Mark Ritson: Replacing ‘digital’ with ‘interactive’ is a mistake

The news that adam&eveDDB has dropped the digital designation from all its job titles came as no surprise last week. Despite the prevalence of the D word and the omnipresence of digital planners, digital strategists and digital marketers under every lamp post, nobody in the know ever doubted that the prefix would eventually become an anachronism.

This was clearly top of mind for Alex Hesz, who formerly ran the digital team at adam&eveDDB and made the brave choice to ‘de-digitalise’. “‘Digital’ isn’t a subset of what we do here, just as it isn’t for consumers. It’s a part of every aspect of day-to-day life for us, just as it is for them,” he told Campaign magazine.

Digital is indeed everywhere and it’s impossible to find an Archimedean point where digital ends and so-called ‘traditional’ channels begin. As Nicholas Negroponte, inarguably the world’s leading tech savant, predicted 18 years ago: “Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.”

The big surprise last week wasn’t that an influential agency such as adam&eveDDB had renounced the D word, but rather the decision to replace it with ‘interactive’. Hesz’s title at the agency, for example, changes from ‘director of digital’ to ‘executive interactive director’.

It is an unusual move because it smacks so much of the noughties. From the sound of it, one might now expect the agency to start advising clients to advertise on AOL and build home pages on the world wide web. It has taken a big step forward in disbanding digital, but renaming it ‘interactive’ is an equally big stumble backwards.

The problem with the D word was never nomenclature, but rather structure. The trick in the post-digital marketing age that Negroponte predicted is knowing where to draw the line between strategic thinking and tactical execution. That’s tricky for many marketers because they oscillate between the two concepts interchangeably and incorrectly. Strategic thinking – where you will play and how you will win – must always precede tactical planning – the executional elements that will deliver the strategy. Keep this in mind and it’s possible to solve the current digital conundrum befuddling so many in our industry.

At the strategic level, there is clearly no need for a chief digital officer because such tactical responsibility has no place in a boardroom mandated for strategy. Similarly, the existence of digital strategists is an oxymoron. You cannot start with tactics and then somehow swim upstream to strategy; you are already committed. Digital marketing also makes no sense because a marketer must always see the world from the consumer perspective and, as Hesz  and others have noted, consumers have brazenly ignored the digital debate and continue to surf between the silos of traditional and digital media without awareness or inhibition. Marketers keep posing the dumb question: YouTube or TV? Consumers keep shrugging their collective shoulders and saying “yes”.

And if you accept the premise of digital marketers within your company, what exactly do your non-digital marketers do within their ‘traditional’ silo? Wear knee socks and smoke pipes?

If there is a need for an explicit digital function, it comes only at the tip of the tactical spear. Clients certainly need experts and agencies that can create and then execute effective social, search and other intrinsically ‘digital’ tactics. But that tactical role predicates an acceptance that devising overall strategy or aspiring to senior marketing positions under the digital prefix are impossible. The only way up to strategy and seniority is to exit the digital ghetto and enter the world of marketing strategy. It’s about doing marketing in a digital world these days, not digital marketing. Remember? But bring your digital knowledge with you – it will come in handy.

Negroponte was right; digital is now akin to electricity. The need to call out digital marketing is on a par with Apple launching an electric iPhone 7. Coming up with another word for electricity – adam&eveDDB take note – makes that last sentence no less stupid.

The agency needs an interactive department no more than it needed a digital group. The solution is not a new word for digital. The solution is the extinction of the entire concept because it has been totally absorbed into our discipline. Digital won’t kill marketing in 2016. It is marketing in 2016. Hesz is no more the ‘executive interactive director’ than he was the ‘director of digital’ He is a brilliant marketer at one of the best agencies in the world. The D and I words are redundant.

Ironically, given the name of his agency, I would recommend he goes back to the beginning and has another go.

Alex Hesz

Read Alex Hesz’s response to this column here


Alex Hesz

Alex Hesz: Ritson is wrong – ‘interactive’ and ‘digital’ mean very different things

Alex Hesz

The premise of Mark’s article is that digital and interactive are synonymous, and that after ditching the first (correctly) we have ‘replaced’ it with the latter. On both counts, that is not the case. The two words demonstrably mean very different things. Digital is, as Mark quite rightly says, omnipresent. It’s like electricity. Everything that […]


There are 11 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Interesting discussion between you and Alex, but from my perspective you are both missing the real point which is like branding with no substance re a true consumer benefit, it is just window dressing. Having spent my career in the corporate world and now running my own business, I have a real hatred of formal job titles. They are either there to massage someones ego, and upset others, or encourage silo thinking.

    Yes, you need to have some form of understanding re a persons focus and position but it should be broad and interesting enough to ensure that everyones job in a company is to satisfy consumer or customer needs profitably and in a sustainable manner for the benefit of the whole company. That means for me real teamwork and interaction across all consumer touch-points

    I tried to do away with formal titles at our company, our editor became the Chief Sexy Content Officer, our Art Director The Chief Funky Visual Dude, our Head of sales The Space Trader et al. Sadly we were too far ahead of the curve at the time for most people. The reason being most companies love the known and boring rather than anything different and truly creative.

    So my advice forget the title, focus on delivering exceptional creative content that truly makes a difference to consumers lives, god knows based on most of the marketing/advertising dross I am exposed to on a daily basis, the Marketing world really needs it.

    Zbiggy, Chief Hip Happening Officer (aka CEO)

  2. Richard Khan 21 Jan 2016

    Interesting topic Mark…

    I have been wondering recently what words best describe my role – business transformation, digital marketing strategy, marketing and the list goes on. My breadth of knowledge and skills as a marketeer has grown so much since I first started my career that I usually find myself explaining what I do and then making the point that at the heart of my experience I am still a marketing guy who is focused on delivering the best customer experience.

    Alex from Adam and Eve refers to digital being part of the consumers day-to-day life and I agree but digital marketing/ transformation for a lot of companies is still an ongoing journey and until those companies have gone through their initial transformation and digital truly becomes part of their day-to-day ‘business’ life, I think digital and non-digital roles will still exits and there will be people like me who can offer that over-arching view of all the channels working together and guide businesses through their transformation and journey towards a true omni-channel experience.

    So, is the right word digital, interactive, omni-channel or something else? I think the job title is just an indication of what one can expect and not a definitive explanation, what really matters is what the individual does and how.

    As for strategy Vs tactical, isn’t it Marketing 101 that one does strategic planning before doing tactical planning, at least that’s what I learnt but as we all know things don’t always work the way they should hence we need to be ‘flexible’ and adapt.

    So, in conclusion as businesses continue their journey of transformation we will continue to see a digital specific focus and digital specific roles but in the coming months and years, I think we will see an evolution of those roles and titles as the face of traditional marketing continues to change.

    I would also like to add that by commenting on this article, I am not saying I am either grey or old.

  3. Loving the discussion here and as much as I agree with Mark, I can’t help but thinking that we can’t just kill digital without making another king (bad metaphor, I know). And after reading Alex’ response, I can’t but admire the reasoning behind it, if not necessarily the outcome – “interactive” will always smack of the Nineties to me, not that I was around at that point (nor was Alex, interestingly ;).

    If by “Interactive” they mean that:

    – from a strategic point of view, we must focus on identifying, understanding and addressing the critical touch points of the consumer journey
    – we are neutral as to where those touchpoints may be (online, offline, post-sales or up high in the funnel)
    – we admit that “consumer journey” is a lot more intricate than a simple sales funnel, and we start gearing ourselves of for a world where the online/offline divide is just not a divide
    – from an agency perspective, they will help clients optimise the consumer experience at the key touchpoints whatever means that takes (an in-store screen, an app, extra human staff on the call centre or a killer TV ad)

    … then I am fully sold on “Interactive”. But then why not call it “Experiential” (as Jerry Daikin is suggesting in the comments)? Uhm, maybe because that reminds us of the dear old “Events Marketing”…damn all the good words seem to be taken!
    That said, whatever we call it, most companies are just not at a point where they can do without the reassuring walking stick of a bunch of people with “Digital” in their job titles. Very few businesses today can confidently say digital is fully embedded in their Marketing and Innovation processes, let alone in the wider business. Yes, “digital” one day will be not mistaken for Strategy and will be put back in the Tactics level where it belongs, and it will only refer to the specialist knowledge of some technologies and channels (ex. PPC, mobile development, UX etc.) …but that day seems far to me.
    Digital is dead, long live digital!

  4. Madge 21 Jan 2016

    Rishard Khan’s one line sums this debate up for me…
    “I am still a marketing guy who is focused on delivering the best customer experience”
    Digital offerings in all their variants sit alongside other tools to create the best customer experience. We’re destroying the silos across these tools and (hopefully) getting back to talking to/with the customer, however they want to hear from us.

  5. I’m reminded of a little snippet of an ‘interview’ that Morrissey conducted with Joni Mitchell on NPR or something in the mid 90’s.

    Morrissey to Joni: Do they still refer to you as a female songwriter?…it’s become such a ludicrous title because to be called a female songwriter.?
    Joni: …It implies limitations.
    Morrissey: Well, it implies that it’s not a ‘real’ songwriter.
    Joni: Yeah.
    Morrissey: I mean, you couldn’t imagine, for instance, saying Paul McCartney’s a great ‘male’ songwriter.’

    Fair play to Hesz and co, ‘digital’ implies limitations.
    But does ‘interactive’ counter that?
    While they may say that ‘interactive’ is not a replacement term but by the insertion it still implies limitations. It’s like a subset.
    Except it isn’t.
    If one takes the view that all communications are about stimulus-and-response (rather the the old world view of ‘message comprehension, usp and the like) then ALL media are interactive – when they work. They ilicit a response of some sort.
    We’re in a Sturgeon’s Revelation kind of loop of ‘otherness’.

  6. Owen Gill 22 Jan 2016

    This is an interesting topic for discuss, and it’s not the first time it’s come up. I certainly agree with Alex in terms of ‘digital’ and ‘interactive’ having completely different meanings, the examples given in his response outlined that well. Therefore, in terms of keeping certain terminology within job titles, I believe it’s important even if it does only provoke the question “so what does that mean?” – at least you’ll be able answer.

    On to Mark’s point about ‘digital’ being an omnipresent, I agree that it is, but unfortunately I don’t think every senior marketer believes that it is. Burying your head in sand with the approach ‘I devise the strategy’, the specialists can deal with the digital side of things’ still seems to be common, all be it less so.

    Going forward I can see Mark’s point, I don’t think we’ll see many ‘Digital Directors’ simply because ‘Marketing Directors’ should have a good knowledge of their main communication channel (which it probably is). They should be able to devise a digital strategy that integrates with all other marketing activities. When it comes to execution, that’s when the ‘specialists’ can step in.

    After all, if 70% of your marketing communications is through digital channels, I think you’d expect your most senior marketer to have a respectable amount of knowledge, no?

  7. Mimi Turner 26 Jan 2016

    What a superb discussion. It’s an area I ponder as well. Customers and audiences have, for a while, behaved in ways that make a nonsense of the silos we try to put them in. Remember all that time we spent talking about ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward?’ Turned out audiences weren’t interested in either. In the decade or so that we have been limiting ourselves with definitions around ‘digital,’ our audiences (and customers) have become powerfully social and mobile. If we want to reach them we have to be social and mobile too. We can only understand what is happening by looking at where audiences take us, not where we take them. It isn’t easy on the syllables or onomatopoeic but it is what they do. Social implies new routes to discovery, mobile is about being in control (not necessarily being on the move), and there is a fair amount of “fixed” viewing as well which is the hours spent tied to the TV set. It would take a brave business to define its offers and experiences by fixed, social and mobile – but it would be interesting. Social marketing is different from mobile marketing which is totally different from fixed marketing or outdoor. But together, they define the entire journey.

  8. Robin S 29 Jun 2016

    While Negroponte was talking about it, my team and I were doing it. First National, digital business in the world. DGS Digital Generation Systems was the first to make a large business changing the way media was distributed, B2B. We had to invent a few things to do it too. Largest buyer of the first, professional grade sound cards, First non-movie entity to license Dolby. All started on 14.4 modems. Nine thousand of them at $250 each!

    • Robin S 29 Jun 2016

      oh yes. And saying “digital” is like saying “cloud” . *It’s marketing speak*. We never use that word to refer to our business’ or technology.

  9. Robin S 29 Jun 2016

    To me, the distinction is digital or *analog* but that’s bc I’m in media. And the sugar still exists, yes, but you do not call it sugar anymore. It has become sugar water or syrup. Also, there is a very real problem with bots claiming to watch media and advertising and it is taking money out of advertisers pockets for nothing. Not only that, we here in the states have to pay taxes and justify where that money went. It’s a huge problem now with fake traffic from bots…to my knowledge.

  10. Robin S 29 Jun 2016

    Very well put, Tess.

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