Ah, the death of digital... More than two years ago I wrote about the many ‘deaths’ of digital marketing and it felt like a tired topic then.

But still this is a hot topic, even if it has often morphed into full blown ‘digital transformation’.

Mark Ritson confirmed last year that the death of digital was upon us and duly consigns digital marketing to hell in this great presentation from Marketing Week Live. 

And yet. And yet.

And yet the appetite for ‘digital’ is as rampant as ever. And yet the skills and roles in most acute demand are digital. And yet digital teams appear to be growing and subsuming others, not the other way round. 

The strange thing among all this is that the most sophisticated and long-in-the-tooth digital marketing types I know are the least excited by ‘digital’ the name, digital the badge, digital the rallying cry as a solution to all ills. Me included.

What is exciting is business models, growth, creativity, change, culture, innovation, new markets, learning, data, agility, customer experience.

Yes, a lot of those things are catalysed or enabled by ‘digital’ but they do not have to be digital, nor about technology.

These same digerati would rather ‘digital’ was not in their job title. They recognise that the term is somewhat meaningless, encourages silo-thinking and actually limits their own career progression.

They also increasingly find themselves in the strange position of advising internally against over-zealous digital-ness. 

One senior digital exec at a global fashion brand I spoke with recently lamented “they’ve decided to put all their marketing spend into digital.

They want to spend all the launch budget on a [hot-social-media-platform] campaign. Are they mad? How can I tell them to stop doing this crazy digital stuff I know won’t work when I’m the digital guy?

So where does this leave us? 

I have some suggestions and would love your feedback and comments to see if we can actually agree on some things, as marketers, as an industry, so we do not need continued existential anguish around whether digital is dead or not.  

Things I hope we can agree on:

  • Digital marketing is tactical, not strategic. Digital marketing should play its part in supporting the marketing strategy which in turn supports the business strategy. 
  • Digital marketing is a sub-set of marketing. It is ‘just marketing’ but there are a number of specific disciplines (like email marketing, search engine marketing, social media, digital analytics and optimisation etc.) which can legitimately be described as ‘digital marketing’. 
  • These disciplines will not die. Indeed, many will grow and new ones will emerge. Specialists in digital marketing will continue to be in demand as well as marketing generalists.
  • To be a C-suite marketer it is not acceptable to be only ‘digital’ or only ‘traditional’. You must be customer-centric and media neutral (AKA ‘multichannel’).  

A question I am still pondering: has marketing itself, as a function, changed? I believe it has.

Specifically in a widened remit that encompasses ownership of the customer experience and thereby the product/service itself in some cases.

This is especially evident in the ‘product marketing’ role common in tech businesses. There is also much more ‘content’ in marketing than ever before and more ‘sales’. 

After 20-ish years it feels like we have reached the end of the beginning for ‘digital’. But is this also the beginning of the end? Yes and no. Strategically, yes; tactically, no. 

And let us not underestimate the value of tactics.

Tactics are about execution. Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

We need the right marketing strategy to win, but we may well need digital marketing to get us to victory quicker.

Ashley Friedlein

Published 28 June, 2016 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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John Galavan

John Galavan, Sales at Juice

I am of those who are long in the tooth. I believe that digital is just beginning (maturity is not yet on the horizon), rather than ending. Digital is a platform in the same sense as are print and radio and TV and billboards. Digital has an ability to engage, but so do talk radio shows. Digital is marvelous but it remains a platform. For some services and products it is vital and for others it is a distraction. I think this must be understood by the CMO, otherwise, digital distracts and deceives. Right now digital is certainly THE SHOW!

almost 2 years ago

Tom Winstanley

Tom Winstanley, Head of Consulting, VP | @wisetothenew - NTT DATA UK at NTT Data UK Consulting and IT Solutions Limited

Great article, Ashley. I couldn't agree more with you view on the "digital" badge: when we established the "digital" practice within NTT DATA we focused primarily on digital as a mindset and an interdisciplinary way of working that brings together commercially tech savy marketing, sales and service professionals with our creative and technology strategy and delivery teams.

This all runs under the leading idea "#wisetothenew" rather than "Digital" because it is about finding and harnessing the value in the latest channel, tech and CX trends and innovations quickly, without losing sight of the commercial realities through rapid delivery.

I think this applies to "digital" marketing, "digital" transformation, "digital" sales enablement and "digital" operations.

Of course the term digital still has value as an accelerator for change, as a synonym for a particular way of operating and as a set of skills in particular disciplines with marketing, sales and operations, but I suspect it will be overtaken in the not so distant future with something else.

almost 2 years ago


Richard Stacy, Owner at Stacy Consulting

Marketing is changing. It is defined less by outputs (messages, content) and more by processes (response) - in fact marketing is becoming a 24/7 process management task. This is a change both enabled and driven by the new social digital space.

We now have two marketing functions - the function that is all about the audience (traditional marketing and media, which is a channel and message / reach and frequency game) and the function that is all about the individual (which is defined by behaviour identification and response). The key to success is to not confuse these two functions / spaces. Most digital / social campaigns fail currently because they are entering the world of the individual with audience-based tactics.

Ultimately marketing has to be driven by value creation - and the way that you create value in the distribution environment of traditional media is totally different from the way you create value in the connection environment of the social digital space.

almost 2 years ago

Simone Castello

Simone Castello, Digital consultant and trainer at www.simonecastello.co.uk

I might be old fashioned but I see the media and marketing sectors as print/traditional and digital, online and offline, call it what you like. This death theme is pure clickbait, like the death of SEO, oh no, it didn't... It's like the Zombie movie when the undead is difficult to kill. People have the same motivations so the only thing that has changed is the medium. I was in journalism pre internet and it was not long ago, it was in the late 1990s when universities were already using the net but not the media. Then suddenly it was all digital and people panicked a bit while many of us had to learn how to use these new tools - so I remember learning everything I know by reading US newsletters, in particular SEW and Social Media Examiner, which are now mainstream. I have now done some courses to update my knowledge and plenty of webinairs and nothing is dying here, just evolving.

almost 2 years ago

Simone Castello

Simone Castello, Digital consultant and trainer at www.simonecastello.co.uk

I don't do management speak so here is another thought:
print = geographically limited, expensive, energy consuming
digital = global reach, energy efficient, no logistics involved (aka trucks on the road), budget friendly

almost 2 years ago

Rob Mansfield

Rob Mansfield, Head of Content at Age UK

Interesting read. To some extent I agree that 'digital' has become a bit too overblown, but... In many organisations, the awareness and knowledge of what digital can deliver is underestimated and still often treated as a bolt-on, rather than an integral part.

Yes, eventually we will all be channel neutral, but not for a long time. There is still an awful lot to do.

almost 2 years ago

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