Mark Ritson: The death of digital is upon us

Mark Ritson 625X350.

The phrase ‘digital marketing’ has gone the same way as ‘international marketing’ – into obsolescence. We have new tools to play with but the age-old principles of the discipline remain the same.

When I was a young professor stalking the corridors of American business schools there were certain courses you could rely on to be popular with MBA students: financial statement analysis, corporate strategy and international marketing. Yes, international marketing.

In the 70s, when the big US business schools started to expand, they realised that one of the biggest knowledge gaps for thirty-something American managers was how to leave a Boston or Chicago head office and operate successfully in another country. International marketing became a huge course for MBA students for that reason until a curious thing happened. A combination of globalisation, the internet, international business schools and the general emergence of the 21st century meant that international marketing became, well, marketing. By the time we reached the year 2000 it was almost impossible to imagine any business that wasn’t global in reach and operation. Business schools started to include real global cases studies across their syllabuses and the need for, and popularity of, an explicit course in international marketing dwindled to the point of obsolescence.

Diageo’s CEO Ivan Menezes got me thinking about all that again last week when he discussed his company’s rather impressive recent numbers. Diageo is one of the world’s more advanced marketing companies and so what Menezes said at the end of his analysis caught my attention. “It is not about doing ‘digital marketing’, it is about marketing effectively in a digital world,” he explained.

Bang! There it is. When we look back for the moment that the digital dodo was exposed I’ll bet a few experts will dredge up Menezes’ quote, blow off the dust, and cite it as a prescient moment in the death of digital. There are plenty of others making the same funereal comments, of course. Marc Pritchard, global brand officer at P&G, announced that the era of digital marketing ended in 2013. Similarly, Nissan’s CMO Roel de Vries has long looked forward to the day when the word ‘digital’ disappears and AMV BBDO’s CEO Ian Pearman has been asking clients to drop the D word for several years. Digital may not be dead yet, but they’ve started digging its grave.

Of course, it’s not a death, more a reincarnation or redistribution of energy. Digital has changed the world so much that it has become the world. Despite the occasional outlandish prediction in 2002 that the digital revolution would see off marketing and its oh-so-traditional organisational structures, the future turned out to be less exciting. Clients got over their new toy syndrome and realised that they only had one budget and one set of strategic objectives to service. They looked at their target customers who, as ever, were able to cross seamlessly back and forth between the digital world and the traditional one during their media consumption – often using both simultaneously. And agencies also started to change.

Smarter agencies worked out that ‘digital strategy’ had become about as attractive as a Y2K solution three weeks after the millennium. They swam upstream to the point that they departed the digital niche and entered the brave new world of integrated brand experience. SapientNitro, for example, might use the word ‘digital’ on its corporate home page but it’s future-proofed by powerful words like ‘connected’, ‘ecosystem’, ‘experience’ and ‘engagement’. Inside more traditional agencies, heads of digital strategy are binning their business cards after a 10-year stint because they know their job title has become an anachronism. They are back to doing strategy and are delighted.

Of course, you can bet that the hundreds of ‘digital strategists’ who sprang up over the past decade will not go as quietly into the night. They will rage against the dying of the digital light. Similarly, the world of marketing journalism, which has over-represented and over-protected digital marketing at the expense of the bigger strategic issues that CMOs are struggling with, will also need a reset.

Marketing has been changed, and changed utterly, by the digital deviation. At a tactical level our discipline is barely recognisable as the one that started the new century. But on the strategic plane, it is very much business as usual. We have fabulous new marketing tools to play with thanks to digital but the age old questions of marketing – insight, creativity, positioning, engagement and, ultimately, effect – remain as annoyingly elusive as ever.

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