Commentary

The History of Digital -- Interview with Mr. Digital, Part 2

In Part 1 of my interview with Mr. Digital, we talked about the introduction of the electronic spreadsheet as the driving force behind what he described as “…the ascent of the MBA and the decline of common sense.”

Seated across from me, he worked on his second cup of coffee.  “Just enough caffeine,” he said, “to make me want to hunt down and punch an ad executive.”

“Digital?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” he answered.

“Tell me about the dot-com era,” I said.

“Pretty wild and wooly,” he replied.  “A real youth movement.  A lot like the '60s, only much better dressed and with designer vodkas.  And no one really cared much about peace and freedom and civil rights and free love.  No one cared much about anything that didn’t fit on the screens in front of us.

“During the dot com era,” he continued, “all pretense to reality and common sense flew right out the window.  Moms and pops and sons and daughters became CEOs, CFOs, CTOs and CMOs.  Digital gadgets like cell phones and laptops and PDAs entered the digital pipeline as office productivity tools -- and emerged in our homes redefined as consumer devices. The line of demarcation between the office and home was obliterated. Work became the new 24/7.”

He caught himself for a moment, as if surprised by his own words.  “We sacrificed the leisure time accrued over the past several generations for the empty promise of early retirement,” he continued.  “It was a lousy deal and a Faustian exchange.  But lots of great rooftop parties in Manhattan."

“You’ve described the rise of digital as a self-imposed ghetto,” I mentioned.

“Yup,” he said.  “Only we were too intoxicated by all the screens in front of us to notice when the walls went up. The rise and utter ubiquity of the digital spreadsheet as the post-modern mamaloshen changed us forever.  We added three zeros to the national conversation and suddenly everyone started talking in billions.”

“What happened in advertising?” I asked.

“Well,” he began, leaning back in his chair, no one in digital was old enough to know anything about advertising.  No one under 30 knew that big brand reach was the only thing that big brand advertisers wanted and paid for.  Everything else was table scraps.”

“But we saw the rise of some pretty big digital agencies.”

“Yes,” he replied.  "But they didn’t do any advertising. They built gigantic web sites for huge companies and billed them accordingly.  The real action was happening elsewhere, with the rise of discrete mega-media agencies.  They took the same digital tools of scale and applied them to the planning and buying of analog media.  Everything was commoditized in the process, and the medium became the message in real time.”

“Everyone talked about digital measurement and accountability,” I said.

He smiled.  “There was a ton of measurement going on for sure,” he replied.  “But no accountability.  Digital accountability was a phrase invented by digital marketers to compensate for the fact that while they could target a gnat’s ass, they still couldn’t reach anyone.  Digital accountability is what remains every spring -- after the TV guys steal all the big media dollars at the upfronts.”

“Seems like a pretty big ghetto to me,” I offered.

“No doubt,” he said.  “But the digital marketing mentality is a beggar’s mentality predicated on the perverse ability to parse fractions of fractions ad nauseum.  We go to sleep at night in Procrustean beds of our own design.”

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