Digital Is Dead – Long Live TV and The Web!

Nigel Walley –  July 2009

I received a flyer in the post from the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) the other day, outlining the curriculum of their ‘Complete Digital Marketing Course’.  What was remarkable about this flyer and its grandiose claim, was just how incomplete the course was.  In a week when AudiTV launched an on-demand service on Virgin cable’s Showcase, and Honda’s webTV service moved to the front page of the BT Vision EPG, there was nothing about breakthrough digital TV marketing in it at all.  With Sky launching green button advertising on the satellite platforms, there was nothing about interactive television formats; and with both Sky and Virgin developing targeted broadcast and targeted on-demand mechanisms, there was nothing about converged marketing principles, bringing together internet techniques with broadcast content.  And it wasn’t just TV that was ignored.


At a time when DAB is firmly back on the radar screens thanks to Lord Carter, there was nothing about digital radio marketing, and in a week when I stood in Victoria station watching coverage of the Tehran rioters on the big newscreen, there was nothing about digital outdoor. The DMA was of course just a session on web marketing, with a bit of mobile thrown in for amusement. As you can see though, it wasn’t the pompousness of the word ‘complete’ that struck me.  It was the redundancy of the word ‘digital’ in a marketing context.
In Decipher, we have been saying for a long time that if you use the word ‘digital’ in a marketing context, it is because you are too stupid or too lazy to use a more accurate word.  Unfortunately, the trade press and the agency world are complicit in re-inforcing this ineptness. If you read the new media trade press, the word digital is used predominantly to refer to stuff that is simply web marketing.  On a good day, it refers to both web and mobile.  If you speak to any digital agency, you will find they are web marketing agencies who do a bit of mobile when required.  This is not intended to diminish their contribution. The world of web marketing has emerged as a complex, multi-faceted market with many, sophisticated formats, products, currencies, reporting systems and analysis techniques.  But it is still only web marketing. Most digital agencies don’t address all internet formats, let alone all digital formats.
There is an equally complex, multi-faceted market landscape growing up around Digital TV which is being ignored by the marketing community.  As Tess Alps said in NMA this week, ‘TV is part of the new media age as much as the internet’.  The truth is that if you take Google out of the equation most ‘digital’ marketing money is spent on TV.   The new media industry doesn’t seem to have spotted this.  In Marketing magazine last week, Fiona Ramsay talked about how red button had failed as a format, but I had just received an announcement saying that Sky was running their 40th red button campaign of the year, up on this time last year. The backdrop to this red button advertising is a continued growth in red button use around content. During Wimbledon this year, over half of all digital homes pressed red more than three times.  This is the same week that the BBC and ITV announced that they were creating TV widget for iPlayer and that could be launched from broadcast on Yahoo Widget enabled TVs.  Sky also announced the Autumn launch of SkyPlayer for Xbox.  Now, who is meant to deal with the marketing implications of these new formats. The truth is that red button and other emerging TV formats don’t fit the nice ‘traditional vs digital’ structure the industry likes to work in.

The reason this matters is that it highlights the failure of the traditional side of media to deal with the emerging TV formats and systems.  Whilst these are predominantly TV formats, they are too hard for the traditional agencies to deal with, but too integrated with broadcast for web or DM agencies to do anything meaningful with. So the industry ignores them.  The red button stuff is just a symptom of this, but it is the part of the story that has never been written about red button.  Red button is essentially a TV medium that was given to the internet and DM agencies to deal with because the main agencies didn’t get it.  But the internet and DM industries couldn’t make the necessary content because the TV budget had always been spent by the main agencies and the other agencies weren’t able to plan for its use in the context of a TV campaign.  We heard this story over and over again over the last few years.  A newly emerging example of this inability to deal with emerging TV formats is online video advertising.  We are now hearing that  ‘traditional’ agencies don’t understand it but  ‘Digital’ agencies don’t have the capability of making the right content or planning it in the context of a TV deal.  We hear this two or three times a week at the moment and it all sounds very familiar.  ‘Digital’ agencies unable to deal with a digital format. The truth is that online video is predominantly a brand format that needs to be planned and created as part of a TV campaign and neither ‘traditional’ of ‘digital’ agencies are set up to do it.
The trouble is that they think they are.   John Owen of Dare said in last week’s Campaign that ‘digital is a state of mind, not a description of channels’.  Well it is a pretty blinkered state of mind.  Nobody with the word ‘digital’ in their job title ever seems to have an opinion on the cost of advertising on Sky Channels, ITV3 or MTV, even though they are digital-only channels, let alone knowing anything about TV interactivity, TV on demand or IPTV marketing formats.  The truth is that, at a time when we need broad minded integration of agencies,  the so called ‘digital’ industry has become as parochial and small minded as traditional media. No less a figure than Mike Nutley of New Media Age commented on this last year.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, marketing people have even started using the word ‘digital’ as a noun, as in ‘we are going to use ‘digital’. The minute that the word ‘digital’ shifts from adjective to noun, you know that it has had its day. It is a useless word for our market and deserves derision.  But then, we have been here before.
Back in the mid 80s, before all of this new media nonsense, I was working as an architect for a very trendy company in Soho designing bars and restaurants.  In those days we didn’t call them architectural practices, with the fusty connotation that brought.  We worked for ‘design’ practices.  These ‘designers’ were made up of architects, furniture designers, graphic designers and other assorted visionaries who we were slowly repackaging the world, in a festival of Philippe Starck inspired ‘design’ enthusiasm.  However, towards the end of the 80s, something very odd happened to the word ‘design’.  It started to be stuck in front of anything vaguely unusual, or contrived. It gradually even transmogrified into ‘designer’ which slowly became a term of derision, like ‘estate agent’. The word ‘design’ became redundant and architects started calling themselves architects again.
Even before the arrival of the DMA’s ridiculous flyer, I had been thinking about a similar demise of the word ‘digital’. This was mainly because of Stephen Carter. For the last few weeks he has been addressing an assorted rag bag of unrelated issues, under the title of Digital Britain.  This phrase has the same amount of credibility as Cool Britannia.  You initially think it sounds good, and then its overwhelming vacuousness creeps up on you.  You knew that BritPop was over as a phenomenon when Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell tried to harness it under the Cool Britannia initiative.  It’s the kind of embarrassing thing that your Dad dreams up when he is trying to get hip with the kids. I am hoping that Digital Britain has finally done the same for the word digital in popular parlance.  Somehow we need to address the problems it causes in creating damaging demarcations in the marketing industry.
This may happen in the same way as with the word ‘designer, where the realization of how vacuous the word was crept into mainstream consciousness.  In this morning’s Times, Libby Purves wrote: ‘the word ‘digital’ joins a long list of adjectives too exciting for their own good’. When even someone as ‘analogue’ as Libby Purves spots the ridiculousness of a technological word, then you know that it has had its day.  I work in media.

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