Digital Essays: Age of reformation

As digital is becoming the plumbing that connects channels and formats, agencies also need to recognise its role as a conduit for effective ideas.

The ascendancy of digital within marketing and communications has created the type of debate that stimulates much speculation and little agreement.

Few, however, would argue that digital has yet had its full impact or developed into a defined and static form.

New ways to communicate and interact with consumers have accelerated to such a point that the latest buzzwords and trends seem like a tidal wave of innovation that most marketers, even specialist digital ones, sometimes struggle to make sense of.

The marketing industry has always been great at communicating ideas about brands that connect with consumers. But the measurement of what constituted an effective idea was more often than not linked to the marketing or media discipline that delivered it - be it advertising, direct marketing, promotions or PR. With digital-based communication now delivering ideas across all of these disciplines and formats, the primary focus now is the ability of brands to deliver the best ideas to consumers.

It's no longer about why or if technology will be deployed into campaigns, it's about what is the most effective way of doing it.

Digital is now proving itself as a means to deliver ideas that get results. Specialist agencies that understand the parameters of the technology have been at the forefront of this. Clients, seeking ever-increasing levels of efficiency and integration, want even more from their online approach, demanding that digital adds value within promotions, CRM, advertising, events and merchandising.

The BBC is conducting an intriguing experiment called the New Media Home, where the latest digital home- entertainment devices are installed into an "average British household", in order to assess how it interacts with the next generation of entertainment and communication devices. From Sky HD, BT Vision and Joost, to Apple.TV and internet radio, and everything else in between, this family has been digitally enabled to a level few people have yet to even imagine. The experiment provides a fascinating insight into how the family of the future will interact with technology and, by default, with brands. It's no longer just about websites, e-mail and mobile; it's a whole range of formats, content experiences and ideas.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, makes the interesting point that, while consumers spend 20 per cent of their media exposure time online, clients, on average, spend only 10 per cent of their budgets on online activity. It's a great argument in the current environment to increase online spend. However, it leaves the question of what to do with the BBC's New Media Home, which is, albeit prematurely, probably spending much more than than 20 per cent of its time online. And the definition of what is and isn't "online" is becoming increasingly hard to define.What's more, online can no longer be described as a specialisation.

Most advertising, on-pack sales promotions and direct marketing campaigns now have a digital component, yet we often still refer to digital as a separate entity; something different from all the rest. This approach can sometimes limit the creative process straight off the bat.

A recent Coke Zero campaign in the US demonstrates how digital integration can work at its best. The brand used multiple formats to apply a contemporary feel to a successful advertising idea from the 70s, thus creating a whole new take on the original concept. The campaign revisited the Pepsi Challenge - with the twist that Coke Zero tastes so much like Coke that the company is considering suing itself for "taste infringement", because consumers might get confused.

The digital medium lent credibility to the target audience and the word-of-mouth factor generated a global buzz around a global brand. Fundamentally, this was a traditional ad concept, but it was enabled digitally to connect better with the audience and to amplify the message. The campaign wasn't about digital marketing per se, but it was about a great idea that would not have been as effective without the internet.

Digital is starting to look less like a marketing discipline in itself and more like a key component to delivering a central idea across a diverse set of formats and disciplines.

So digital is not actually replacing advertising, direct marketing or promotions; it is augmenting them with a new approach that allows ideas to transcend the limits of a single-channel-based approach. Does this sound suspiciously like the Holy Grail of integration? Like any good agency response, my answer is "possibly".

Brands have been delivering ideas across multiple channels and formats for a long time and such activity can probably be traced back to the very origins of marketing. What was missing until recently was the ability to link them together in a way that made sense to consumers, and was also measurable. Also absent was the ability for consumers to control the full range of format, location and time of engagement. This user-controlled environment is in its infancy for most of us - but is a reality now for the BBC New Media Home.

All of this creates much more opportunity around relationship marketing and advertising, because these disciplines represent content points that can generate ideas. In effect, digital is becoming simply the plumbing that joins up the growing diversity in channel and format, delivers the idea and then measures the result.

Smart clients are now seeing this as a major set of opportunities: the ability to cut costs, boost brand engagement and integrate channel and format, all at the same time. But, most importantly, it's a platform for generating, delivering and measuring big ideas that connect consumers with brands.

When we developed the Mars "Believe" campaign around last year's World Cup, we made online a central pillar of the whole concept, not just as a channel add-on or afterthought. England may have been unsuccessful on that occasion, but the client wanted, and got, a big idea that transcended channel boundaries and delivered results. Again, not a digital marketing concept on its own, but one that was not possible without the internet.

The increased use of technology in marketing and communications points to a rather obvious bigger role in terms of expenditure and profile. But, at the same time, this also masks the fact it also needs to play a different role. This role is not just as a channel or discipline in itself, but also as a conduit for ideas.

Only by making digital a core component to deliver effective and hard-hitting ideas that build on territories that brands and agencies are already intimately familiar with will we reach the New Media Home of the future.

Long after the 10 or 20 per cent debate has ended, and certainly long after the fixation with channel and discipline has run its course, we will still be trying to come up with great ideas that consumers buy into on their terms.

It might not be the renaissance of marketing from a consumer's viewpoint, but from an agency's perspective, it is most certainly the reformation.

- Gray Sycamore is the director of digital, Europe, at The Marketing Store Worldwide.