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Get away from this obsession over digital at all costs

Marketers are missing a trick or two if they believe digital can deliver everything

Gulf News

Last year, when a headhunter told me that a multinational consumer goods company was seeking a new head of marketing, they announced that they were looking for someone who (among other things) would be a “digital-first” leader. And the first question that occurred to me was: “Why Only Digital!”

Presumably a digital-first leader is one who intuitively seeks digital solutions straight off the bat for every problem, irrespective of what the problem is. And this company is not alone in elevating digital to this panacea level. Many companies advocate a digital-first mentality; many have created a digital marketing department and appointed a specialist to lead this area. Some have even hived this department away from the traditional marketing department.

Don’t misunderstand me. Connecting with consumers who are digital natives is critical. But creating a silo to do it is wrong.

To give you an example, let’s go back to the last century. In the 1950s and 60s in the US — and perhaps a couple of decades later in Asia — the popularity of television soared rapidly and very soon it became the mainstay of marketers and advertisers … for good reason. Television offered the three basic ingredients of mass communication:

* Reach: With television brands could reach a large portion of their target audience, quickly and effectively.

* Cost efficiency: Relative to print and cinema, television had a low cost per thousand. But of course it was expensive per se. For big brands, this was a good thing.

They could reach their audiences efficiently but smaller brands, who did not have the same budgets, could not afford to be on television. The entry barrier was high.

* Impact: An audio-visual medium, employing moving images and sound, facilitates an emotional connection, plain and simple. That’s why cinema is so popular across the world. Television advertising became to marketing what cinema had become to storytelling.

But even at its helm, when television advertising accounted for 60-80 per cent of big brands’ marketing budgets, did we change the nomenclature of marketing to “television marketing”? No!

Because we believed that marketing was about providing products and services that met consumer needs, developing advertising that communicated the brand message in the best way possible and delivering that advertising through the right media to reach the maximum target audience with the most impact at the least cost. If television fit the bill best, more money went to it. Quite simple, really.

Nothing about marketing has changed. It’s still about providing great products and services, developing brilliant communication and delivering it through the right channels to the right people. If these channels are digital, by all means divert your money here.

But don’t do it blindly, as you would if you had a marketing leader who is thinking digital-first or is only responsible for digital marketing.

The obsession with, and bias towards digital marketing shows up in the way data is shared about it, in isolation of other media. People talk about how much they spent on their social media campaign and on their digital advertising and what they received in return, in terms of impressions, clicks, “likes” and so on. But they don’t tell you what they might have got if they had spent the same money on television, perhaps because they haven’t asked themselves or their agencies that question.

Therein lies the mistake. I submit that what we need today is not digital marketing but marketing to the digital consumer. And we should certainly stop thinking “digital-first” and get back to thinking consumer-first.

The writer is Director at the communication agency Versecom group. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of others.

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