Digital decoded: A perpetual revolution

The digital world can be a daunting place if you don't know how it works. This is the first in a series of six features that will act as a guide to this ever-changing landscape.

Hard though it is to believe, Google has not even reached ten years of age.

A brand that most people reading this article would use every day, it has entered the language as a verb, and generates billions of dollars in revenue and millions of dollars in advertising income for its partners. Yet it's not even old enough to go to high school or ride on the big rollercoaster in an amusement park.

Google is just one company that illustrates the topsy-turvy world in which the ad industry now attempts to conduct itself.

Twenty years ago, the worry was whether or not remote controls would prove to be the death of the TV ad. Now, we're looking at an end to scheduled television altogether, not to mention the steady erosion of newspaper and magazine circulations, and the decline of mass radio audiences as the long-mooted listener fragmentation is finally becoming a reality.

For ad agencies, it's no longer enough to be able to tell your skyscraper from your banner. As well as being asked by clients for advice on what to do about advertising on the internet, agencies are also increasingly expected to advise on a strategy that embraces mobile phones and internet via television, and how to make sure advertising links up with customers who are searching on Google.

But for every snippet of news that is, quite frankly, frightening for traditional media and the industries that thrive because of it, there is something positive as well.

We might not all be tuning in to the same media any more, but we are still consuming vast amounts of the stuff. When the US Census Bureau released a survey on changing lifestyles in the US last year, it estimated that the average adult American spends 3,518 hours a year occupied watching television, listening to the radio, surfing the web and reading newspapers. That's almost five months of the year.

It's an alarming statistic if you're campaigning against obesity and in favour of children reading more books. But it's good news for media owners.

Or, as Charles Billot, the commercial director of the digital agency Soup, puts it: "Everyone has an opinion about the future of digital, about whether or not it's seen as bleak or exciting. The fact is that we are still consuming digital media at a faster pace than ever before. The tools in front of us are getting more powerful."

What developments such as News Corporation's acquisition of MySpace and Google's deal with YouTube tend to reveal is a trend to buy now and worry about how you're going to make money with it later. Or, to borrow a line from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." And if they come, you can make money out of them.

While traditional media owners are now facing up to the fact that their share of adspend is dwindling, more companies than ever before are advertising because of the effectiveness of digital media.

Online advertising was worth £2 billion in 2006, commanding 11.4 per cent of the total UK adspend, up from 7.8 per cent in 2005.

For agencies, good news comes with the recognition that clients still need their expertise and creativity in the new digital environment. Bad news is delivered with the realisation that they will have to change as those skills are needed in different ways.

Juliet Blackburn, who heads the digital practice at the agency/client match-making service the AAR, is spending a sizeable chunk of her time thinking about the shape of the agency of the future.

"Twenty years ago, or at Agency 1.0, there was a much clearer delineation of what people's roles were: this is what sales promotion does; this is what direct marketing does; this is what PR does. It was clear for clients in terms of knowing where to buy the services they needed," she says.

Blackburn has distilled the crucial factors for building a successful agency to deal with Web 3.0 into three elements: "Agencies need to have insight, whether it is in brand planning, communications planning, strategic planning and so on. They also need creativity, and technical capability. If digital is at the heart of your strategy, how can you push the boundaries without knowing what is capable of being done? And then there is the issue of data, and being able to join up the different types of data that is around to make a meaningful whole."

It's not going to be easy. When you hear the 29-year-old boss of a digital agency lamenting the fact that his 23-year-old staff think he's an old fart, you know that something extraordinary is going on.

On the other hand, there's no mystery to thriving in the new world, and nothing inherent in youth that makes young people more able to understand the digital world (see what 64-year-old Hazel Hagger (right) has to say about media consumption for proof).

Mark Collier, the managing partner of the digital agency Dare, says: "What's happening is a revolution. Ignore it at your peril. It's a fundamental change that is going on; it's led by consumers. Unless agencies change, they won't be able to speak to them.

"Our view is that interactivity will be at the very heart of marketing in the future, and that starts with the digital channel. So we're not trying to reinvent ourselves as an ad agency."

Understanding what's going on at the moment is not as easy as, say, reading the ratings figures for Coronation Street or the latest output from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, but nor is it rocket science.

For the better-funded advertising agencies, at least, there is the chance to invest in expertise, once the dilemma over whether to acquire it or to build it themselves has been resolved. And although there is currently a shortage of talented staff at some levels, which has been widely attributed to the dotcom crash of 2001, that situation can't continue indefinitely.

Guy Phillipson, the chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau, advises traditional creative agencies to team up with digital specialists. He also emphasises the need to ensure that the core idea of any integrated campaign works online first.

The logic is that online is where people are making their purchase decisions. He says: "Go from there, rather than from the idea of turning a 48-sheet poster into a banner ad.

"A lot of traditional creative directors say online is just another medium, and they often forget that there are technical considerations to take into account. In digital agencies, a creative director will talk to the technical director and also to the media owner in order to make sure it can be married up. That's foreign territory for most creative agencies."

Mark Cridge, the founder and chief executive of glue London, predicts that all media will become digital. Some of the changes along the way will happen gradually, while others will be much more rapid and dramatic. "It's going to be really messy, and it won't be predictable or clean-cut. But whoever can go out and make things happen will be the one to succeed. Everything's up for grabs and it's really exciting," he says.

"Where digital has got to now is down to a lot of hard graft. No-one hands you this stuff on a plate. You've got to go out and make it happen."

But, perhaps more than that, "we're about to enter the danger zone again", Blake Chandlee, the commercial director of Yahoo!, warns. Potential investors scared off by the dotcom bust, it seems, have regained their confidence and are now likely to fund or invest in an enormous selection of new technologies - "some of which will be right, and some wrong".

As a result, Chandlee forecasts new and numerous tipping points within the next five to ten years that will reshape the digital environment in ways that we can't yet even envisage.

"It's impossible to think we've already gone through the big push," he says. "It's going to be staggering."

Over the coming five weeks, Campaign's "Digital Decoded" series will aim to provide a guide that will help both advertisers and agencies chart a course through this constantly changing digital landscape; they will look in greater depth at search, gaming, user-generated content, mobile and internet protocol TV.

It may still be tempting to bury your head in the sand, proudly proclaiming yourself to be "old school", or to insist that advertising is still solely about a great core idea.

But, then again, who wants to be the one scratching a great idea on to a parchment scroll while everyone else is discovering the fact that Gutenberg's printing press actually makes a whole heap of sense?


THE SCHOOL GIRL: Harriet Carter, aged 14, year nine student. She lives in Hertford. Her uncle is Russell Hopson, the deputy managing director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

I listen to Radio 1 and Capital in the mornings when I'm getting ready for school, and also in the evenings. I like Chris Moyles and Johnny Vaughan, and they play good music all round.

I always ask my mum to buy The Sunday Times, because I love the Style magazine. We have The Times at home, and I like to read that. I also like to read our local paper, the Hertford Mercury.

We have Sky at home, and I watch a lot of stuff on Channel 4 and MTV. I like Friends and The OC, and I also like watching The Apprentice on BBC One.

I don't have a television in my room - I'm not allowed one. The computer is also downstairs. I spend quite a lot of time online after school, usually from about 4.30pm, and sometimes until 8pm, although, obviously, not the whole time because I'm doing homework and other things.

For fun, I like to visit radioblogclub.com, a music website. I also like going on the Topshop website, which they update about once a week, and MySpace.

But the biggest distraction for me when I'm using the computer is MSN Messenger. It takes up most of my time online.

THE COMPANY DIRECTOR: Ajaz Ahmed, aged 34, chairman of AKQA. He lives in London

My morning used to start with Lauren Laverne on Xfm because she has a good voice and makes me laugh, but then they changed it to someone else so now I listen to Kiss FM.

I usually only get to read a newspaper of my own when I am travelling outside of London and if a headline catches my eye - usually it's The Independent.

I have two phones, one for calls and one for e-mails, so I can do both at the same time. I get more texts than calls, although calls are much more useful.

At work, I use a Mac and a PC. My homepage on my Mac is set to a website called netvibes.com, which delivers me news from about 14 sources. My Google homepage on my PC is also personalised, and that draws in news from a number of different sources. AKQA has a network on facebook.com, so, if I log on, I can see what events are coming up, whose birthday it is and all those kinds of things.

Because I don't get my own newspaper, I don't really know what's on TV, so I set my Sky+ to record the programmes I think I will like. I know that if I miss anything, it's not a problem because I will be able to get hold of it "on-demand". I also have an Xbox 360 and am thinking of getting AppleTV.

THE SENIOR CITIZEN: Hazel Hagger, aged 64, academic, Oxford University's Department of Education Studies. She lives in Oxford and her daughter, Jo Hagger, is the joint managing director of glue London

I'm a great listener to Radio Five Live: I love sport. First thing in the morning, the radio goes on, and often when I get home. I love reading newspapers. I read The Guardian or The Independent and The Observer.

I certainly don't spend time on the internet just trying to find something. I use it for work, to check things such as the latest government initiative; I use it to get information on trains, planes and to help with life; I book all my flights and travel on the net as well.

I've never done a super-market shop online, but do I occasionally buy stuff. The last time it was from Jo Malone (www.jomalone.co.uk) - we don't have a store in Oxford.

I use e-mail all the time. I get about 150 e-mails per day. The net has changed my life. I rarely write or receive letters any more; e-mail is my main form of communication.

I've just started with Skype, now that we've got broadband wireless at home.

Sometimes I'll go on YouTube or MySpace, to see what the youth of today are up to. I'm not "cutting edge", but I'm "up for it". I like new stuff, but I know I'm slow to get it compared with younger people.