Digital, social, mobile and the problem with buzzwords

What is digital? The idea, the technology, the interaction, the behavior? Aren't good ideas just good ideas?

BBH Lab’s founder Mel Exon has a great post over on the Labs blog this week, asking do we still need the word digital in our advertising and marketing vocabulary.  Isn’t everything digital? Won’t the use of the word just perpetuate the erroneous labeling of ideas, defining them as either digital or not digital?

The dilemma with words that have lots of meanings is that not everyone interprets them similarly. Is digital an application? Or the device on which it runs? Is it the process by which it’s made?  Or the code that makes it work?  We call people, departments and strategies digital.  Does that mean if you don’t have the word in your title that you’re not digital?

Consumers, however, don’t think in terms or labels.  They simply engage.

Hey, there’s a QR code on that billboard for a new camera that I can scan in order to access a video that demonstrates the features of the camera (along with a link to a Facebook page with comments from users) which I can email to a friend who can store it in her Springpad app (client), which will connect her to the best price on the web so she can buy the product directly from her Smartphone while paying for it with any of a variety of online options.

Is that digital? Or just advertising? Maybe it’s mobile. Or social. Two more terms to complicate things. Some people define mobile as a device. If you’re in marketing, maybe you consider it a channel. But isn’t it really a behavior? It’s not my phone that’s mobile. I’m mobile. I’m the one who is in motion, untethered yet connected, demanding remote access and contextual information. Same with social. It’s not a medium. It, too, is a behavior, exhibited by both individuals, and if they’re smart, companies and brands.

The example above is just basic marketing. Awareness that leads to a product demonstration that allows for sharing and subsequently a transaction. Presumably the billboard was attention getting and its location right for the audience.  But the most important component in the entire process was the consumer for whom the experience isn’t digital but simply convenient, fun, informative and easy.

Which brings us back to the D-word. To a newspaper it may refer to a technological platform. To a retailer it’s an online presence and a convenient shopping experience.

But to those of us in marketing, digital should just be a mindset that inspires us to create experiences and utility rather than messages or ads.

Inside agencies and marketing departments that’s not always the case. Based on what I hear at workshops and conferences, people still solve problems with positioning statements, headlines, and ad-like objects rather than with products, platforms and services.

As long as that’s the case, maybe we do need the word if for no other reason than to remind people to make rather than say. Or as Gareth Kay and Flo Heiss recommend, to “stop having advertising ideas and start having ideas worth advertising.”

Mel also concludes that we still need the word. (No doubt the award shows with their interactive categories, Ad Age with its digital edition, clients whose RFPs ask for digital capabilities, and all those agencies with funny names are breathing a sigh of relief.) After all, digital, in all of its manifestations, is still in its infancy. What we create, the skills we need, the processes we use, the ways in which we monetize products and services, are just getting figured out. The word serves a purpose. I just hope it ends up uniting people — creatives, planners, strategists, clients, consumers–rather than segregating them.  And that it makes for better ideas.

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Got to agree with you Edward and yet...Ben K has a point. Even when we build platforms for participation, they need amplifying. Right now, bought media has a valid role in doing what it does best: raising awareness and persuading people to give whatever you're selling a try. I came across this today - whilst I don't agree with a lot of it, some interesting points about the primary role of good old display advertising in driving people to search for a brand or visit a brand's site:

I'm okay with the idea that a brand could talk conversationally with me one day and get up on stage and perform persuasively the next. (Although being squeamish and British, I far, far prefer the idea that this is with the aim of offering choice versus "educating people to want").

The only question here surely is: was the experience of either any good?


Ah, nepotism.....we are all in the game, therefore we know.

Keep it simple folks...ask you clients what you do.

My clients say "yeah, you do that digital stuff" guess what- we are a digital agency. Works for us...easy to sell, clients know what we are talking about.

All this funky naval gazing and semanticising is great for after work and on the weekends with friends.

Keep it simple, don't confuse clients - get the account...then start expanding their minds with all this lateral thought.


Edward -
Seems to me that there’s a bit too much discussion around semantics going on lately. Hopefully your and Mel’s post can start putting it to bed so we can get on and do more make more stuff. Digital works just fine because, frankly, we can’t really envision the term for what this is rapidly becoming. But like Potter Stewart I’m sure we’ll know it when we see it. What I’m firmly convinced of is that the new term is it will be about making work that engages and drives collaboration.

This is where I humbly differ with Ben. Yes, we will always need awareness advertising to, well, make a lot of people aware, But awareness traditionally works on the model of a single source broadcast messaging to the masses. Digital, or whatever name we end up giving it, inherently incorporates the ability for the consumer to reply, mold, change and participate. This creates multi-source experiences that go beyond messaging, add value and change behavior. And when we change behavior our message becomes that much more effective.


This is a timely article. My mantra for a while now has been that we don't need to learn digital marketing, we need to find a way of seeing a new market. Here's an overview of my talk on digital at Portland State Uni last week -
Basically I discuss how "digital" blinds companies and marketers. They need a new way of seeing.



Great post. We've spent a great deal of time talking about this exact topic inside of [wire] stone. Being an agency that derives the majority of our revenue from elements that include a digital element, whether an application, technical-back end or an end-user touch point, we wonder if we even need to say 'digital' in our overview/positioning? We netted out, that for now, we do.

The reason is that our clients still lag our idealist mindset. Because an agency like [wire] stone is still vying for a seat at the table and clients don't know which 'bucket' to put us in. We can be the lead agency or digital specialist. Clients just don't believe that one agency can be great at all of the touch points because much of it requires special expertise. And, of course, the agency that owns the key insight and corresponding campaign-able idea, is the de facto the lead agency. How it gets done, through sub-contracting or on-staff is the key. Do clients really care if the development was done at another sub-contract shop? There a great deal of small digital shops that make great livings living off of big agencies that won't staff people and pass it through.

I do long for the day where we don't have to say 'digital' but many of yours and our competitors do not have a digital capability and fundamentally don't get it - I see it everyday. Until it becomes a ubiquitous set of services or clients are comfortable in the digital space, I fear we will have to specify.


I agree that the semantical distinction is fading, as it is with "social media" vs. "media."

I disagree with the concept that advertisers must now "make" rather than "say," because production and messaging both must work together, and messaging often requires push. *Pushing communications* on people who don't want them in an attempt to influence them is core to human and business behavior, and it will never go away, so I'm astounded that agencies seem so apologetic about it. Please.

There are three reasons:

1. Economic reality: There is always more supply than demand for new products. Consumers need to be educated to "want" wristwatches, phones with cameras, minivans, or agencies. Messaging push always comes before adoption.

2. Operational reality. Michael Porter's Value Chain is a good diagram of how marketing/sales is one link in overall corporate production to achieve profit margins. Pushing messages to the public is a requirement. Designing and building the product often come first, perhaps requiring years of development or building upon decades of momentum (say, our ties to the oil industry), so there is a disconnect between the perfection of the product and any current market demand. Messaging must fill that gap.

3. Communications reality: Dude, have you checked ad inventory lately? 90% of banner ad space is never sold. The average U.S. consumer has the TV on for 5 hours and 9 minutes a day. We are awash in ad inventory, and it needs to be filled, mostly with push messaging that is irrelevant, because most consumers tune most ads out.

Influence is what humans do, it's the negotiation between our ideas and others who have their own. It's not a bad thing. Of course, ideally advertisers would have more say in product development or the actual meaning of the product idea itself -- but the nirvana of alignment of perfect product and perfect idea and perfect consumer need will never happen in mass markets where people buy stuff based on whims, emotions, and messaging, where too many suppliers are pushing too much junk out.

Advertising works. It's wildly inefficient. But it's part of life, because there is far too much supply of people trying to push ideas into the world than there is demand from the end consumers willing to take them. Check it yourself -- go take a look at your inbound Twitter stream.


I've always had trouble with the word Digital. For awhile I considered myself a Digital Strategist, but I don't do TV- isn't TV technically Digital? It didn't resonate with me- felt too broad. So I started calling myself a Social Media Strategist, which I think is getting warmer... but as a friend pointed out recently, isn't that like someone calling themself an e-mail strategist? I remember awhile ago reading a post you did about putting check boxes on a business card with different skills- that's probably the most accurate way I could imagine ever classifying myself. It's an ongoing discussion, I think.


Cool post, but the bit that really made me think was this quote:

“stop having advertising ideas and start having ideas worth advertising.”

At first, I thought it was clever and right, but then I had to ask myself, "For whom, client or agency?" I'm going to go with client and here's why: having an idea worth advertising is the client's job; sadly, most clients don't have them and so they go to agencies to find some icing for their latest mud pie. Agencies, of course, oblige and realize straightaway that the client is hawking crap and so come up with an ad campaign that does more for the agency's business than the client's. What's worse, this notion of having great ideas irrespective of what needs to be advertised has long ruled the roost in awards books. But, what's to be done? My thought is that agencies should be part of a loop that encompasses product development, customer thinking, corporate marcom and, yes, advertising. Unfortunately, no client company has ever been willing to this with traditional ad agencies, instead they turn to folks like Ideo. That's a shame, because a great idea ad idea is for naught without a great idea to advertise and, in my experience, agencies are loaded with people who not only have ideas but who can also make other people's ideas better.