Modern Marketing

Why we are wrong to think that the future of brands will be ‘digital-first’

By Saurabh Parmar | Consultant

March 25, 2019 | 6 min read

The overriding belief in marketing seems to be that digital and technology will completely take over marketing and advertising, that consumers will exist only online and other mediums will die. And in the popular view, the changes in the industry seem to support that.

At the end of last year, Wunderman merged with JWT. A few months prior to that WPP merged digital agency VML with Y&R. A number of people seemed to believe this is akin to a takeover by the digital agencies of their older counterparts.

Mobile phone

That’s the myth of the ‘digital-first’ jargon which is floating around in the marketing ecosystem. I have built my career on the digital medium and I teach it too, yet I find this entire concept of ‘digital-first’ quite uncomfortable. It seems more of a trend in advertising by brands and agencies desperate to stay relevant in a rapidly changing economy.

The ‘digital-first’ strategy implies a bias towards digital and the only bias a business should have is its consumers.

It implies that a customer is more concerned about mediums than the message. And it would only make sense if the consumer was living in a silo consuming only internet-based content, and also if there was only one kind of customer.

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Advertising has often missed the bus because it has focused too much on the impact of trends but not the cause.

Think of this: Mobile is the fastest growing medium but a consumer interacts with his mobile while being actively present in the offline world. Sometimes it’s something in the real world which causes him to share something online and vice-versa. And unlike the previous generation of users who were on desktops, she or he doesn’t switch between the online and the real world but he is usually present in both of the world at the same time, rather it’s one world where online or offline combine. The same will be true for the next wave of the internet through smart devices.

By sticking to the ‘digital first’ jargon we are still holding onto archaic structures where a medium made a difference.

A medium is irrelevant.

Consumers are about behaviours, habits, inspiration and ideas. There is a trigger and the trigger ends in an action whether it be in the real world or the virtual. And increasingly the line between the real world and virtual world will blend. The smartest businesses (think Amazon Go or Alibaba’s retail store) realize the line is really fluid and as marketers, it’s imperative we recognize that too.

I see a number of brand & agency personnel still trying to force-fit digital into every idea, we even still give awards only for one specific medium.

We as marketers have to also stop looking in terms of platforms or technologies, that’s very .. ‘self involved.’ A consumer is not concerned about them. The best way to connect with a customer is to understand her, understand their consumer journey and realize the mediums just exist in the journey and they are never the objective.

There has to be one strategy, based on consumer behaviour with the realization that for the modern consumer digital has blended in with the real world.

Some agencies notably WPP under Mark Read seem to really understand this (hopefully not too late.) At WPP investor day CEO Mark Read said “digital is a word we are going to ban” at WPP

In my view, the future of communication ought to be free-flowing, not bound by mediums and platforms. And the simple reason for that is that human behaviour is not bound by mediums.

Saurabh Parmar is a consultant and trainer for brand, digital and start-up growth.

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