Crossing the Digital Divide

Remember the days when technology belonged to adults? Parents would shop for it, buy it, install it, and caution the kids not to break it. Today, children are the technology experts. They are teaching their parents about new technologies and how to use them. They are the digital natives, and they are leaving the rest of us behind. In some ways, technology is the new generation gap.

Similarly, young digital ad agencies (or divisions) are moving forward quickly while general ad agencies, digital immigrants, are still trying to transition their core business into the digital age. Problem is, it's a transformation, not a transition. It requires new ways of thinking, new expertise, and new processes. That said: It's not impossible. It can start with simply changing the way we talk about what we do to reflect the new rules of the road, the new dynamics of digital.

Advertising has remained relatively stable for most of its history. There have been several major adaptations, from mass marketing, to target marketing, crm, one-to-one marketing, etc. Even with these changes, ads from 100 years ago for Ivory Soap are as recognizable as advertising as those produced five days ago. Since entering the digital age, however, this is no longer the case. The digital advertising of today and tomorrow has the potential to take on completely new forms and functions, making it a new breed of advertising.

The digital dynamic is constitutionally different than analog media. A media universe that's software-based, interactive, non-linear, mobile, and that merges professional and personal activities into one interconnected system is a universe in which the rules for advertising change, but the opportunities multiply. The task for us is to reorient our creative processes so that we can imagine and build new forms of advertising for this new context. We need to infuse our industry with new keywords to invent, energize and deploy digitally relevant creative ideas.

We need to make a seismic shift from thinking about advertising as communications to thinking about advertising as action. It means that we need to stop focusing on what we're going to say to people to persuade them and more on what we're going to do for people or with people to prove our relevance and loyalty to them.

In the digital age, the implicit contract between people and advertising has been broken. In the analog era - when access to media was free and audiences consumed content in a linear and prescribed manner - the exchange was "content for time." In the digital age, the new exchange is "value for time." They're not going to engage with advertising unless they get something out of the experience. This something is value. It doesn't mean that advertising has to be equivalent to customer service. But, it does mean we have to discover more and more innovative ways to make the advertising worth coming to and spending time with.

In the world of liquid media, people consume content like kayakers run a river. They move quickly, simultaneously clicking, downloading, reading, and watching on multiple windows or devices. Interruption-advertising stops the flow. To avoid being a roadblock, we need to understand our customers' lives - what they're trying to achieve in terms of tasks, objectives, and feelings - and then integrate into them, speeding them up, not slowing them down. We need be a means to their ends, not holding them up but helping them to take off.

Any agency that strictly adheres to this new philosophy will thrive in the digital age - an era of new consumer expectations about advertising - regardless of how much "digital" advertising they create. But, how do we come up with ideas that deliver on this? We need change how we think about whom we're advertising to, where we're advertising, what we're advertising in, and ultimately what advertising itself is.

Don't think of audiences, but rather participants. Changing this one word, in and of itself, would revolutionize advertising. The abandonment of the concept of audiences would allow us to move beyond the past 100 years of advertising assumptions. It would allow us to re-conceive our role as marketers, our relationship with customers, and the very essence of what creative is, what it does, and why it exists. Our advertising needs to work with and live among customers. It needs to create an opportunity for people to do something with us. To some degree, we've been doing this in "below the line" activities (direct marketing, guerilla marketing, promotions, and events). Now, we have to integrate - and evolve - this thinking in our branding practices.

In the world of fluid media consumption, multiple device usage, and gps-enabled messaging (already activated by Google and integrated into the new iPhones), we need to think less about measuring generalized attitudes and behaviors. We need to observe more closely and literally where people go, when, and why. How can we be a facilitator of their emotional momentum and practical needs? How can we provide value and entertainment in a way that's contextually relevant to where they are? Samsung's charging-stations in airports, Charmin's bathrooms in Times Square, and American Express's Members Lounge in shopping malls are good real-world examples.

Prior to the digital age, advertising existed in stable increments of time or space. Channels - being linear and non-interactive - allowed this to be so. The form and function of advertising reflected this. The Internet, however,
is software based and necessitates thinking in terms of platforms. It is an organic association of applications living on top of one another. It supports both top-down (corporate) innovation and bottom-up (user-generated) innovation. It's not so much a pipeline for content as an ever-changing capability for interaction. As such, it allows advertising to be and do whatever the capabilities support. In the digital environment, advertising may no longer look like advertising. What this means is that we need to follow capability changes in the platforms that we build advertising on. Each software upgrade, new gadget, breakthrough, and advancement in mobile technology represents new territory for advertising ideas to come to life.

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