Thursday, January 18, 2007

Digital: just another media channel?

Wow... I was a bit cross when I wrote this.  But it does seem like we still suffer from the same complacency; just recently another media agency person was quoted saying the 'natural home' for digital was in the media agency.  With this sort of self-satisfied smugness, no wonder we were able to take hundreds of millions of pounds of business away from the traditional agencies over the 11 years we ran i-level.

I’ve spent the last twelve years in online media, trying to avoid sounding like an evangelist.  Not because I don’t believe that the emergence of digital media will change our world, or because I don’t think it’ll have far reaching consequences for our business.

No.  I don’t want to be an evangelist, because all that foaming at the mouth tends to distract attention from the simple fact that effective business can be created online.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of belief – you just need to examine the evidence.

Fourteen years on from the creation of the first commercial website, the tables have turned.  Now, we marvel at the self delusion not of the evangelist, but of the luddite.  But still, last week’s publication of the IPA’s Bellwether Report revealed something interesting about the last seven years in media. 

As I mentioned last week, across that period there has been just one quarter in which spend on digital media fell.  Over the same period, spend on other media fell in seventeen quarters.  Now I don’t claim any special powers here, but it seems to me that even a fairly rudimentary analysis might imply something was happening here.

But despite this, until the last few months, digital media has been largely dismissed by traditional media folk.  Now, of course they’re all “putting digital at the heart of the organisation”.

This unseemly rush to appear all digital has prompted a rash of pronouncements as new converts seek to demonstrate the fervour and depth of their new beliefs.

“There’s a realisation it’s just another media channel” –opines the important-sounding Managing Director of Digital and Direct at a major media agency in another part of the trade press recently, staking his claim for handling online media.

Now setting aside for a moment the fact that of course, coming from a media agency, he’d very much like to see it that way; this is nevertheless a stupendously complacent thing to say.

Digital is not just another media channel.  It is a channel to market.  It is a means to listen to consumers.  Entirely new markets have emerged because of it, and new businesses that could never have existed before are now a part of our everyday lives – Google, eBay, Hotmail,, Craigslist. 

People talk to each other online, via email, messenger and skype.  They work online, researching and creating.  They buy products online, and research products online they’re going to buy offline.  Only a small part of what they do in digital media is analogous to their consumption of media – so if you only see digital as “just another media channel”, you’ll only see a small part of the rich variety of activities that consumers pursue online.

But even when you look at it from an operational point of view, the way that the principal online channels operate in digital is radically different from a traditional media planning environment.  Search and affiliate marketing (which make up more than half of expenditure on digital) are not markets where negotiation is relevant.  Share, volume and discount dealing isn’t a skill set that has any use here, and search engine optimisation (so-called Natural Search) could not be more unlike trading media. 

So when you look at it like this, it’s not “just another media channel” at all.

No person or company on earth fully understands what impact the internet is going to have on our lives.  So for one person to trivialise the internet’s impact by claiming they’ve got it taped says far more about them than it does about the phenomenon they’re trying to catch up with.

This is the most dynamic, creative and challenging business in the world.  It’s a market which changes constantly, and reinvents itself every few months.  With such rapid evolution taking place we have to embrace uncertainty, being flexible and responsive to developments.  So as the saying goes, beware of the man who knows the answer before he understands the question…

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