Digital – think first, act later

Emma O’Doherty on why digital adulthood needs manners

“We want you to think digital first”, a challenge every advertising and communications agency is highly familiar with and which is often the opening statement in client briefs in recent years. In a world of communications dominated by technological change, it is a fair challenge. Should we be asking is there a necessity to state it in the first place?

Leaving aside the philosophical planning issue – whether digital-first is the best communications strategy to address the objectives, the target consumer and the brand; it is a perfectly reasonable question to pose. Do the numbers lie? The obvious conclusion is that clients believe they are not executing enough in digital. It is hard to compute.

Current estimates by GroupM show digital at a healthy 29 to 31 per cent of Irish advertising investment, while global share is up and around 36 per cent. It continues a year-on-year growth trend since 2009. However, these numbers underrepresent the thinking. The fact is that when it comes to consumer-led planning, digital is taking up the most brain-space.

Solutions-driven plans are now all about tech integration; and yes, that does still include great reach channels such as TV and radio. But I digress. Are we acting digital first? The true challenge is not about thinking digital first, it is about finding out where all the digital thinking disappears to. A more pertinent question is: Are we acting digital first?

Do we ensure that at every stage of the process digital is given the right attention? Current behaviour would suggest no. Digital plans are tweaked and redrafted; assets are developed or signed off last; elements go live in staggered timelines (and often late); plans can be cancelled at any time; or the thinking is “too big” or “difficult” to be implemented.

Sands of time: Get rejected so many times and you start to give up. Digital-first thinking is disappearing down a non-committal drain. Digital came through its formative years kicking and screaming. It was the rebel medium, shaking up marketing and forcing re-evaluation of how to communicate. The difficult teenage years are gone and we have moved on.

We have graduated to where transparency and accountability mean digital must “adult”. The problem is that, just like in society, we do not really want to as it requires organisation, decision-making, taking responsibility, and consequences. We are ill-prepared for digital adulthood. While other media are disciplined about time and quality – early booking deadlines, cancellation policies, planning timeframes, standard creative turn-around times.

Digital never troubled itself with such inflexibility and neither did we.

But not anymore. In order to deliver a mature digital product, we need to act mature. Layers of brand safety, tracking, and quality measurement technologies add complexity to campaign implementation. Excellence in creative standards, innovation and consumer journey mapping all take time. Acknowledging and adhering to industry or category regulations, and obtaining sign-off on a suite of assets, take know-how.

Responsiveness or agility takes planning.

Time, quality and consequence are inextricably linked. When given time the quality of output improves – there are better thought through ideas, time for them to be brought to life, executed, tested and implemented, all with minimal mistakes and disruption. Time for all stakeholders to deliver excellence and results in a digital-first world – good consequences.

In a medium which can be turned on or off at will, time has little importance. Everyone knows the consequences of missing TV advanced booking, of indecisiveness at out of home call-in, or in missing the deadline for tomorrow’s front page. In digital bad consequences are opaque. Did you know you may not be getting the best price with Facebook if you book late?

Properly tag and test links on an average display campaign can take up to five days, depending on how many layers of tracking involved. The problem is that we have no defined and widely communicated industry standards relating to digital process; there is no articulation or understanding of the consequences of poor behaviour by any stakeholder.

Many global media owners have policies in place, yet still no industry guidelines exist. We   looked at 12 international markets. It is falling to media agencies in each market to develop their own guidelines to shepherd through better quality campaigns. Yet these are being met with resistance, shackles imposed on what heretofore has been a flexible medium.

Globally, there are varying timelines – planning two-12 weeks; creative testing/trafficking one to three weeks; cancellation two weeks; in the UK, some agencies are imposing a 10-day turnaround on social promoted posts. We do not want to constrain digital flexibility or responsiveness. However, there are differences between being agile and delivering late copy; between considered communications planning and late decision making.

What will serve us well are market guidelines and standards in which all stakeholders have been considered. Should we not be calling out to IAB Ireland, AAI and IAPI to help?

With a fairer emphasis on earlier action, we will see more and better quality digital campaigns executed. And that fuels greater digital thinking, without needing to ask.

Emma O’Doherty is chief planning officer at Mindshare





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