Digital won’t last. It’s already on its last legs as an advertising industry specialisation and about time too. Coming from an agency professional with a 15-year grounding in digital communication this sounds like a betrayal. It’s not.
International and local trends indicate that digital is becoming part of the mainstream communication mix. Separation of digital formats as a distinct campaign element still happens, but this increasingly identifies the digital component as an afterthought rather than an integral part of a wider concept. Agencies that ‘get it’ realise that digital is an infrastructure, not a medium.
A growing number of agencies appreciate that it’s just not best practice to hive off digital. Leading brands have reached the same conclusion.
It’s therefore a safe bet that within a few years the digital label will become irrelevant. Major campaigns will all contain digital components. There will be no need to set the specialisation apart. It will be as ludicrous as emphasising typography as a subset of print media art direction. Everybody knows it’s part of the package.
Honesty, a Swedish agency, recently dumped all digital roles as a way of making every team member responsible for all creative output whether it plays out on Facebook, radio or TV.
Part of the rationale is that the Internet spotlights the need for speed. Separation impedes high tempo interaction with consumers. A focused approach to storytelling, no matter what format, can also help an agency strip out overheads.
The trend is clear. Digital is everybody’s business. It no longer belongs to the geeks.
This does not mean we won’t see specialist resistance. Protecting your special status is understandable.
What is a techie really saying when he tells you ‘we’re debating HTML5 versus Flash, but we’ve prioritised a high SERP ranking through VSEO and will be adopting Augmented Reality protocols’?
A simple translation might be: “I don’t want non-specialists to understand a word I’m saying because I prefer to retain ownership of the digital turf.”
Over time, however, digital defensiveness will be less and less of an option.
Some supposedly traditional creatives are acquiring good overall understanding of digital and social channels. They’re excited by opportunities to achieve greater impact by developing concepts that work in lots of ways for lots of people. The advertising playing field has just become a whole lot bigger.
They are looking to create advertising that’s an interaction, not an interruption, and are willing to explore various avenues to that goal.
After all, the audience doesn’t care about digital or traditional labels. That’s a debate for industry insiders. Consumers use whatever format suits them best.
There’s a message for us here. Effective brand interaction is ideas based, not media dependent or led.
It would be absurd to categorise the Red Bull Stratos space jump project purely as a made-for-YouTube viral ad. Admittedly, it achieved all sorts of streaming records, but Red Bull also earned massive noting across TV and print media (not bad for a piece that had no budget for TV, print or outdoor).
It’s a great idea that’s hugely relevant to a brand that gives you wings.
‘Dumb Ways to Die’ became a social media phenomenon, but digital does not have exclusive claim to the success achieved by the safety message for Australia’s Metro Trains. The message went viral and was posted on the tumblr microblogging site, but it also went into newspapers, radio, outdoor and on Metro Trains.
‘Dumb Ways to Die’ became a catchy hit song and then morphed into a game app.
Work back to the origins of the idea and the odds are you won’t find some specialist who piped up ‘I think I’ve got a neat digital media concept’.
The breakthrough was more fundamental than that. Someone decided it would be a great idea to get cute with accidental death. An idea as disruptive as that developed its own traction. Digital made it better. The technology empowered the idea.
Two other factors will contribute to digital’s demise as a distinct specialisation.
The first is the erosion of the ad industry gap between authority and expertise.
Currently, the under-35s tend to be quite comfortable with digital terms and thinking. They have familiarity, but (most) lack authority. However, in a few years, they will be the over-40s and will be industry decision-makers. For them, digital will be part of the palette. It won’t reside in a separate can someone left in the basement.
The second factor is self-interest.
After a period of defensiveness, the digital specialist will realise that big ideas (and big-money campaigns) make you famous and beef up your bottom line. This realisation has already dawned – just look at the high rate of senior creative talent swapping between digital marketers and ad agencies.
‘Migrants’ will continue to gravitate to wider creative teams who recognise no artificial boundaries and simply work to achieve the greatest success for clients, irrespective of format.
You can work as a mechanic or you can help design the vehicle. Developers and designers earn more than mechanics. It makes commercial sense to move away from the nuts and bolts and closer to the creative action.
This isn’t selling out. This is buying into a bigger future. That future is closer than many digital specialists think.
By Clint Bryce
Clint Bryce is Executive Creative Director (Digital) of Johannesburg-based advertising agency, TBWA\ Hunt Lascaris.