The digital pre-fix to marketing: to drop or not?

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There is a lot of talk recently about the need to drop the word ‘digital’ in marketing & advertising. The reason: it sets up an artificial separation – as if there is ‘regular marketing’ and ‘digital marketing’ when There is merit in that argument and in my view, it has nothing to do with the digital age. Marketing has ALWAYS been about reaching out to a brand’s most relevant audience in a profitable way using channels (distribution, advertising) and platforms (pamphlets, print, radio, TV etc.) in an optimal manner. Both channels and platforms have evolved over the years but have never been demarcated from overall marketing efforts – we did not ‘TV marketing agencies’ when television became a popular medium for advertising. So why then did we coin ‘digital marketing’ as a term? And should we continue using it?


In the early 90s, when the term digital marketing was said to have been coined, the divide between offline and online was sharp and clear. We read the print newspaper or magazine, watched movies in a theatre and watched serials on television set. We then ‘went’ online through a dial-up modem (remember the familiar handshake sound?) to read emails, news. CD-ROMs were common and required for the installation of many programs. This continued well into the late 90s and early 2000s. Today there is no line between offline and online with most consumers. People can watch a movie, listen to a radio station and read a newspaper on various devices and screens. Interaction with a brand’s message can happen in any of these devices and screens. In that context, referring to ‘digital marketing’ seems artificial. However, is the answer in asking for a ban on the use of the word ‘digital’? Or replacing it with ‘interactive’ as some agencies have done? I think both are extreme steps and a middle path is called for.

If I had to go back in time and attempt banning a word, it would have been ‘agency’ in the context of advertising. The reason: advertising agents were those who represented a publication in order to secure ads from advertisers – they were ‘middle men’ for lack of another word. But the shops who created advertising for clients were far from being agents of a publication but the name stuck on. So even after a hundreds years we are referring to a creative ideas company comprising great minds in business & marketing strategy, creative arts, media planning & buying, consumer behaviour, analytics, technology specialists and more as being part of an ‘agency’. New agencies have attempted to call themselves ‘idea shops’, ‘communication specialists’ and so on but the market keeps referring to such as ‘agencies’ – simply because there was no viable, universally acceptable alternative coined. The industry remained agents.

The term digital marketing is mostly used to refer to any activity in channels beyond the traditional (i.e print, TV, outdoor, radio) and those with an online component built in. So a long-format video film – often created by specialist digital agencies, (sometimes a pure ad, without any pretence to being ‘branded content’) meant for release on YouTube is considered to be part of digital marketing. Even a regular presence on social media channels through posts and contests is part of digital marketing, not to mention the good old web banner. In most cases, the interaction or engagement with the content is measured in terms of CTRs, view counts, likes and shares. So in my view, not all of it is strictly interactive.

While I agree that ‘digital’ should not be treated as an after thought (‘now that we have defined the central creative idea, lets look for a digital expression of this’) … as a separate department, it is not yet second nature for all stakeholders to create a brand idea which is adapted to make best use of every medium and platform. Also, not every brand may need to use all the platforms available – sometimes for a brand, a popular YouTube film may meet the objectives, they may not need a presence on Instagram & Twitter with the same idea. For another brand reverse maybe true. But at least every brand is thinking of going beyond the traditional media, chasing their relevant target audience. For me, that’s a start. If they continue to refer to such activities as ‘digital marketing’ so be it – there is no grave harm in it. Industry leaders and companies who have consistently created great, effective work in new media can lead the way and educate the others. Someday, all marketing will be digital led – then the silos will not exist in our minds.

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