Get Involved: How You Can Shape the Future of Digital Advertising

One of the nicest emails I have ever received was from a woman who had read my chapter in the creative social book. She said that it had encouraged her to quit her job and interview for a new position in digital advertising. I wished her well and thought that was the end of it. A few weeks later she replied to say that she had got the job and talked about the book at her interview.

When we first had the idea for the book in Berlin it was to educate clients. We felt that an old school approach, writing a book, to a new school problem was the way to go. I’m not sure exactly how many clients have read the book or my chapter on getting started but even if it changed one persons career then I’m happy with that.

Anyway here it is:

I have a confession to make. I have been a creative director for three different internationally admired digital agencies, won lots of awards and worked with the biggest brands in the world, and I couldn’t tell you what the difference between a JPEG and a GIF is. I have spoken at conferences around the world and written for the most high-profile publications about digital and websites, but I wouldn’t know how to actually make a website if my life depended it. I also have a blog and write frequently about the future of digital marketing when, truth be told, I have no idea what is going to happen next. What does this mean? That I’m a charlatan. No – well, maybe – but let’s not go into that here. No, what this means, what this actually proves, is that you can be a success in digital without being a nerd or a geek, without really knowing the first thing about computers. What this also means is that because our world is in a constant state of flux, it is never too late for you – whoever you are – to make a successful career in digital marketing.

The digital marketing industry is full of contradictions, hot air, and hyperbole. If someone working in the ad industry, agency or client side, had pulled a Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks and lived on a desert island for the last fifteen years, returning now he would be forgiven for thinking that the whole world had changed and that his skills were completely useless. “No digital experience? No technical knowledge? You don’t have an RSS feed that talks to your refrigerator? Forget it.” This is nonsense. But it’s nonsense that has been created by the press and the digital industry. In my opinion, there are three reasons why the role of technology has been exaggerated over the years and has been used, by some, as a barrier to pushing the whole industry forward.

First up, the whole dot-com boom and bust. This was a classic Revenge of the Nerds scenario. At the start of the boom, it was cool to talk up your tech credentials and exaggerate everything to stupid proportions. Everyone was doing it, despite a lack of actual knowledge. And ad agencies were very keen to get in on the action, pitching for silly dot-com businesses that were always doomed to fail. And fail they did. End of part one.

We then had a second situation where many digital agencies were fighting for economic survival and had to go on the defensive. Jargon was used as a defence mechanism, and a few people started acting like stroppy teenagers. For example, a digital person might say to a traditional agency or client, “God, you don’t know what ASP is or why this needs to be done by a .net person?” (For the record, neither do I.) “It just does OK? That will be 200k, please.” Desperate times called for desperate measures.

The third reason that everyone started exaggerating the tech aspect – which actually still happens today – is due to some of the incredible money behind tech IPOs. If in the nineties you didn’t have any Netscape stock and then you somehow managed to miss out on any Microsoft stock and more recently Google, then, well, you were a doofus – or at least made to feel like one. The end result was a deafening techno babble that was a load of hot air, but no one had the balls to call it.

I honestly feel that these three points have stopped some great people from trying their hands in the industry. No one, let alone people who work in advertising – where show and bravado have traditionally been all – wants to look stupid. No one wants to admit that they don’t understand things. It’s perceived as a sign of weakness. We need to stop that. As I said, I’ve been doing this for years and still don’t understand – or want to understand – the engine under the bonnet. It really doesn’t matter. We need to stick to the things that we are good at. So if you’re a creative, focus on coming up with a great idea or mastering your craft; if you’re a planner, a great insight; a client, fostering a relationship where great work can flourish; if you’re an account man, well, just make sure you have change for the cab. In one sense, of course, this is business as usual.

Think of it this way. Our Crusoe or Hanks ad exec probably commissioned hundreds of TV or print ads before she got marooned – actually, she was probably on his way back from a shoot in Cape Town. She would have understood the process intimately: brief, presentation, budget, production. That hasn’t changed in years. But unless she was a real film buff, she would have had no idea about the specifics of a TV shoot. There was no need for her to know what a gaffer does. There is actually no need for anyone (save perhaps the art director, at a push) from the agency to know these things either. The point is so long as the TV ad looks good and there are doughnuts at the shoot, everything is cool. So it must be with digital. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what a SWF file is; it’s irrelevant, as long as you’re confident that someone in the team does. This confidence is the key to success: being able to leave things to other people so that they can get on with doing a great job (and not worry about it).

So, if you don’t need to have technical knowledge, what do you need to have? I think you need to have an empathy with the digital world and an understanding of the possibilities the technology gives us, if not the actual mechanics. I’ve had many clients who simply refused to believe that real people had the time to customize sites, upload pictures, comment on blogs, post tweets, and so on. As marketers, they spent their whole days in front of computers so that they couldn’t see that for someone who works outside of our little clique, actually coming home and getting an email about a YouTube clip or mucking about on Facebook is fun. It’s relaxing after a hard day’s work; it’s entertainment. I took some clients away for a day and forced them to make their own blogs. Yes, even a Luddite like me knows how to set up a blog – and that’s the point. After thirty minutes, they were uploading photos of themselves and watching silly movies of one another. So my advice would be to at least dabble in some form of the digital space, as this will help you grasp some of the possibilities.

The other important thing is to be aware of some of the consequences. Take something like RSS feeds. Now again, I don’t really know how these work, but I do know that they mean that people are aggregating their preferred information onto one page or device and that people are not using portals like MSN or AOL like they used to. Furthermore, I know that this has huge implications for future marketing plans. Some would argue that Twitter has overtaken the need for RSS feeds. But again, you don’t need to know why this is happening or how – someone can do that for you. Just be aware that the digital marketing world is, as we like to say, in beta – constantly changing.

In the same way that you shouldn’t fret the tech, this flux shouldn’t deter you either. The web and digital marketing are still in their infancy. Although the first banner appeared in 1994, essentially banners still exist in the same shape and have the same “click here” message. OK, we can put video in, search boxes, web functionality, and so on, but the result is very much the same. The thing that has changed is that banners along with websites are no longer what digital marketing is all about. We now have blogs, social networks, viral, virtual worlds, widgets, and a whole new ball game with location-based mobile content. The point is, I have no idea what the next big thing will be. Some students in California or just as likely Stockholm, Shanghai, Warsaw, or Tel Aviv will be working on something that will flip things again, but it’s pointless trying to predict what these things will be – unless you’re a venture capitalist, which you’re not. You’re in the communications business.

Think about tech aspect from the consumer’s point of view too. Recently there has been great debate within the tech community over whether HTML 5 or Flash will be the dominant platform to develop content. Amongst some people, this debate will rage and rage for the next three or four years. For the record, and to help you look a little smarter at dinner parties, HTML 5 and Flash are both ways of making content come to life on the web. HTML 5 seems more suited to mobile content such as iPhone apps. But how about the consumer? In reality, they couldn’t care less whether you make your cool, whizzy video thing in HTML 5, Flash, or CupCakes (not real); they just want a great experience. They will never look under the bonnet either.

For every Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Foursquare, there are ten platforms or ideas that some media agencies will guarantee clients is the next must-have. Don’t waste your time second-guessing this stuff. Concentrate on getting your head and your structures right so that when something interesting does come along, your organisation – whether you are a client or an agency – is ready to go. Be flexible, nimble, and fluid, not just with your process but also with your media budget. By the way, this means experimenting and the whole thing about experimenting is that things go wrong. This is a good thing. That’s how Post-it notes were made.

As I have said, what comes next is anyone’s guess. But one thing I do know is that for every crackpot who claims to have invented the future or disgruntled nerd who puts up the techno frighteners, there are thousands of very clued up people more than willing to help you figure out stuff. The great thing about the web and our community is that people actually get a kick out of helping (you don’t think I’m getting paid for this, do you?). What this means for you is that if you’re serious about kick-starting a digital career or trying a little experiment, it’s never too late. I really believe that a two-week crash course with someone who knows what he’s talking about, a couple of reads of this book, and some regular blog reading would give you the requisite knowledge to be part of a digital campaign that was either award-winning or hugely successful in terms of sales – and, who knows, maybe even both.

One final point: even though it really is never too late, there’s no time like the present.

Excerpt from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future

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