gravy train and the training industry now in jeopardy. Might explain some of the push back here.

  • Marie Turner 25 Feb 2019 at 4:42 pm

    Currently working in a digital role, but I started marketing life in radio. I was never once told in radio I was a “traditional” marketer. I was booking campaigns on our DAB and FM transmitters (FM is actually better quality FYI), online article placements and competition pages, mobile app interstitials, display, digital audio ads, experiential, live reads and trails. It’s only since working in a heavily “digital” role have I been told otherwise.

  • Alastair Cook 27 Feb 2019 at 10:15 am

    There is no reason why a business should not segment customers by their behaviour – hence, a business which wishes to transact digital-only might want a digital marketing lead. However, if a business sees digital as a means to reach a global audience, there is real danger that they do not understand their customers and their marketing will be inferior because of it. I find Mark’s writing refreshing, not because he necessarily has all the answers, but because he considers all the possibilities.

  • melisa young 7 Mar 2019 at 7:55 pm

    I.Love.This.

  • eelko Lommers 2 Apr 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Fully agree,

    Digital has become a hyped concept that blows up the importance of things. Digital died years ago, when the experience of technology got intertwined to our daily lives.

    Wrote an article about it in 2016, today it is even more valid https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-fad-eelko-lommers/

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