The Fallacy of Digital Marketing as a Discipline

For years I have steadfastly maintained that we only do three things in marketing: We create awareness, we sell stuff, or we manage relationships — in other words, we’re either branding, direct marketing, or doing public relations. Everything else is a media choice.

It’s a simple model, but one that I believe makes an essential point: As much as technology may change, the basic principles of marketing do not.

Why is this important? Because, elevating media into marketing disciplines has led us to make myopic decisions that are hindering our ability to effectively reach consumers.

There is no place for a distinct discipline of digital marketing (or social media marketing or mobile marketing, for that matter) any more than there is a place for television or print marketing as disciplines. These are all simply media choices in which we’re trying to effect awareness, sales, or relationship. Yet, by giving new media the distinction of being disciplines unto themselves, we’ve done a grave disservice to their role and value within the marketing toolbox. Instead of allowing them to evolve naturally into the dominant media choices that they are becoming, our initial segregation of digital media as a distinct discipline has led to a few fundamental problems that are threatening to destroy the entire advertising and marketing ecosystem.

Under-Valuation of Media and Services

If digital is becoming the dominant media, why are online publishers struggling to make ends meet? The reason is simple: Digital undervalued itself from the beginning and is now caught in a trap of its own making.

Early digital media advocates had a dilemma. They had to convince the marketing establishment to take them seriously. After all, they were new and unproven. So, as an industry they did the one thing every desperate marketer does: They discounted.

From the very beginning we found ourselves in a race to the bottom. Digital positioned itself as the cheaper, faster solution that could target more efficiently at a fraction of the cost of traditional medias. It was a compelling pitch that worked — for a time.

But as the economics of running a company shook out, many agencies, media brands, and adtech firms simply couldn’t compete. Discount digital doesn’t work without scale and volume, so while behemoths like Google and Facebook can show profit by catering to everyone, many other ad platforms struggle to survive. Worst of all, marquee brands have been conditioned to treat digital as they used to treat coupon circulars, buying as a commodity, rather than as a considered brand-building choice on the now-dominant media. And, if we learned anything from marketing history, we know that it’s almost impossible to reposition a discount product as a premium one.

Remedial Strategies for Integration

The second problem with segregating digital media as a discipline is that it has effectively left ad planning in a state of remedial thinking. While consumers flow seamlessly from media to media without hesitation, advertising strategy continues to create plans in neat and tidy buckets. Digital strategists work on digital plans. Ad strategists work on television plans. And when they cross into each other’s territories, they do so in a bolt-on fashion, attempting to attach a cool digital idea to a completely baked general campaign.

Integration means more than just smashing media together. It takes a whole new way of thinking about the consumer journey, acknowledging that a campaign needs to tell an evolving story of contextual relevance at every touch point. But everything about the structures of advertising and marketing strategy is mired in ten year old thinking, and just now beginning to wake up to the fact that things have changed.

Stifling of Innovation

Silos in businesses have a funny way of preserving the old, while keeping out disruptions. So, while traditionally focused ad agencies and brand teams love to be impressed by innovative new technologies and approaches they see during lunch and learns, they still get to keep digital disruption from remaking the system.

If from the beginning digital had been embraced as a part of the greater process of brand planning or relationship building, it would have transformed the ways that we communicated to and with the consumer. Instead, two decades into the digital revolution we’re still hanging on to old thinking, trying to understand the impact of new technologies as novices rather than the experts we should be by now.

Commoditization of Customer Interaction

Perhaps the most damning result of digital segregation is that we’ve devalued the customer almost totally into data points. Digital, left to its own devices and largely bereft of the wisdom gained from a century of traditional advertising and marketing planning, has taken hold of an unprecedented wealth of consumer insights only to drown the consumer in an incomprehensible deluge of ads.

It’s almost as if the lack of scarcity in digital ad inventory has created in us a terrible gluttony that demands us to fill the abyss with more crap. Meanwhile, thought about the customer experience has been almost completely sidelined. It’s no wonder that ad blocking is on the rise and brand loyalty is shrinking. We’ve traded in meaningful interactions for nuclear-bomb levels of reach and frequency.

The Good News

Fortunately, though, the tide is changing finally. Some twenty years after many of the first digital shops emerged, some are transitioning to agency of record relationships that look at the entirety of the brand experience across devices and medias. Meanwhile traditional shops are beginning to offer more than an ancillary digital team, instead incorporating technologists and digital thinkers during the earliest stages of campaign development.

But in the end, it’s not digital expertise alone that will save the businesses of advertising and marketing. We need to get back to basics and understand that while the tools are changing, our objectives remain the same. We brand. We sell. We relate. We just need to learn how to do it more seamlessly across the increasing complexity of the average consumers media experience.