How are we embracing the digital evolution?

Before we take a view on the current shape of the digital landscape, let's start by trying to define what digital actually is.
How are we embracing the digital evolution?Simply put, ‘digital' encompasses communication across a growing number of channels or platforms, from the cell phone, to email, to websites, to interactive kiosks, to digital outdoor billboards, to interactive TV, to the satellite navigation in your car, to the growing number of screens popping up all over the consumer landscape. So if you're thinking that this topic doesn't relate to your business, then think again.

Likewise, if you're thinking that digital is a trend or something that will only be ‘coming soon', then take a closer look. Both here and overseas it's starting to play a key role in the advertising and marketing landscape. The reality is that it's growing and evolving faster than any other segment of the advertising mix today.

As a small sign of the pace of growth and the size of audience connected to digital worlds, six hours of video is being uploaded to the YouTube website every minute. In 2005 the world already had over one billion people connecting to the internet and over two billion people using cell phones.

As Campaign Magazine's Associate Editor comments, "Digital has crept into all areas, got under the skin and into our psyche, so that we now scarcely notice when something is digital. Now it's just ‘communication' or simply ‘life'."

The common view today is that any advertising agency who wishes to fulfill the real needs of their clients, should be taking the digital landscape very seriously indeed.

Here in South Africa, we've made a good start in isolated areas, but in general there's a great many people who still need to embrace the future.

From a creative perspective, we've seen the creation of some award winning and internationally recognised pieces of work, which is a good sign for our ability to tackle the future. We've also an increase in digital work in the marketplace and this is reflected by the entries to The Loeries. For two years in a row digital categories have outstripped all other areas of Loeries, in terms of percentage growth of entries.

From a client side, we've seen some prominent brands put digital top of mind, with the appointment of specialist in-house e-marketers. Concurrently we've had widespread increases in digital budgets, whilst many traditional budgets are being cut back. We've seen clients seek out digital talent directly, as apposed to waiting for traditional Agencies to crack the digital path. The result is an increasing number of brands dipping their toes into the digital ocean. Obvious benefits include the ability to engage a mass audience at a relatively low cost, plus the mediums inherent ability to target audiences and the benefits of real time tracking of a campaigns success or failure.

Looking at the numbers, we have a fast growing audience. About 10 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2007, with approximately 4.5 million installed computers in South Africa. This is predicted to increase by 17 percent to 5.4 million by the end of this year. AMPS recently recorded 2.4 million South African adults accessing the internet in the past seven days, which is an increase of 30% from this time last year.

According to World Wide Worx, there were 147,000 broadband users last year and they forecast 277,000 broadband users by the end of this year.

Alongside this, South Africa has seen large growth in cell phone communication, with the South African mobile internet usage growing exponentially. Russel Atkins, General Manager of Mobile, comments: "We have a unique situation in that there is a very high mobile phone to PC ratio - one of the highest in the world. This is coupled with extremely affordable mobile data rates and high penetration of GPRS or 3G ready phones."

To support this. South African cell phone usage was recorded in 2007 as 42,300,000, a staggering 96% of the total population. The high growth in accessing the internet from cell phones (the Mobile Web), is further substantiated with The BBC reporting 20% of their international WAP traffic originating from South Africa.

Furthermore the Minister of communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, said recently during her budget speech in parliament, that the department would invest in wireless broadband networks and strengthen the policy framework to encourage more players to invest in wireless broadband. This will in turn increase the size of audience who has access to digital media by cell phone or computer.

Later this year we also expect to see the launch of South Africa's first interactive television service. This promises to be the first truly integrated TV, internet and cell phone experience for a mass market.

Some overeager and arrogant minds have speculated that all of this growth signals the death in traditional advertising channels, but far from it. We'll always need the big idea and the ATL channels, but this does signify a re-balance of the communication mix and a shift towards digital importance.

What we will see is a further and exciting change in the way the advertising industry moves to embrace the use of digital technology. The way they choose to re-balance their focus towards different mediums will decide their future ability to connect with their clients' audiences and to maximise their clients' budgets.

Moving our focus internationally, the majority of agency networks have been integrating ‘digital know-how and digital depth' into their through-the-line offerings for the past 10 years. A sign of how far ahead they are, is seen in Europe's digital ad spend overtook radio and print over a year ago. Studies in the UK and America have found that people are spending more time interacting with the internet than viewing the television. A particular study by Greenlight in the UK shows that 16 to 24 year olds access the internet more frequently than they watch TV and spend 10% more time on it, than in front of the box. In terms of time, one third of people are accessing the internet for 16 hours or more a week. It's also not just the young; between 2006 and 2007, the UK saw a 12% increase in internet access by the over 50 age group. (This age group are termed by many as the Silver Surfers).

From an industry perspective, global awards organisations from Cannes to D&AD, have also responded to the importance of digital, with increased categories and increased space for celebrating breakthrough digital work at these important industry events. The D&AD last year also appointed Simon Waterfall from digital agency Poke to fulfill the prestigious position of overall Chairman.

Digital agencies are also becoming lead agencies for the first time, for example Profero in London, leads on the ‘Channel 4' and ‘Western Union' brands.

Concurrently many traditional agencies are changing their approaches to evolve with the need for digital. By example, Draft FCB in the UK have formed a single Profit and Loss line across all Agency disciplines, to ensure there is no leaning towards any medium, and to encourage cross platform solutions. Their Executive CD, Loga Wilmont comments on Digital: "There's a readily growing audience of people who fully embrace this new world of communications, where they can interact, question, fact-check, support, lobby, opt in or opt out. For them digital is not just about emails and Google, but about entertainment, socialising and self expression."

So where are we going wrong over here and what's around the corner?

As a start, we all need to acknowledge that our audiences have learnt and are increasingly learning that they can engage differently with digital. Their expectations of communication have changed and they're now more in control. They can set their own pace, times, places and mediums that they wish to receive messages on. They don't want to receive the same ATL message on their phone and they interact very differently with their TV compared to their computer. So there's a need to approach the creation of work differently from an advertising agency perspective.

In order to achieve great digital work I belief the advertising industry needs to embrace real integration and real collaboration. Most agencies are failing to produce fully integrated campaigns, which show their lack of knowledge of digital. By example, I believe that at least 50% of entries in the Loeries integrated campaign category this year were actually non-integrated pieces of work. They simply had similar messages adapted and resized across different mediums, as apposed to true integration where a coherent story and evolved journey is created across multiple platforms and touch points. Each medium having an engaging and relevant communication to suit that medium and the audience that it's targeted towards.

In terms of collaboration, this isn't only required in the creative process but also in the media placement and planning process. The current approach by many is to allow the media budget to be divided up first and then to allocate the budgets to the teams working in each medium. A typical digital brief therefore includes a big ATL idea, a budget and a wish for a Digital execution. This will always create mediocre solutions. The way forward is for a more collaborative approach, where creatives from multiple disciplines or specialists, all sit together to crack a big idea. Only then is there a decision to which channels to use to most effectively connect the idea with the audience. At the very least, digital agencies should be bought into the creative process when a basic idea has been formulated, but not locked down or presented to client.

As for the future, no one can doubt the inevitable growth of digital channels. The next most obvious prediction is that the most effective communication will involve allowing consumers to interact and converse as apposed to simply talking in one direction to them. Conversation is king! The creation of useful content, together with areas of engagement and interactive information, not just one way promotion and advertising. This interactive approach grows an audience who come back for more and who help brands create their own communities.

With the increasingly competitive and busy communication landscape, peoples ‘in boxes' will become fuller. So we'll also see increased personalisation of messages to consumers, in order to achieve stand-out, relevance and cut-through.

In terms of content, historically video was the exclusive domain of ATL Agencies and any video on the web was just resized and repurposed content. The increase in access speeds to the internet will mean that video becomes more commonplace online and on cell phones. This puts video in the hands of digital agencies and globally we're already seeing more Digital Agencies producing video as part of their campaign work.

From a consumer perspective, we'll see increased connectivity between multiple digital channels, especially between the internet, cell phones and TV. With the likes of Telkom Media hopefully launching soon, the blurring of lines between different mediums such as the television and the computer.

In terms of the future of digital agencies themselves, I believe there's going to be a split between Agencies that offer simply a production service and those that offer creative and strategic solutions. Either the production of other peoples ideas, or an integrated and collaborative involvement in creating the big idea.

Campaign Magazine's annual Digital review discovered that many industry leaders predict "that internet media will outstrip TV this year, meaning that clients will inevitably look to experienced digital hands for strategic counsultancy".

This further supports the idea that the next generation of creative digital agency will need skills beyond a production company. The ability and experience to help guide a brands digital landscape with original and relevant concepts, ideas and strategy.

So should we be concerned about our ability to embrace digital? In my view South Africa has previously adapted very fast to change and this fact, together with its massive pool of creative talent, forms my last prediction, that we'll see digital embraced much faster than some might imagine. Bring it on!

Published in the Adfocus annual review 2008.

17 Jan 2009 08:29


About the author

Pete Case is Founder and Creative Director of Gloo Digital Design.