One of the plethora of wonderful people that I met in Bournemouth at this year’s Silicon Beach event was Simon White. He’s formerly of the ad world, and these days thinks of ideas and then makes them happen – I aspire to such ideals.

Today he wrote an article for the magazine Imperia, and whilst I agree with much of the sentiment, I couldn’t disagree more with the major point: that the term “digital” needs to die. His last line called for debate – here I take that thrown gauntlet and, erm, waved it around a bit in a slightly inflammatory manner.

The term “digital” means a hundred and one things, and it also means nothing at all. Whilst I was at the BBC from the mid 1990s to the mid 00s, the term was in common use, but there was somewhat more specific as we went through the infrastructural move from being an industry based on analogue reproduction technology to one based on bits and bytes. It was a huge transition and one, with the glaring exception of radio, that kind of reached it’s zenith with the recent end of analogue TV transmission so that we can now all enjoy surfing more pictures of cats on our mobile phones.

The term “digital” in the context of the marketing industry is far less specific from a technical perspective, but has come to be a shorthand for the era in which we live. Think of it like “Victorian”, “Modern”, “Space Age”, “Cold War” or a host of other terms that have intrinsic meaning about the era that they spanned.

Eventually this era will end, because they always do, and we’ll stop talking about “digital”; but we are so far away from that point that it’s still needed to be called out in my not so humble opinion.

As an example of the difference between digital and pre-digital era thinking, think iTunes and Spotify. iTunes took the music industry technically into the digital age, with end-to-end digital distribution of content; Spotify rethought music distribution business models fit for the digital age.

The digital age has many facets. The cost of distribution in the digital age is as close to zero as makes no odds. The access to the means of distribution in the digital age is available to the majority, not the minority. The digital age is about two-way communication, not broadcasting.

And whilst I’d agree with Simon that “…the idea that art directing an email takes any more skill than it does for a 6-page roll fold, or that writing a campaign line that activates through Facebook is any different from writing a campaign line that is delivered on packaging, I’m sorry but your argument is invalid.” fundamentally it takes different skills, and the marketing industry is so far from getting that at the moment that we need to keep hammering the term digital until it does.

For example, digital outdoor advertising is described in terms of “sheets”. Those big video display screens at bus shelters? They’re a “six-sheet”. Which is totally understood by everyone in the Outdoor industry, which is why all you really see on those screens is static software versions of posters.

For another example, that for all of the talk about multi-channel or omni-channel, the only time digital marketing people get their peers in the broader industry wet with excitement is when they talk about big numbers of retweets, likes, shares and so on: basically paid for mass media models on the cheap. Ooh, Coca Cola has 75 million friends on Facebook…

The thing is, “digital” is a crap term. It needs some brand consulting which will never happen. It’s the best we’ve got, but for as long as so much of the industry is caught trying to hold on to old models, we need something to call out as the “new” even if that term is a bit old hat.

4 thoughts on “The need for Digital

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