Digital Essays 2014: How I learnt to stop worrying and love the revolution

Marwan Saab

Digital is an evolution and not a mass extinction event, says Marwan Saab.

I’m an ad man, always was, always will be; yet I find myself constantly having to defend that statement whenever I mention that I work in a digital agency. Whether I’m speaking with the general public, advertising clients, or to some extent other advertising professionals, I catch myself explaining, “I come from a traditional advertising background but evolved, so to speak, into digital advertising.” Unfortunately that line tends to be followed by a look of confusion and the typical questions as to why I would leave advertising to do websites, banners, and maybe social media. But you also have a few who reply with, “Good, digital is the future.”

The one thing both those responses make me realise is that people still don’t really understand digital advertising, and unfortunately our industry isn’t helping them understand. We complicate it for some reason, maybe because we as an industry still haven’t cracked it, or because those still in the “traditional advertising” mindset are scared and confused of this change and want to make clients to feel the same.

True that air of mystery can sometimes be a good thing; after all it puts those of us who do digital in an advantageous position. Agencies need us, as made extremely obvious by the numerous purchases of independent digital agencies by the giants of advertising, and clients want us. But the downfall is neither knows what to do with us and how we fit in. Digital people become an accessory to have, but not a fundamental piece of the bigger picture.

Only recently have I seen clients or even agencies brief their digital team on campaigns from day one. Generally they wait for the “traditional” team to crack an idea and then ask the digital team to retrofit it into an online campaign, and usually with very limited scope. This might have been ok a few years back, when the digital team was mainly technical people, and a few quirky designers, but today we come in a full spectrum of skills, backgrounds, and abilities. If you don’t take advantage of their talent then you’re hindering your campaign, and in many cases throwing money away.

This brings me back to why a statement of “digital is the future” makes me feel people still don’t understand digital advertising. It’s NOT the future, it’s the NOW; yes it’s still growing and evolving dramatically but its time is here, and if you’re sitting on the sidelines waiting for the future to come, then you’re already too late.

This concept of “the future” also creates an illusion that digital is something completely different from advertising and will eventually kill advertising as we know it. Digital is an evolution and not a mass extinction event, but as in nature, if you aren’t willing to evolve you won’t survive.

Walk into a true digital agency today and you will see the same thing as in “traditional” agencies with a few other things most people wouldn’t think fit into an agency. Marketing people, account managers, copywriters, creative directors, designers, art directors, thinkers, strategists, filmmakers, storytellers, photographers, programmers, geeks, techies, gamers, bloggers, social influencers, psychologists, analysts, media experts, and people just wanting to experiment and try new things. It’s still the same organism, a creative agency, but evolved to have a much bigger brain and capabilities. The aim is still the same, how to connect with people to get our message across and make them care about it. In simpler terms, “how to get a consumer to know and love/buy a brand.”

We’ve all heard the expression “Content is King”, well there’s a reason why most of the world has abandoned monarchies, and the few places that still have them keep them as an object of interest and not of true influence. The public wants to talk and not just be talked at, they want a say, to be represented and not just bundled into anonymous masses being forced into the same mould. This is the power of digital, taking all the great things that traditional agencies do and merge them with experts in various fields to find the best channel, the best message, the best way to connect with the individual and not just the masses.

I guess this is why I embraced a digital agency, because I’ve always wanted to do a little bit of everything, was always curious about any new technology, because I’m a geek at heart, an artist, a psychologist. I’m an AD man, and AD people are renaissance men and women who are not satisfied with the status quo or a very narrow knowledge base and view of the world. The more we know about everything, the better we are at any specific thing we want to do. You might say “a jack of all trades, a master of none.” I say tell that to Leonardo da Vinci.

(Marwan Saab is the general manager at Hug)