The Online Essays: Mark Cridge

Glue London's Mark Cridge says that digital media has given so much power to consumers that it is more important than ever that brands stay relevant.

Traditional agencies are control freaks. Through broadcast media, they attempt to control every aspect of how your brand is communicated to a passive audience. But once your 30-second ad has been skipped over to something more relevant, what hope for that carefully crafted message then?

At the height of the dotcom boom, flush with venture capital, clients hurried to set-up their e-commerce offerings. In turn, the traditional agencies waded in, but rather than try to understand what was actually going on, they assumed the answer to every brief was to provide more of what they did best: big-budget, glossy brand campaigns on TV. Get it on telly with a hot director - a sure-fire way to digital millions.

Meanwhile in Hoxton, web design agencies with weird names, uber-cool attitudes and curious haircuts, emerged to service these new e-commerce brands. Offering sleek design backed up by high-tech solutions and a good line in marketing bollocks, websites for all and sundry sprang up.

Sensing a potential gold mine and feeling a touch concerned about these young upstarts, traditional agencies established their own digital boutiques.

But rather than stick to what they knew best, they tried to compete head on with web design agencies. "We are the brand guardians and we will control every aspect of your communications," the mantra droned.

Alas, when the whole thing came crashing down, traditional agencies were hit with a double whammy. They lost dotcom clients and found that they couldn't make money out of websites. The web designers fared even worse, as many of them were, in fact, just glorified shop-fitters and they found out that being cool gets you nowhere if you don't have any clients.

Everybody got stung, clients lost millions, companies collapsed and we all lost our pensions. The resulting backlash convinced everyone that digital was just hype and, with their fingers burnt, traditional agencies took a step back and proclaimed that digital was not a branding medium; let's just leave it to the direct agencies to fight over instead.

A couple of years on, the digitisation of media continues unabated. It has changed the way media is produced, it is increasingly changing how it is delivered and ultimately it will change everything about the way media is consumed.

The tedious battle by agencies for control of digital has ignored the fact that the only people in control of anything are consumers.

Brands are personal. Put simply they are a collection of individual opinions held by each consumer about your product. Digital media allows consumers to share those opinions much more quickly and widely and to decide how those messages are consumed and communicated.

As each advertising medium becomes digital, it steadily becomes more web-like in the way that it is consumed, as digital content flows easily between consumers and across media. Rather than learning these new interactive skills, traditional agencies remain too concerned with protecting their existing established core. Only by combining the traditional core with essential interactive skills can we hope to create the work that will define advertising in the future.

Finding content that is relevant, timely and entertaining becomes the main goal of the consumer. For agencies, the key goal is the same as it always has been: to make the brand relevant. What has changed is how consumers will control and personalise those messages.

Letting go and handing over control to those consumers is painful, but it is merely recognition of what is actually happening. Making it easy for consumers to interact with, personalise and redistribute content improves the chances that your brand will become relevant to consumers.

The web is a natural testing ground for these techniques and it is the creative values and methods honed here that will be in most demand as each medium becomes digital.

With its DIY aesthetic, the web doesn't immediately suggest a polished, high-quality alternative to TV. Let's face it, viral videos and banners hardly herald a brave new creative future. As bandwidth increases and fewer, larger ads begin to dominate, the web is increasingly being seen as an attractive creative canvas for branding.

Luckily, what we compromise in terms of lower production quality we make up for in our ability to prototype and experiment quickly.

Speed, responsiveness and topicality increase the chances of relevancy.

However, the most faithful guide is word of mouth. If you find something you like, you'll send it on. Otherwise, it goes nowhere. Word of mouth has always been an important part of brand building; in the absence of truly mass media, it becomes absolutely necessary.

So the basics remain the same: understand your audience; find the truth in your product and dramatise it with great creative thinking. It is the new tools of personalisation and interactivity that need to be learned, matched with an understanding of how to enable content to flow across media. Being able to link an online ad to a website, a TV programme to a mobile, an e-mail to a printed voucher, allows consumers to consume media how, when and where they want.

It is the young creatives coming through - who already inhabit this digital world - that will be most comfortable with working across a range of media.

Being able to match this talent up with the wealth of learning, thinking and experience from the traditional ad world will ensure that advertising continues to flourish as the whole world goes digital.

It is those agencies that get the basics right, learn new techniques, avoid the mistakes of the past, work well with other specialists and don't get caught up in trying to control everything who will triumph. It is no longer a question of why waste time with digital, more why waste time on anything else?

Mark Cridge is the managing director of glue London.

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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).