I’m a huge believer in semantics. I will debate the connotation and denotation of a word for hours to make sure it’s the right choice for a brand. And by no means am I alone in this hair-splitting belief. In Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell has a fantastic episode about the Jesuit practice of casuistry. He defines this as “descending into the particulars” in order to get a better understanding of similar problems before you can genuinely come to a logical conclusion on an uncertain problem.
I have a particular I’d like to descend into with agencies and brands. It’s the word digital. I’ve been in the business long enough to see that word have about 5 different definitions. First it meant you did websites. Then digital meant you bought digital media. Or that you do social and content. Or that you are a database marketer. Or maybe even that you do email marketing. Or UI/UX. Or even app development. The problem isn’t the word itself, but the fact that it’s used as a catch-all for two main reasons: inference or ignorance.
For agencies that don’t have the chops to do most of the work, they often use digital to talk about the services they do and distract from the ones they don’t. You do websites? Great. You’re a digital shop. Buy Facebook ads? Digital. Send 3 email blasts a year? Totally a digital shop. So when an RFP comes out looking for a digital partner, you respond, because, you know, you’re digital.
And for brands, it’s often similar, but in the opposite direction. Digital is how you talk about the stuff you wish your brand did, but you’re not really doing yet. So that RFP for a digital partner, yeah, it probably means they’re hoping any agency that has the guts to respond can do all the things that they don’t have. Because who doesn’t want to be more digital?
Let’s descend into the particulars a bit. In all reality, digital is an oft-abused word that has been so generalized that it’s lost all its meaning. So what do we do? Do we try and convince the entire marketing world to use another word? That’s not gonna happen. But I do think we have a responsibility to be unashamed truth tellers when it comes to stuff like this. I’ll be the first to go here.
Hi, my name is Mark. I’m not going to use the word “digital” to describe things, unless I mean non-analog. There, that feels good.
For agencies, we have to be boldly honest about the services we do offer. If we are bang-up web designers, with a killer UI/UX team, then let’s be proud of that fact. And if we’re crap email marketers, then let’s be cool with that, too. If we are really good at buying social and crafting content, then let’s be excited about being awesome at content and media. And this is a good moment to do that, too. Now, more than ever, project work is on the rise, which means we don’t have to act like we’re a one-stop-shop to get all those juicy AOR relationships. We can be specialists. We can be great at one thing. And nobody is going to fault you for it. And, let’s be real: there’s nothing worse than winning a pitch and not knowing how you’re going to do the work. Clients can typically smell it, and when they do, you’ve just about wrecked a relationship.
For brands, especially small to medium sized, be explicit in what you need from an agency in a scope conversation, RFP, or discussion. Most of the time, you’re not going to need all of the digital services available from agencies and/or you don’t need some sort of massive digital transformation. Scope conversations have a way of cleaning up the language, anyway, so be straight with your BizDev person right out of the gate, and you will typically get a far better proposal that is way more truthful.
And for people, let’s try and be better about how we describe ourselves. A thorn in my side has always been the title “digital strategist.” I’ve had multiple people on my team ask me for that title at some point. And when they do, someone else always gets turfy. Why? Because they see part of what they do as digital strategy, too; therefore designating someone as a digital strategist infringes on their job description. My advice? Define the role in your agency by a better descriptor than simply digital. In all reality, anyone with the title strategist today had better understand how digital ecosystems work and how to leverage different digital channels to achieve a goal. That’s a given. Throwing words like media, content, UX, or design in the mix significantly helps clean up that mess.
I’ll wrap this up with one of my favorite quotes from The Incredibles. Buddy, aka Syndrome, is monologuing to Mr. Incredible about selling his devices that will give everyone super powers. He says, “And when everyone is super…(diabolical laughter)…no one is.” Yes, Buddy. You speak truth.
When everything is digital, nothing is.
The word has lost its meaning.
Let’s do better.