Digital Essays: Lessons from America

What can UK marketing agencies learn from the different ways their Stateside counterparts have implemented and used digital technology?

The US is the world's technological powerhouse, even if Japan, Korea and China are snapping at its heels. And, because Americans are masters in the art of selling, even the most hardened professional might imagine that digital marketing expertise flows one way - from west to east. (I write that as both an Irishman and a Canadian, but with years of experience in the US.)

But for decades, the US and UK marketing industries have had markedly different characteristics, driven by the nature of their consumers. As a result, it still isn't clear which continent is the true leader in digital marketing.

Digital throws the differences between the two societies - not just in the development and acceptance of technology, but also in the cultural, social, political and legal arena - into relief. Within the marketing industry, it highlights creative and strategic differences. Similarly, implementation of digital as a medium will also vary - although that hasn't stopped Arc Worldwide's global president, Marc Landsberg, from declaring: "There is almost no marketing solution we can recommend today that would not have a digital component."

Technology is changing at a remarkable rate, driven by the ongoing needs of the US market. However, few have seen, let alone understood, the full benefits and opportunities available. Digital encompasses a whole range of channels yet to be fully tapped - mobile marketing, outdoor, point of sale, podcasting, blogging, search marketing and interactive TV, in addition to the standard fare of web and e-mail. This creates uncertainty on both continents and among both the professionals keen to use the technology and the consumers at the receiving end.

In the US, the web is not only driving the digital marketing business, but is becoming the core of clients' business and giving it scope and influence as yet hardly imagined here in Europe. For example, US companies are reducing their reliance on call centres, reducing the cost of call resolution from $15 to just $1. In the UK, the debate is still about whether call centres should be UK- or India-based.

Mobile marketing is coming. No, it really is. Around the globe, about 1.5 billion people have e-mail accounts - but twice as many have mobile phones, and of those, nearly two billion use SMS every day. This is one area in which the UK leads the US, but it is still way, way behind Korea and Japan. The Philippines has the highest use of SMS in the world: it represents more than 50 per cent of phone companies' income. In the US, the figure is 7 per cent. So a population of 75 million sends 120 million SMSs daily, totalling 43 billion texts a year, compared with a population of 300 million that sends just ten billion yearly.

In the UK, the ongoing controversy around TV phone-voting is likely to have an impact on a broader scale. It's a fragile market and consumers' natural nervousness around the use of technology will be amplified when there are high-profile cases such as this. That may well give the US market an opportunity to catch up and overtake.

E-mail is a problem for US marketers. Spam has reached such a level that targeting consumers has become a very tricky proposition for many brands. The regulatory framework is much less stringent than in Europe. Although the "Wild West" days are long gone in the US, there is greater potential for abuse. Using e-mail to reach your target market can do more harm than good.

The US experience of online social networks is also worth noting. The MySpaces of this world continue to be big news, but this is an area where perception and reality come apart. Most UK marketers assume MySpace is populated by spotty teens: but the truth, as US marketers have realised, is that the average user age is 35. Anyone who imagines this is the ideal medium for reaching the youth generation will overshoot by a couple of decades.

Brands such as Pontiac have been quick to capitalise on the opportunities with large communities in Second Life, for example. But while Second Life and its like may be well-known by name in the UK, understanding of them is scarce, necessarily limiting the opportunities for UK brands.

Online gaming looks like fertile ground for brands on both sides of the Atlantic. Microsoft's recent acquisition of Massive Inc is just one indication of the growing power of an industry that's expected to be worth $66 billion a year by 2011.

Cost has always been a key driver for digital marketing. And here, European marketers have a substantial advantage, since broadband is both quicker and cheaper on this side of the Atlantic. In the UK, 24Mb broadband is available for just £40 a month. In the US, that would cost $400. That increases opportunities to target European consumers with a rich-media focus.

The drive towards integrated campaigns is much more advanced in Europe, although Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco has taken the ad world by storm. At present, 40 to 60 per cent of Arc's business has a digital aspect to it and by the end of the year, that should reach 80 per cent. That has been one of the main driving forces of bringing the Arc and Leo Burnett brands closer together.

While the "big idea" is at the heart of every great campaign, digital will move us towards a much more data-driven future. Creatively, many great ideas will come from above the line, but digitally integrated implementation will immeasurably improve evaluation - and relationships with clients.

UK agencies run more international accounts that cross both country and cultural borders - making them attuned to the subtleties of communication, not just between different socio-economic groups, but also between language and nuance. That is not to say that the US is one homogenous culture, far from it, but the variations are clearer and agencies can approach them in a distinct and clear way most of the time.

The UK and the US have very different creative styles. Americans are more direct and up front in their marketing approach, in some cases almost beating the consumer into submission with the message. But in the UK, there is greater creative freedom, which leads to higher quality and a greater variety of creative work, using subtlety and humour as the main drivers. I believe UK marketers will be much more effective in the long run if they focus on an integrated creative approach.

The real challenge for marketers playing with the magical digital medium is to find a way of uniting consumers living in a virtual global sphere. In the short term, digital will exaggerate the differences between the two markets. That is no bad thing, because global brands must play to their strengths in local markets. Digital is making a major impact as brands work harder to influence consumers, but the real significance of digital on both sides of the Atlantic is how it drives integration to deliver compelling ideas with measurable results.

- Dan Collins is the head of digital at Arc Worldwide.