Digital AOY? I Don’t See the Need

We’ve been telling our clients and each other that digital marketing is different. If you’re over age 30, or not on Twitter yet, or not texting your children, or whatever, the feeling is you just don’t get it. Give up and leave it to the experts.

Let me suggest that digital marketing may be different, but it ought to be similar to other marketing — not entirely the same, but close enough, because what digital offers is a different channel, not a new way of thinking.

That’s why I say Adweek’s Digital Agency of the Year is, well…nonsense.

“Digital” is not a discipline or a profession the way brand marketing or direct marketing or public relations are. Those professions have given us a disciplined way to approach marketing communications. Digital is a tool for communicating. Digital is a technology. It’s a media channel. And digital marketers who operate in a silo are limited in their strategic value.

Being named Digital Agency of the Year is a tremendous achievement. But it’s a little like being television agency of the year or print agency of the year. If you can’t communicate in all of the media that make sense for your discipline, your agency is too limited. An award for Best Digital Campaign makes sense to me. An award for Best Digital Agency doesn’t.

The people who operate in the digital realm borrow from other, more established professions. Online word-of-mouth and buzz campaigns — and much of what’s called social media — would fall in the PR purview if they didn’t take some technological tweaking. Driving online sales normally would be part of direct-marketing objectives. Creating a brand-building Web site would fall, strategically, on the shoulders of the brand agency.

The problem is that, early on, these agencies outsourced not just the coding, but the idea-generating piece of the work.

I know I’m setting myself up for the “you-just-don’t-get-it” people. And there’s truth to that. I don’t get it. Maybe you can answer this question for me: Are digital marketers real marketers if they have only one tool at their disposal?

Clients do feel they have a digital problem right now that might make them seek out the specialists. Everyone is telling them to put their budget into online now. But in time that thinking will shift when they realize digital solutions are only a piece of the puzzle.

Even Zappos — a completely online retailer — did its own piece of offline marketing when it sponsored airport security bins with its advertising. It got a lot of public relations mileage out of the effort, too.

Another reason I believe solely digital marketers aren’t truly marketers is that they don’t have agreed-upon standards the same way other professions do. The real beauty of digital, the golden promise that has yet to be fulfilled, is that it’s completely measurable. The problem is that the metrics used are rarely aligned with client goals and sales metrics. The cost-per-click may be low, for example, but if the cost-per-sale is high — or, worse, clicks aren’t tracked all the way to a sale — there’s a problem.

A lot of marketers say they plan to turn to digital as the economy worsens. This makes sense for a number of reasons:

• Digital marketing media are less expensive than most other media.

• When done right, you can measure the results and optimize your plan for greater efficiency.

• You can reach segments of your target that may not be watching TV anymore.

• Leads can be pushed to a sale much more quickly because digital gives you almost instant two-way communication, without the negatives associated with telemarketing.

I love niche targets. That’s how direct-marketing works. And that’s one of the many reasons I love digital marketing. On the other hand, if you want to sell a product that might be used by the 20 percent of Americans who aren’t online, you can’t put everything into digital. All media are limited. Even though the U.S. Census Bureau figures that most of us have mailboxes, the mail response rate for the 2000 Census was 67 percent. The Super Bowl may get one out of three of us watching. Those are likely the outside limits for big media.

To my mind, having agencies specialize in a marketing communications discipline is important, but specializing in a medium is a losing proposition. General agencies can’t be TV-centric anymore. Direct marketers can’t rely only on direct mail.

Digital has changed everything. But I’m afraid the value of digital shops will be limited if they don’t think outside of their own box.

Spyro Kourtis, is president and CEO of the Hacker Group. He can be reached at skourtis@hackergroup.com.