Let's Drop The Words Digital And Social

Digital remains one of the most powerful and pervasive words in marketing today, which I find odd because it’s about the most vague and useless word out there.

What started out as the word “interactive” around the end of the century, a rather neat way to describe a profound new form of communication in which you could intrinsically respond, has morphed into digital, a word of with a precise definition, something made up of data packages, but of absolutely no meaning or implication whatsoever.

Yet we persist, we have digital strategists, digital agencies, digital creatives, most agencies have digital departments often led by a digital head. We talk about the shift in viewing from TV to digital video, we talk about whether traditional is dead, we had 22 panels at Advertising Week about digital. We also maintain a strong cultural divide between digital and non digital agencies. What does it actually mean? What if the word was removed from all of advertising, would it matter?



Why does a TV ad with a new codec placed on YouTube suddenly become part of a digital strategy? Why does direct mail become so different when in email form? What is intrinsically different about a beautifully crafted image rendered in a glossy magazine and the same image in Instagram?

Electricity created a revolution, but it took over two decades to bring vast changes. It took a long time for people to realize that electricity was best used by rethinking everything, not just using it to embellish what we had. The real power of electricity was that everything could be designed from new. Now machines could be made smaller, placed in new arrangements, factories could be built near people and ports, not near supplies of energy to run the factory. Electricity was a transformational element, it changed everything, but it needed a new attitude.

We don’t talk about electricity now, we don’t have electrical ad agencies or electrical businesses, it’s just part of what we do. Digital must be the same. There is no such thing as digital; digital is everything. There is no such thing as the digital age, it’s just today. There is no such thing as a digital agency, job title or or person.

In many ways, social is the opposite. Digital is new and is everything, social is old and is nothing. For there to be social media, there would have to be non-social media.There would need to be a form of media in which is refuse to remember of share anything that we got from that message.  

Humans are social creatures, we’ve always talked and shared, our defining feature as a species is communication, even the caves at Lascaux had a wall. Social media is our memories, our stories, our emails, our Yelp reviews, our recommendations, “social media” isn’t special, in fact it’s probably one of the least used places to share our experiences.

In the modern age, a brand is what a brand does, so your social strategy is the same as your brand strategy, it’s having good staff, a good product and good training. Social is everything that people do and say about your brands. Which is more likely to come from everything your brand does and not from its page on a social network.

Now, of course, “social media” is a place, Brands do need to be on Facebook, a bit. There are opportunities on Twitter, they can start and be part of conversations on forums, on Instagram and use Facebook. But this is not a vertical channel to manage.

Marketing made a mistake in the year 2000. We added interactive marketing as an new and vertical channel because that's what we’d done with all new marketing disciplines. We later did the same with digital, social media, mobile and more recently innovation and content.  We now have about 13 parallel verticals in marketing, including brand, retail, CRM and Advertising. We made a huge mistake. 

Social media, content, mobile are not verticals; they are horizontals that cut through every other channel. We need to stop thinking of all these new disciples as channels and start thinking of them as places to optimize existing disciplines. We get the art of advertising on mobile, the art of social platforms for advertising, the same for mobile and content.

The exception is digital. Digital is so big, so profound, so existential, that digital is the entire world that we operate in.

3 comments about "Let's Drop The Words Digital And Social".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, October 14, 2014 at 8:03 a.m.

    Totally agree Tom. Here in Australia all TV is digital only. Most cinema screens are digital. Around 20% of OOH is digital. All major newspapers and magazines are available digitally (and typically have higher cumulative audience). Digital radio is starting to get real traction. Digital is an increasingly irrelevant adjective. It's like describing a stonemason building a cathedral as "hammer and chisel". I vote for "Interactive" because that is what differentiates it from all the other digitally delivered media.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, October 14, 2014 at 8:31 a.m.

    I also agree, Tom. The problem is that the major ad agencies as well as their clients are rigidly compartmentalized, which means that most of their functions are handled by "specialists", not "generalists". This saves on person power and avoids the need to train many people to understand many disciplines, then lose them to other companies who offer them a better deal. Supposedly, all of the functions and elements are coordinated, somehow, but that's really an illusion. It almost never happens.

  3. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, October 15, 2014 at 7:17 a.m.

    Thanks Ed, I agree with your comment, but I'm not suggesting we become more generalist, I am suggesting we just rearrange ourselves to be aligned around people and how they experience brands. To have a "social media" agency or "mobile agency" merely creates vast gaps or overlaps in campaigns. If we aligned around a brand and brought in mobile experts, social experts etc, it would be far better.

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