Ever since the data revolution began streaming across Pakistan, agencies and their data counterparts (that’s right, digital agencies) have made a hue and cry about the virtues of all things digital.
There is nothing wrong with that. We all know that digital is the centre of now. But it’s certainly not at the cost of the present. And more certainly, not at the cost of any traditional agency’s past.
Let me explain.
The other day, when a prospective client – let’s call him B, shall we? – came over for an agency visit, he asked us about our history, work, roster, blah-blah-blah, and our way of thinking and doing stuff. Standard fare. So far, so good. Then, after a pregnant pause, he leaned forward and inquired about our Digital capabilities. Yup, that would be digital with a capital D.
Now, it would have been okay if B were to have asked this along the length of many questions regarding agency strengths. But when B stressed ‘di-gi-tal’ the way you and I would stress ‘Guan-tan-a-mo’, I knew he was looking to WTF me. So I did what any creative does when an orange uniform flashes in front of his eyes. I invested imagination into a half-lie to make it a half-truth. You see, B, I replied with a straight face, that D’ you see prefixed in front our agency’s name? Yes, that D followed by an apostrophe? Well, that D stands for Digital. That’s digital with a capital D.
B mulled that over for a moment. He nodded in what seemed like imminent agreement, but wasn’t biting. In that case, he said, getting up from his chair, why don’t you introduce me to your digital team? So I reintroduced everybody sitting around the table by prefixing their designations with ‘digital’. So the strategist became a digital strategist, the copywriter became a digital copywriter and the coffee came with digital brown sugar – and so on and so forth. This didn’t sit too well with B. He got really mad. And this is when he lunged across the table, grabbed my throat, and started to choke me.
In the middle of my asphyxiation, I had a brainwave. And it was this: We are obsessed with the digital world such that we are emphasising the digital over the world. And this shift in our thinking has polarised our business model. Instead of concentrating on the quality of message, design and context, we are forever creating new verticals, fussing over the algorithms of new pipes, when we should actually be converging on how digital cuts horizontally across platforms.
We have cut our people in half. Dividing them into traditionalists and digitalists when, in fact, they have been ‘tradigitalists’ all along. It’s a false divide. They have been doing exactly what they have always done except that they are now doing it in and for the digital age. Moreover, it hardly matters to end consumers who don’t actually go online but just happen to live in a world where access to the net is ubiquitous. They don’t choose digital or non-digital media either. They just tune in to their media of choice whether it’s on their phone, laptop, car radio or television set – through which they can probably access regular broadcasts as well as online channels.
And while this may make a huge difference to the agency world (a world that has arranged and outfitted itself entirely around the pipes), the consumer couldn’t care less. Because the consumer already knows that unlike the complex and physical manifestation of media devices before (CDs, cassettes, radio players, video tapes, etc.), everything going forward is going to be big data streamed on devices and technology that will continue to keep morphing into layers of simplicity that may just border on invisibility.
As Tom Goodwin writes in The Guardian, “The word digital means everything and nothing; focusing on it is the biggest distraction of a generation. When electricity became widespread at the turn of the 19th century it was just business in the electrical age, there wasn’t electrical consultants or electrical agencies. When new technology is really understood it fades into the background...”
If we begin to make ads work around people and not their devices, we will begin to see how best to buy media and develop messages in the digital age rather than define digital against the traditional and miss the forest for the trees. Or the bits for the bytes – as I last heard B screech before I buckled into his digital chokehold.