“We’re digital and you’re not!”

With equal parts frustration and delight, I read Andrew McMains’ article in Adweek about the preponderance of digital-only shops and their growing irrelevance to marketers.

Say what?

For the last ten or fifteen years, advertising agencies have obsessed over digital capabilities, devoting umpteen resources on building and/or purchasing the capability.

Meantime, countless digital shops sprang up, pimping their digital superiority in the marketplace.

Then the agencies started buying the digital shops.

And now it appears those same digital shops are trying to build their own advertising capability.

Once again, I am reminded of the famous Doctor Seuss fable, The Sneetches. In the story, the vain but insecure Sneetches keep placing, removing and replacing stars on their bellies, based on an irrational fear of being, for lack of a better word, uncool. By the end of the story no one in Sneetchland has a clue what is cool anymore.

Substitute the word ‘star’ for ‘digital’ and Sneetches for Agencies and it’s the same story. Yet, the saga ends well for the Sneetches. While it was a painful experience, they eventually come to their senses. Sneetchland is best served by having both. Just like Adland.

As I said: delightfully frustrating.

Let’s be honest, direct marketing has always been overshadowed (if not dismissed) by its more glamorous older brother, Advertising. Building brands via great stories has defined our industry for years. So-called “junk mail” and “infomercials” are considered stepchildren. Forget how much revenue DM creates, our industry has always given the love to its darlings. Consider the Superbowl or Cannes. DM has nothing remotely like them in terms of sizzle and prestige. Even the trades favor advertising. After all, the prefix to Adweek and Adage is “ad.”

When agencies merged and got swallowed by holding companies, ad firms and DM shops were thrust together, often unsuccessfully. The battles waged between above and below line practitioners became legend in our industry. Many were and still are contentious, resembling class wars or high school shenanigans. The tumultuous marriage between Draft and FCB is perhaps the best-known example.

Not long ago a new baby came along. Colicky to the extreme, ‘Digital’ demanded everyone’s attention. Even advertising took a back seat. (Baby needs her momma!) Digital quickly grew into a demanding and sexy young woman. She was the bomb. And still is. During these last few years, one could argue direct marketing went from being a stepchild to the middle child. Not to mix metaphors, but never the bride’s maid…

Enter Social Media. Try as we must, social media cannot be “owned” by advertising or digital agencies. It’s as if word of mouth became viral. Call it “world of mouth.” Regardless of your definition, if marketers aspire getting into these conversations we’re going to need tactics and schemes resembling those used by direct marketers. For every commercial downloaded enough times to matter, there are countless millions of deeper connections capable of being monetized. Can you say Search?

As marketers scramble to “get social” I found the similarities between SM and DM irresistible to point out. I may have come from the advertising side but I’ve always respected the rest. Is SM the great equalizer, leveling the playing field between Direct, Digital, Data and Advertising? One thing is certain; the agency of the future must pay heed to them all.

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