Digital Essays: This is the new digital future

Communicators from all disciplines want to understand the digital arena, especially as it seems to change every week.

This is the third in the series of the Campaign digital essays, and the meatiest yet. Sixteen companies have put fingers to keyboard to share their ideas for how the digital world will unfold for advertisers (and they are available online at brandrepublic.com).

The issues they raise are on the cusp of an industry being turned on its head. What will the agency of the future look like as the mass-media era gives way to one where audiences are the biggest creators of content?

How can the digital industry trump the traditionalists if it is hamstrung by a dearth of talent? What are the rules for creating a truly great online ad campaign? And what on earth is a Wiki?

Each essay offers a fresh perspective on the state of the internet, and how to communicate with the people who use it and its growing army of related devices and channels. A glance at the type of companies featured this year also helps explain where digital marketing is heading.

As in 2004, save for a media owner or two, last year's writers were all from online ad agencies. This year, however, some of those online agencies have been replaced by direct marketing specialists. Not only that, but an agency with a traditional advertising background has joined the list (welcome, Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive). At last, Tribal DDB has some company.

But why? The obvious (and cynical) explanation is that communications companies from all disciplines desperately want to be seen to be taking digital seriously. An opinion or two, eloquently articulated in the Campaign digital essays, is one way to prove to peers and clients that you're an expert on an environment that seems to change every week.

The alternative explanation is that direct agencies (especially) and advertising agencies (less so) now do rather a lot of digital marketing, and are just as qualified as their pureplay rivals to wax lyrical on the subject. This is because more agencies recognise where audiences are going, what they do when they get there, and where to spend their growing digital budgets.

Sadly, for the more conservatively minded at least, these are places where the skills required to build a brand in front of audiences of millions at the same time are largely redundant. People are now free to consume the media they want, when and where they want it - from films and football highlights to blogs and photo libraries, via gadgets such as Sky+, 3G phones and iPods.

This is leading to a "new art" in digital communication: how to reach small, often tiny, pockets of people, more often (something direct agencies have been doing since day one).

Hardly surprising, then, that search marketing is the fastest-growing part of the fastest-growing medium, or that two search companies feature in the Essays this year (or that Google is now the world's most valuable "media" company).

Many small audiences, it seems, are just as valuable as a few large ones, and the traditional measures of reach and frequency are, in the digital space, being replaced by relevancy and value.

These changes are happening now, not in the distant future (as some would like to believe). And as alien as the digital environment may still seem, there is now a genuine urgency for advertisers to try it sooner rather than later.

After all, the internet is still relatively cheap, low risk and can offer that element of surprise.

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