Op-Ed: As Worlds Collide, How Can Advertising and Digital People Coexist?

By Kiran Aditham 

Huge marketing strategist lead Josh Seifert returns with his monthly contribution to this here site. This time around, our scribe discusses the relationship between advertisers and digital folks as, to use a Costanza-ism, their ‘worlds are colliding!’ Can they understand each other better as the convergence continues? Let our old pal Josh break it down.

As marketing communication becomes increasingly digital—mobile, display advertising, online video, social, digital out of home and in-store, etc.—the future won’t be about digital agencies and traditional agencies, just agencies, each hired for their unique perspectives and skill sets for solving client challenges. This evolution is already making digital marketing the center of competing skill sets—advertising communication versus digital experience design.


The biggest challenge for agencies is that these approaches are rooted in two differing ideologies, currently colliding. Advertising people and digital people tend to be from different—and often hostile—tribes. At best, communicating with one another is like traveling to a foreign country and speaking very loudly and quite slowly in hopes of being understood.

For advertisers, represented by the largest ad agencies, media companies and brand marketers, the challenge has always been to take complexity and simplify it into a single, compelling message that gets an audience to take action. Historically, this has meant creating interruptive experiences for consumers via TV spots, print ads, out of home, online banner ads, generally encouraging consumers to buy something, whatever the medium. The challenge advertisers face is that interruptive approaches are becoming unsustainable as consumer audiences increasingly fragment across media—online and off—and as consumer shopping behavior evolves.

The digital worldview is exemplified by businesses created for and by the Internet—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, among many others. Within this worldview, marketers embrace complexity in order to create new, more meaningful, and highly practical experiences for users. This kind of approach to digital marketing is embodied by digital platforms like Starbucks’ mobile application or Nike+ and Nike Fuel. Alternately, brands like Red Bull embrace the digital worldview by essentially creating their own digital media brand in order to provide incredible content for their audience.

What advertisers often misunderstand about digital marketers is that we are focused on solving somewhat different challenges. Advertising exists to create awareness while the best digital marketing tends to focus on creating extensions of a clients offline business and brand—digital entertainment in the case of Red Bull, an entirely new category in the case of Nike+. This is why you see companies like Google and Facebook partnering with traditional advertisers like BBH and W+K when they want to promote their (digital) products to mass audiences.

Over the next few years, advertisers and digital marketers will each face their own set of challenges as our worlds continue to collide and converge. Advertisers will have to figure out how to make awareness work online—without relying on uninterruptable TV spots over the PA on airplanes, in the back of cabs, and before and after video clips shorter than the advertising. That kind of invasiveness won’t be tolerated by consumers online and the media cost won’t be bearable by marketers. And, it certainly doesn’t work in mobile.

Digital marketers, too, will need to grapple with the challenge of cultivating and articulating brands to prevent digital experiences from feeling commoditized. These challenges won’t be easy for either side to tackle, but without a solution, legacy brands will find themselves under threat by competitors born with a digital ideology.