In Case You Were Wondering, "Digital" Is Not Just A Medium

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When it comes to marketing, it’s all about the idea. That’s the fact.

Brands, agencies and media companies can go back and forth these days on what it takes to “make it” in marketing today. It feels like a lot of the energy is moving away from the most important part of the work: the final product. There’s a lot of talk about platform, technology, automation, optimization, virality, media composition, data, analytics, and more. In the end, cherished business professionals, if the idea doesn’t stick with your potential audience, a strong marketing automation platform or responsive mobile experience or well-tagged landing page is not going to save you. In fact, as much as marketing has changed, the message is still the message… and it needs to connect. 

Still, there’s a lot of confusion when the word “digital” gets tossed around.

I’m guilty of this. When asked “what works” in marketing today, I often say that it must be “digital first.” This frustrates the purists, traditionalists and (most) creatives. They shake their fists in the air and demand to know why the medium is more important than the message. Of course, the medium is not as important as the message. The message needs to stick and it needs to sink deep into the consumer’s psyche. Famed advertising legend, Bill Bernbach, said: “If no one notices your advertising, everything else is academic” (thanks for the reminder: Dave Trott) That’s true, whether the message is on a billboard, television, banner ad or a YouTube video. It’s also true that you rarely hear a marketing professional say something like: “all I care about is the idea.” Yes, the idea has to work, but part of making that idea work is understanding the environment it is going to live in. The environment is also not the medium. An idea can be brilliant but not fit in the current zeitgeist. That’s why “digital” should not be confused as simply being another medium. It’s not. When a client requests a “digital first” idea, the reaction should not be, “did you think I was going to give you a TV-first idea,” but this is (all too) often the case. Personally, I’ve been called into many c-level marketing sessions, because the brand asked the agency for work and the idea (great ideas, good ideas and bad ideas) are presented in a storyboard/30 second spot model. The brand can’t get behind the idea, as the agency is too busy convincing them that the idea (narrative, etc…) is easily adaptable to “digital” (as in, another medium), and all the brand can see is a TV commercial. These too are ideas that are medium-specific. 

It’s the idea. It’s the story.  

This is true. This not true if you don’t know where your audience lives and how they consume ideas and stories these days. Yes, an ad can be adapted for Facebook. Yes, a great idea can be adapted for multiple forms of media. Still, it’s very rare when that does happen. Sadly. Thinking of ideas in a digital first world opens up new forms of communications. That’s the true spirit of digital first. It’s not about the idea working on a digital channel, it’s about the idea being complementary to a consumer who is – more likely than not – swiping right more than they’re sitting on the couch waiting for a 30 second spot to unfold. Digital first also means that maybe, instead of an idea, it’s a product, a service, an app, and more. It’s about not limiting the idea to being something that could be contained only in an advertising media format. Yes, ideas first. Yes, the story matters more than where it appears. Yes, yes, yes and please make your marketing message something bigger than the construct of another ad that can be formatted for different screens. The idea, story, brand experience no longer needs to linger as an ad.

I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with saying “digital first” before the idea, with this kind of definition. Do you?