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.