Digital Essays: Cunning plans

Digital agencies understand the new planning model that is necessary in an age when consumers are redefining their relationship with media.

So, Debbie McGee, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" "Traditional adman, what is it about the 68 per cent year-on-year growth of the digital channel that you find so alluring?"

Something's changed. The shiny penny has dropped.

Suddenly people have woken up to digital. All-agency meetings are getting overrun by "traditional types" who should know better excitably coming up with digital ideas.

"We could do a text-to-win! Let's create a virtual bar! Customers could upload videos of their brand moments for a chance to win a week in Tenerife. It'll be massive."

And it's great. People are finally getting genuinely excited about digital and, yes, the prospect of this enthusiasm converting into proper budgets is an exciting thought.

But my instincts also kick in. I am not a salesman. I am a planner. We should get excited about what excites consumers more than about what excites finance directors. I see these new ideas and I can hear what consumers will say: "So, it's the same old brand flogging the same old products."

But suddenly it's not enough for me to just consume what they say. I am supposed to text back my appreciation (text rates apply) to say: "YES - bring me more; e-mail me; enrol me in your programme!"

The problem with traditional agency thinking is that it is predicated on an assumption that the answer starts with advertising. In this worldview, digital is just another channel vying for media spend, so planners aren't compelled to look for anything but integrated communications built on single-minded propositions. It continues a tradition of brand-centric thinking.

Good digital work tends to be consumer-centric. It starts with the question: "What do consumers actually want?" For instance, when a consumer signs up to broadband, what are they hoping to get from their magic pipe? It's clearly content. It's hanging out with other broadband users. It's getting free stuff such as phone calls or pornography. If you need proof, just look where the growth is: MySpace, You Tube, Wikipedia, Skype, eBay - all consumer-intuitive services that meet these expectations.

For an example of "old thinking" still missing the point, look at the "new" broadband market. Ironically, it is a market defined by some of the brands best-placed to clean up in the digital age. But compare the differences in upload and download speeds of the broadband packages on offer and you expose some very old-world assumptions. A typical ratio of 10:1 exists, which assumes that consumers will receive ten times as much content as they will wish to create or share with others. This shows how even internet corporations are still on "broadcast mode". Their businesses presume to carry on pushing messages to a passive "audience". But observe a young "lifetime" internet user and you see a closer balance between "pull and push", where they create and share as much as they consume.

There aren't many brands that have made the most of this trend.

We created an application called Musicubes for Radio 1. The BBC observed that teenagers faced with a world of digital content were no longer listening to Radio 1. We suspected that big-name DJs were obscuring the real breadth of music that Radio 1 had to offer. Now, the traditional agency approach would have been an ad campaign showcasing the wider talent. We came from a different angle and put consumers in control, creating an application for teenagers to create their own Radio 1 in a form they could take away and distribute themselves. With no need for a media budget, we have driven 130,000 new listeners in the first three weeks - evidence that "advertising" is an expensive solution if a brand can become social currency on MySpace instead.

The digital revolution is not about marketing. It's bigger than that.

Low-visibility technology has melted boundaries of distance, cost and access to enable ordinary people to commune and consume in a more fluid way. And, to put it bluntly, fluid means not watching ads anymore. Ads live in gaps. Digital is destroying the structures that create these gaps.

Now consumers plug directly into what they want - content, social gatherings, information - and traditional advertising is getting excluded. So brands need to think differently. Some will try and create their own content.

Some will entertain in the hope of getting invited by consumers. And, in the worst cases, brands will simply gatecrash the consumer party wearing a funny hat.

Never in the 40-year history of planning have the planner's skills been so vital to clients. The internet is the only channel in that time that marketers have not grown up with as consumers. Clients just do not have the same visceral connection to the internet as the majority of their target market. So they need to turn to planners - the traditional holders of consumer insight.

But if you are a client, which planning team should you turn to? The digital planners immersed in this new consumer's world? Or traditional account planners sourcing remote insights from tools that can't keep up, such as TGI? The most valued currency a client in the digital space has is proximity to the consumer. And that is what digital agencies do better.

We are talking, after all, about a world where consumers are way out in front. Leadership in this age will be defined less by production, pricing or supply than by the ability to understand and keep pace with consumer activity and desires.

The next generation of marketers will need to build a new model if they are to engage with digital consumers. Right now, it's the planners in digital agencies who understand this and who are giving them the tools to do it. The next wave of digital growth will really accelerate if traditional agency people also acknowledge it and get on board. Come on. You know who you are.

- Patrick Griffith is the planning director of Agency Republic.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).