Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Marketing's new life skills

Two studies suggest that marketers are polarising according to their level of digital know-how.

Carl Jung invented the term synchronicity to describe the experience of two events, the coincidence of which had meaning. His theory of the 'collective unconscious' similarly denied a causal link, with synchronicity focusing on the significance of this concurrence. Phew.

So, when you read two pieces of unconnected research that appear to imply similar conclusions, there might be more to it than meets the eye. One study highlighted in the prestigious journal Metro brought to my attention the phenomenon of 'Plebs'.

People Lacking Everyday Basic Skills can't change a tyre or hem trousers; apparently, while 72% of 18- to 24-year-olds know how to join a wi-fi network, just 9% can poach an egg. According to UK Skills, young people leave school without the basic practical knowledge they need to get on in life.

Meanwhile, Accenture surveyed 400 senior marketing executives globally last year. The consultancy reported 'surprisingly lacklustre' results in customer analytics, innovation, customer engagement and marketing operations. Just 23% of companies rated themselves above average in all four areas; a third of them described themselves as weak in all four.

Shortcomings lay in six areas, including lack of technology and tools, required workforce skills and access to key customer data. Not surprisingly, given this, fewer than 20% said they were effective at using digital channels.

Shortly after this survey was released, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), another consultancy, published 'The CMO's Imperative', which examined how companies were meeting the challenge of digital.

Here, just 46% of marketers said they had the tools needed to make trade-offs across media. While they were comfortable with planning traditional media (despite the first finding), they scored planning processes for social media and mobile near the bottom of the scale. Just one third felt their ad agencies were helpful in making the right trade-offs between digital and traditional.

What's clear is that a polarisation has emerged between highly skilled digital marketers and others who are still struggling to create and implement strategy as digital channels grow.

The BCG study identified a defining characteristic of digital capability; direct marketing businesses, where ROI is clearly measurable, had forged ahead in developing digital skills, leaving behind those who were more likely to work in brand-building businesses selling through third-party retailers.

A former Procter & Gamble staffer is quoted as saying that historically, investment in digital channels was slowed by a prevailing consensus that 'no one ever got fired for spending more on TV'.

The studies agree that in mature markets, digital has reached what BCG describes as an 'inflection point'. Digital channels now have scale, targeting, standards, markets and measurement. Reach exceeds 60%, big enough to make it a cornerstone of investment rather than an adjunct. With location and context, marketers are starting to trade broad reach for deeper relevance.

Standardisation of formats, with the emergence of exchanges and DSPs where media can be traded, have helped push more media into attractive, performance-driven models that emphasise ROI. Finally, digital is now being built into overall media models for effectiveness, giving marketers a single view. There's no going back.

But what of the plebs?

Digital skills used to be a competitive advantage, but in many markets not a life-or-death factor. This is no longer the case; marketing has fundamentally changed. Where the inability to poach an egg might formerly have resulted in hunger, now it could mean starvation.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist


- Boston Consulting Group surveyed 56 marketing executives at mainly big and mid-sized companies, mostly US-based multinationals, with world-renowned brands. Half had sales in excess of $10bn.

- The report found that the complexity of marketing vehicles and pace of new communications opportunities are overwhelming marketers.

- The report concluded: 'By failing to integrate digital campaigns effectively, companies risk wasting marketing dollars by the millions. By fumbling conversations with consumers, they risk damaging a brand's reputation and authenticity. By waiting too long to commit to digital leadership, they risk ceding share to competitors ...

Over the next five years, we anticipate a significant skills-based battle to define the next generation of marketing leadership ...

The best CMOs know they can no longer survive by relying on their hip agencies or interns for their technical expertise ...

Now, they must become digitally savvy across every part of the marketing organisation.'


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