Battle Of The Ages: The Digital vs.Traditional Media Debate

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the advertising industry in recent years is well aware of the struggle. Call it what you will — old vs young, traditional vs. digital — the issue remains the same. Agencies and internal marketing departments alike have been divided by generations on the subject of where to allot their advertising dollars — in traditional media like radio, print and television or in web, social media and mobile. 

This is an ongoing struggle that will continue to develop over time. So what are the arguments for each faction?


Millennials are the newest and youngest generation in the workforce today. Aged 18-34, they have grown up with everything digital — computers, cell phones, Internet and tablets.

Because of this, they look to digital advertising as the holy grail of the marketing world, arguing that as tablet and smartphone adoption continues to grow, fewer consumers are accessing traditional media at all. Additionally, digital advertisements can provide metrics that clearly and quickly demonstrate the efficacy of a particular campaign.



Millennials are not incorrect in this assumption — the metrics that come from digital advertising are effective and appealing to clients. In fact, Internet ad revenues hit $12.4 billion in the third quarter of 2014, which is the highest quarterly total to date.

Baby Boomers and Gen-X

The older generation in the workforce — the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers  — aged 35-65, have a more traditional stance and have been able to see the true impact of traditional media over the years, including radio, television and print advertising.

They can argue that these are the platforms that reach the most eyes and can have the biggest impact on the masses. In fact, according to the Nielsen State of the Media report, traditional broadcast radio reaches more than 245 million Americans every day and 91 percent of all demographics and Americans spend 155:32 hours per month watching traditional TV. 

Not only does the reach of traditional media prove their point, but so do the advertising dollars. The total 2015 ad spend is estimated at $187 billion, with digital predicted to account for a mere 28 percent of that.

So, What is the Compromise? The answer isn’t one or the other, but rather a hybrid of the two. Fortunately, new technologies are enabling advertisers to improve campaign performance by capitalizing on the best of both worlds.

Here are some emerging technologies that are helping to bridge this generational gap:

Integrated mobile apps tied to broadcast media: Currently, 75 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Therefore, mobile integration is one of the most important ways for advertisers to reach and measure their audience. Historically, traditional media has lacked in the ability to show real engagement, click-throughs and ROI. Today, there are new integrated mobile apps tied to broadcast media that leverage the reach and great content provided through traditional media. This technology allows the audience to engage and interact with that content in real time. For example, if there is a contest, advertisement or a deal broadcast on radio, advertisers can access the details or download the coupon, which are available on the integrated mobile radio apps.

Companion apps offering extended content: According to Nielsen, 86 percent of smart phone owners say that they use their phone as a second screen while watching TV, and half do it every day. This is a practice that has grown and evolved dramatically throughout the years. More devices mean more ways to reach people in different and new ways with additional content. By spreading the advertising spend across a variety of media, firms can better position and reinforce their message and offer content that extends beyond the broadcast content to further involve the consumer into the content.

Location-Based Technology: One of the best ways to track the ROI of traditional media advertising is to use the latest in beacon and GPS technologies to directly measure sales from consumers who hear something on the radio or see it on TV and then walk into a physical location to shop, eat or enjoy entertainment. This is a great way to use traditional media paired with modern technologies to track the power of both media.

As this debate continues within advertising agencies, there will never be a single solution. The answer is that everyone is right. Traditional media should continue to be part of the mix and be paired with digital/mobile counterparts that offer ROI metrics. Every day we see great opportunity and proof that pairing traditional with digital creates a great recipe for successful campaigns with the metrics to prove it. 

4 comments about "Battle Of The Ages: The Digital vs.Traditional Media Debate".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 18, 2015 at 5:11 p.m.

    Sara, you did a fine job covering the story as many see it. The basic mistake that "outsiders" make is their assumption that advertisers should always follow the audience---in effect, that audience findings should dictate where an advertiser spends his dollars. Yet, this is rarely the case. Radio may reach almost everyone per week and magazines can make the same claim if the time frame is extended to 4-6 weeks, but that has no significance. Advertisers are concerned first and foremost about ad exposure---having their ad message fully viewable---or hearable---and secondly, about the impact of such exposures.

    Beyond ad impact, these are other considerations that may be audience related, but not in the literal, sense. For example, many of the high CPM TV buys---hit primetime broadcast network shows or TV sports, for example---are based, in large part, on the merchandiseability of "sponsoring" these big buzz events. In such cases, it matters a great deal if "the trade" ( and other influential parties ) is impressed when national advertisers "support" their brands in such environments----even if the trade has no idea what the ratings are and, probably, thinks that the entire world is watching----as might have been the case in 1970.

    Finally, advertisers are concerned with the environment their ads appear in and related factors like ad clutter, which diminishes the value of their ad "exposures". In other words, audience engagement is a very large part of the equation---not just the size of the audience.

    It may well be that many advertisers are and have been making arbitrary media mix decisions for some time based on outmoded thinking or misconceptions, but the way to convince them is not an endless barrage of "audience" or ad spending statistics. Instead, deal with the real issues, especially ad impact and other factors that relate directly to the impact of an ad campaign.

  2. Gordon Borrell from Borrell Associates, May 19, 2015 at 8:36 a.m.

    There's an enormous amount of evidence over the past century demonstrating how the youth of any particular period react when a new medium is introduced.  Despite predictions that kids growing up with radio will never read newspapers, or kids growing up with TV will never listen to radio, the reality has never matched the predictions. However, we have reached a tipping point, I believe, where traditional media can't smugly point to the past and predict that they'll be around forever.  I've been monitoring a survey of 7,000+ local advertisers -- the ones who really matter to traditional media -- and I've seen something that indicates we may see vast changes over the next three years. Advertisers now own their own medium, and they're peeling money from expensive traditional media channels to help manage it.  When P&G cuts its ad budget 14% in one year and slices a half-billion from its agency fees, something's afoot.  The deer have the guns, my friends.

  3. Sara Sisenwein from Clip Interactive, May 20, 2015 at 10:34 a.m.

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I have spent most of my career on the advertising side and agree with your point on the focus being on the reach and impact of the advertisement. What I experienced in the advertising agencies that I worked in, and I continue to see in our advertising partners, is a divide in the current generations in the workplace on whether traditional or digital media is the best way to make that impact.

    We are trying to communicate that there isn’t one answer but both sides are correct. It is tough to measure the ad engagement of traditional advertising without some digital media tied to it. It is very much up to the advertising agency or media outlet to educate their client on their options and what each metric really means.

    Thanks again for your comment. If you would like to discuss further, my emails is


  4. Sara Sisenwein from Clip Interactive, May 20, 2015 at 10:34 a.m.

    Hi Gordon, 

    The point you bring up is really interesting. I believe that we have seen vast changes in advertising in the last three years, so it doesn’t surprise me that there may be even more changes in the next three years. This is a constantly changing industry with new technology being developed almost daily. The point that I am making is that everyone needs to adapt — the people focused on traditional and the people focused on digital. It's interesting to see how the industry evolves.

    Thanks for your comment!


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