The following piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
Digital hasn’t come smoothly to advertising. We’ve made the error of flash micro-sites, done silly things on Twitter and had a few missteps into consumer-generated content. But looking at the world now, it seems we’ve finally understood it all.
In a world where where Chief Digital Officers appear on all agency websites, where we’ve done promoted tweets, leveraged Instagram, and we’ve delivered cans of Coke to needy workers via drone, we can surely all sit tight and knowing we’ve arrived.
I think it’s the opposite, for all the endless chat at conferences, the proclamations in the industry press and all the banter about change, the reality is we’ve done nothing with digital at all.
For media agencies, digital largely remains a parallel department and some new software. For media owners, it’s another sales team and some different rate cards and worst of all, for creative agencies digital has just become a new product spec to bolt on the end. We’ve taken the most transformative power we’ve ever known and pushed it to the edges, we’ve digested it like a problem to quickly overcome, not an agent for change that would transform everything. We consider digital a thing, not everything.
It’s just like electricity.
And here lies the best parallel: It’s not unusual in technology leaps to think you’ve understood the power of the new when you haven’t. We thought the beauty of music as MP3 files was the ability to store more music, when in hindsight it was about streaming any piece of music ever made. We thought the wonder of the mobile phone was making phone calls anywhere, when in fact it was a personal gateway to the Internet.
But my favorite story of all is about the way we misunderstood electricity. The advent of electricity didn’t change businesses overnight; it took nearly 20 years for people to understand that it wasn’t a question of embellishing the existing, but using a blank sheet of paper to rebuild business and working processes from scratch. For the first decade, factory owners armed with the new wonderful power of electricity kept everything the same in factories and used electrical motors to drive the same power trains. They saw improvements in efficiency, longer working hours, they put in electrical lighting too and enjoyed safer, quieter working environments. When they added electricity to what they did, they saw decent yet unremarkable improvements.
It was only 20 years later that factories made leaps; it first dawned on them that machines could be arranged in new ways, making stuff in more efficient flows, with fewer workers. And later still, it became clear that what electricity changed was everything; when electricity was applied at the core of the business it meant the factory could move away from sources of power and nearer to ports. It could make new things — electricity was to be used not just to add to the factory but to transform it.
Digital as a reinvention
We don’t now of course talk about electrical companies, or companies that perform better in the electrical age — it’s just how life is.
This is the same change we need to make in advertising and marketing; we need to consider digital as a way to reinvent what we do, not something to bolt on the side. It’s our structure that reveals how we’ve made it all wrong. We kept building new silos for new stuff, when we should have made horizontals.
Splitting media from creative in the ’70s was a bad idea in retrospect, and it paved the way for channels like brand, PR and CRM to appear. By 2005 we’d added interactive, which then became digital before we added social, content and mobile. These years of ever more channels have merely accumulated over time with no consolidation, so now in 2014 it’s not unlikely a medium-sized, single brand, single nation brand may have 12 types of agency, each mirrored by a client lead. This is how large global clients like Unilever had 400 “digital” agencies alone in 2012. How does anyone begin to manage such an array? How do people work with such overlaps? How does anything get done?
Our failed structure is a cathedral to our agencies’ selfish hopes to make money. Our self-defined silos reflect how commissions were once paid, how projects are most easily defined, how skillsets are most easily classified, how clients can most easily procure, but they don’t come close to reflecting how people see media or what the new media environment looks like.
The Big Mistake
We only made one mistake. In 2006 when interactive renamed itself digital, we became obsessed with the verticalization of our industry, from social to mobile; we’ve added new techniques as verticals when they should have been horizontal. If we’d created a matrix things would be better. We’d have Media, Advertising, CRM, PR and Brand as key verticals, but we’d make social, mobile, innovation, content as horizontals. We’d not have social agencies working on a social strategy, but advertising agencies working with social in mind; we’d not have mobile agencies working on mobile campaigns, but CRM agencies including mobile in their campaigns. The one agency we’d never have is a digital agency. Digital is like electricity — it’s of vital importance and everywhere, but it needs to become so pervasive, we no longer even think of it as a thing.
In this new matrix we’d see a halving of agencies, a reduction in complexity, we’d see more holistic campaigns and we’d easier working arrangements and less politics. We’d not see a reduction in our workforce, we’d just spread the talent in the horizontals back into the verticals.
We need to reinvent marketing for the new age; we need to transform with digital at the heart and as a new way of thinking, not a tool; and we need to shift to thinking not as a million verticals but as a matrix of talent poised to apply new thinking across all touch points.