Water in the Digital Desert

sock monkey thirsty!

So thirsty.

I was talking with a friend today about the way agencies view and approach the idea of digital communication. Digital is no longer a new discipline, of course. The majority of Americans have been living digital in some way for over a decade, and the majority of agencies have been trying to make sense of that “new” paradigm for nearly as long. As a result, agencies often now seem to be lumped into two basic camps:

• “Digital shops:” Shorthand for new, modern and intelligent. “Why yes! I wore iDiapers. They told me when to pee, but the UX was cumbersome.”

• “Traditional shops:” Shorthand for just don’t get it.” “Digital schmigital! The Internet is a fad. I miss Elvis.”

Naturally, neither of these assumptions is true. Digital agencies rose because we needed them to rise. People were tired of being grouped into faceless masses by marketing, and digital acknowledged people and their individuality in a whole new way. Digital has shown the way, and marketing is better for it. That said, the shame of the “T” word has been wrongly applied to many highly thoughtful agencies that simply haven’t yet found complete faith in the “D” word.

There is goodness from both

For all the user-centric focus and open-minded attributes of digital shops, one shortcoming seems to be that they sometimes exhibit thinking which fails to acknowledge those who don’t consume and understand media in exactly the way the core crowd of early adopters do. Though living a digital lifestyle has become attractive to an increasingly wider age group, the roots of digital have always grown at the feet of the young and intelligent. And when digital works too hard to prove how different it is, it begins to feel like a club that doesn’t necessarily want you to join (yes, I’m talking to you, Foursquare badge hogs).

That’s why it’s still about storytelling, people!

Once, all agencies were traditional. Basically, agencies created mass communication and placed it within mediums that would allow them to convey their branded thoughts to large numbers of like-minded people. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the birth of the Internet became the beginning of the end of that mindset. Heck, why listen to brands yammer about themselves when you can instead talk to each other about them! Hello, consumer empowerment. Hello, media fragmentation. Sorry, Mr. Ogilvy, your philosophies will no longer be required.  Still, we need to take something important forward from the erstwhile old agency dinosaurs.

Specifically, traditional agencies are often extremely adept at communication strategy and storytelling. No matter what medium you intend to work within, this is key to making human connections. And making a human connection is key to communication. This point was hammered home to me a few years ago as I sat in a meeting with 35 colleagues from our global agency. Half were from the traditional side of the agency, and the others from the newly acquired “interactive arm.” We simply didn’t speak the same language, and our goals were entirely different. The digital CD beside me said, “You guys don’t get interactive. You want it to be television.” Right after, one of my most outspoken Art Directors replied, “Yeah? And you think everything is about something opening and closing in a cool way.” Both were correct. And I realized that we had to serve two masters:

• We had to create a quality user experience

• We had to lace that experience with interesting communication and a brand message

Water! At last!

Here’s the really real reality: No, digital is not just another medium. It represents a lifestyle and a mindset, and offers greater immersion than any medium before it. The downside? The slick glow of binary code also tends to create distance between us and dehumanizes communication. Conversely, those admittedly stodgy, limited traditional mediums sport about 75 years of history that would indicate connection can indeed occur extremely well outside the ultra-thin screen currently in front of you. This is the lesson: In the end, it’s about connecting and resonating. It’s about surprising someone with something cooler than expected. And it’s about making your time with that person count. A great user experience will make people enjoy interacting with your product. But a great communication will contain something more: a real message that will inspire people to tell others.

And now, let’s talk about social media. On second thought, let’s wait.

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