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2019: the year of Peak Digital

08 Jan 2019  |  Nick Suckley 
2019: the year of Peak Digital

After spending most of his career working in digital media, Nick Suckley has reached a striking conclusion about its future

OK, I’m doing it. I’m calling it. I’m calling that 2019 will be the year we reach Peak Digital. The point at which things start heading the other way - and after 20 years of growth, that is what we face.

Just recently a number of things have happened and for me, the penny has dropped. I can sense a change in the air. A real shift where advertisers are becoming healthily sceptical about the role of digital – it may not be everything we all hoped it would be. In fact, I’ve recently witnessed a number of clients who have pursued digital-heavy strategies see their growth stall.

I’ve spent the last 20 years working in digital media. I launched one of the first digital media agencies, rode out the dotcom boom and bust, turned around the digital team of the largest media agency and thrived during the rise of Google and Facebook.

Before you accuse me of crying wolf now that I’m working in a full-service media agency, it’s also the reason we sold our last agency – we recognised the need to be part of something broader than just digital.

So what’s going on?

Digital has existed in a parallel world for a while now, with its own tools, measurability and accountability. 'Digital First' and 'putting digital at the heart of our business' are common themes (and I for one have certainly benefited), but more recently I’ve been concerned with what feels like the 'digital is the solution to all of our problems' approach within many companies.

Encouraged by in-house teams and the likes of Google and Facebook, I’ve seen a number of companies who one way or another have painted themselves into a corner commercially by focusing on digital at the expense of other media.

Take the client who was grappling with sky high inflation in generic paid search keywords, meaning sales volume was falling. Their separate paid search agency had only one solution to their problem – spend more with Google. They were unable to join up the dots and say they should use above the line activity to drive branded search.

Or the in-house team that was working in such isolation they had completely missed a whole channel that could (and does now) perform really well – programmatic display.

Or the retailer whose digital team were celebrating growth in online sales, when all they’d done was divert high street sales online with a consequent loss of margin.

Or the online insurer who was simply re-acquiring the same customers, and could only control their sales by reducing their prices.

This is not a criticism on in-house teams or paid search companies. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that simply spending increasing amounts with the likes of Google and Facebook will only get a business so far – namely, into an echo chamber of customers at the pointy end of the funnel for whom price is the only factor in their decision.

The common factor in how these problems would ultimately be solved revolve around using TV (and occasionally OOH) to build brand salience and to ultimately move away from the things that were measurable. The teams I mentioned above had, in one way or another, optimised themselves to a standstill.

Weirdly for a digital native, I’m going to say digital is not the be all and end all. It’s great for routing demand and taking custom. But, it is also lacking when it comes to generating demand.

So what are the implications of all this?

For marketers, advertisers will increasingly need a more connected marketing ecosystem – irrespective of whether they in-house, outsource or use a combination of the two. The winners will be those who can recognise that digital alone will only get them so far.

Digital does give measurable accountability, but I’ve lost count of the number of companies who have optimised themselves to a stand-still. It’s dangerous in the long run, as the measurable stuff isn’t the only stuff going on.

Demand for products and services is ultimately driven by ATL media. And I don’t mean category demand, I mean demand for your product in order that your business can grow. TV advertisers driving people to search only to be picked up by more nimble competitors is a risk.

For agencies, digital silos are no longer fit for purpose. This poses a challenge as dedicated teams help concentrate skills and expertise, but (funnily enough) they only push digital solutions.

As an aside, one thing I’ve never understood is why advertisers have in-housed digital – the most labour intensive, fiddly and hardest-to-recruit-for channel.

For media owners, maybe your time has come. Maybe now is the time for the TV fightback. Maybe share prices are about to better reflect the true value of mass audiences. Maybe it’s really what we’ve known all along - that mass reach drives mass awareness and can stimulate mass demand.

What am I trying to say? The examples above share one thing in common: an over-reliance on digital to do the kind of job it’s not best suited to. That means it gets expensive. And it shouldn’t be an either/or. Join up digital properly with broadcast and you’re onto a winner – funnily enough, TV becomes more effective.

No more reliance on expensive search terms, and no more price as the only control mechanism. Even if I got the year wrong and it doesn’t turn out to be 2019, it’s time to take back control and build effective comms - not just digital comms.

Nick Suckley is digital partner at Goodstuff Communications

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philipbird, market research and insight manager, jcdecaux on 14 Jan 2019
“great article with specific category examples. Illuminates how media plans are skewed by what is simple to measure/track/tweak. Long term branding and therefore long term sales are not adequately addressed by "digital only"”
GregPipe, Hear of Press, All Response Media on 11 Jan 2019
“Well said sir. It still amazes me when you hear of clients wanting to drop their TV spend to focus on the digital as that has been "working so well". Then funnily enough, some time later they wonder why their online performance has tanked so badly. We've seen it for years with the analysis we run comparing TV and online performance, when online traffic suddenly spikes the first question is what happened with the TV overnights. Whether this leads to 'peak digital' however I'm not so sure. Regrettably the trend for money to be pulled from press is still there and no amount of IPA research to say why it's crucial for long term brand growth seems to help. However, with growing concern over the adverse effects of social media and brand safety, perhaps it will lead to a reconsideration of the media mix and open up conversations for press, radio, doordrops, mail etc and slow the headlong rush to just spend more and more online.”
MarkDavies, Managing Director, Whistl on 10 Jan 2019
“Very interesting article, Nick. The advent of further data regulation via the e-privacy directive will add some stick to the carrot of good marketing practice so I completely agree that 2020 will be smaller for digital than 2019. The interesting question is whether 2019 will be smaller than 2018. Many advertisers are already cutting back before they have to but with GDPR we saw clients hammering the channels while they still could before regulation forced the change last May.”


05 Aug 2020 

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