And another thing: in the kingdom of the blind, the one with digital in his title is king

Before you read the rest of this article, please remember my opening remark: ‘There are some very talented digital people working in this industry’. Now that’s out of the way, I can be frank. There are a disproportionately high number of people with digital in their title who are talking out of their arse. There, said it. 

The advertising and marketing worlds have spent over a decade struggling to cope with the biggest challenges we’ve faced since, well, probably since ever. And this mass ignorance has led to the recruiting of staff based solely on their ability to play World of Warcraft.

The digital revolution came upon us so quickly that no one outside a few university common rooms was ready for it (let’s not beat ourselves up, of course we weren’t bloody ready for it, that’s the whole problem with digital revolutions). We sat around looking at each other, kind of realising this was a hell of a big deal without knowing exactly what we should do about it.

This standoff went on for years, while the world slowly came alive to the idea that porn was not the only thing that the internet was extraordinarily good at. Nature, a traditional abhorrer of vacuums, filled this particular void with people who knew enough technical jargon to suggest competence without the ability to actually do anything useful. One of the early manifestations of this misplaced faith was the 2001 internet stock crash. Another is the amount of expensive, useless and unvisited websites that clutter up servers all over the world.

People who struggled to find a job through a general lack of advertising nous found that by assuming some knowledge of the digital world they were welcomed in with open MacBooks. Once in position they were faced with a blank computer and a creeping realisation that they didn’t actually know what to do next. The internet feeds its own and handily provided ready-made digital marketing case studies from someone, somewhere, who was producing something interesting. The digital charlatans would then stick this ground-breaking work under their arm and head off to the nearest Future of Marketing conference where they presented it as their own, frequently to gasps of wonder, rapturous applause and the promise of a new job. 

The internet soaks up more and more of our time as consumers, but as marketers its efficacy is still erratic. Every other advance in media has only helped marketers reach people. The internet provides instant access to vast numbers of consumers but at the same time provides those same consumers with so many better things to do than to spend their time listening to us. The way we consume most media (other than TV) has remained pretty much unchanged since their invention, but internet consumption morphs constantly.

Unnecessarily elaborate websites were built as digital strategists convinced clients that people went on the web to look at animated cheese production plants, not the couple of billion other things that were more interesting. The most implausible businesses now have Facebook sites because someone has told them that consumers on Facebook would be disappointed to miss out on contact from their favourite toilet roll manufacturer. 

Of course, on occasion digital campaigns are hugely successful at engaging with consumers, and get spread voluntarily. Marketers slobber enthusiastically at the prospect of cheap production and free media. But for every one of these viral successes there are thousands of attempts that sink without trace. Our inbuilt tendency towards ‘survivor bias’ allows us to remember the winners and the graveyard of failures is forgotten. Everyone remembers Subservient Chicken, but who remembers Bud TV?

The crux of the problem is that to be a digital marketer it is necessary to understand both digital and marketing. We were in so much of a hurry to recruit that we kind of forgot about the marketing bit. Let’s forget no longer. 

  • Paul Catmur is creative managing partner at Barnes, Catmur & Friends. [email protected]

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