‘Digital’ Marketing, My Ass, Marketing Is Marketing.

Published on March 3, 2021

If you call yourself a digital marketer, you might want to sit down.

I recently discovered a marketing thought leader named Mark Ritson, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Melbourne Business School. (He used to teach in Minneapolis, too, at the Carlson Business School. So that’s two of my hometowns checked off.) He’s a prolific writer.

It seems the term “digital marketing” has infuriated Ritson for a few years now. So, this topic I’m pursuing here is not some flash in the pan. Recently, in catching up on his writings, I found his views to be spot-on with mine. And he’s hardly the only leading marketing voice to be weighing in on the over-hype of digital. Essentially, the problem with digital marketing is, in Ritson’s analogy, putting the tactical cart before the strategic horse.

Here’s a key quote from one of his articles, which he titles “Three reasons having a digital prefix will stunt your career”:

“Marketing was always going to absorb digital, it was never going to be the other way around, so when marketers label themselves with the dreaded D-word, all they’re doing is limiting their career progression.”

Considering the global following this guy has, that’s some serious advice right there. Cue the sound of people rushing to edit their LinkedIn profile.

In another article, called “Drop the D-Word!,” Ritson gets more even more negative about the future of the term digital marketing. He cites one of his favorite quotes, from the head of a global consumer brand giant:

“It’s not about doing ‘digital marketing’; it’s about marketing effectively in a digital world,” says Diageo’s CEO, Ivan Menezes.

“Bang! There it is,” says Ritson. “When we look back for the moment that the digital dodo was exposed, I’ll bet a few experts will dredge up Menezes’ quote, blow off the dust, and cite it as a prescient moment in the death of digital.”

He goes on: “There are plenty of others making the same funereal comments… Marc Pritchard, global brand officer at P&G, announced that the era of digital marketing ended in 2013 and has more recently gone on to point out that the ‘murky’ world of digital media is in drastic need of a clean-up. Similarly, Nissan’s CMO, Roel de Vries, has long looked forward to the day when the word ‘digital’ disappears. Ian Pearman, newly appointed President, Asia at TBWA\Worldwide, has been asking clients to drop the D-word for several years. Digital may not be dead yet, but they’ve started digging its grave.”

Skewed Job Market

What does all this have to with where we are today? Well, the problem of too much emphasis on digital has unfortunately been exacerbated by the global pandemic. To wit, this excerpt from “Social experts and digital specialists: The state of the marketing jobs market”:

“Employment has taken a severe hit since the onset of the pandemic, with roles in marketing in no way immune as many companies concluded marketing was nice to have rather than essential. Marketing budgets were slashed and many brands shifted spend to digital media as consumers were forced to stay at home. All this means that in addition to there being fewer jobs in marketing, those that are on the table seem to skew heavily towards digital. In fact, digital marketing jobs were some of the fastest growing last year, according to data from LinkedIn, which shows a 52% rise in demand for such roles. The focus is very much on ‘innovative alternatives’ to traditional marketing.”

HR people may have come to believe that, but, as we’re learning, it’s increasingly not the thinking of major brand marketers as we go forward. Here’s another example – Adidas’s vice-president of marketing, Roy Gardner:

“Remember that the answer to every question is not prefixed with the word digital. There is a lot more to marketing than what shows up online and through social channels.”

Bingo! The net of all this: I think it’s fair to say the hype around digital marketing is well past its expiration date. Or, if you prefer another way to put it, the shark has jumped.

Having a Good Laugh

It’s gotten to such a ridiculous point that Mark Ritson was moved to try using humor in writing his most recent piece on the topic – a light-hearted departure for marketing and branding professionals: “Want a job? Pretend you believe in ‘digital marketing’”

In it, he gives advice to senior marketers now in the job market to actually give less-than-honest answers to interviewers’ questions, just to get in the door. Why? Because the thinking has gotten so warped around “digital” being the answer to everything in marketing that he believes – maybe not so sarcastically – that job applicants have to play along with the fallacy in order to get hired, so they can actually do real marketing for the company.

How does Ritson define what marketing is about? How does he break down the job? Here’s a quick, entertaining read that explains his thinking: “Three axioms and three questions that summarize all of brand strategy.” The net-net? Real marketing is actually quite simple, folks.


Don’t believe Ritson’s position on the D-word? Well, even McKinsey has weighed in on this topic recently: “Why every business needs a full-funnel marketing strategy.” Here’s the meat of that article:

“You could say that marketing has a split personality. On one side is traditional brand building, driven by TV ads and other broad-reach vehicles. Many old-guard marketers who have risen through the ranks excel at this. The other side is performance marketing, or the data-driven measure of online activity. The young guns of marketing who have grown up in the digital age dominate this discipline.

“For many companies, this split is inhibiting growth aspirations. Budget and impact conversations often become contentious: performance marketers tout their ability to drive clicks while brand builders argue for longer-term investments, although they often struggle to demonstrate the near-term value their teams generate. In recent conversations with two dozen top marketing executives, less than a fifth report having a very strong understanding of how their brand-building campaigns are performing. ‘It’s tough to measure either the short-term or long-term impacts of brand campaigns,’ says one marketing executive. ‘We attribute increases in sales to them because of correlation, not necessarily causation.’ This is troubling for CMOs because 83 percent of CEOs look to marketing as a growth engine for the business.

“Brand building’s measurement problem has obscured its importance. As a result, many CMOs shift too much of their marketing spend toward the easy-to-justify capture of customers at the bottom of the funnel [emphasis mine] at the expense of the less tangible generation of customer demand and attention at the top. This skew toward bottom-of-the-funnel campaigns has significant implications for long-term value: data from three large marketers in media and apparel retail industries indicate that customers who have an emotional connection to a brand tend to be more loyal and valuable over time than those who arrive at a site because of a generic keyword search or social media ad.”

So, there you have it. Digital spending too often wins out because it’s, quite simply, the lazy way out.

The beneficiaries of marketing – meaning companies and brands wanting to grow – deserve better.

Graeme Thickins is a startup advisor, consultant, and technology investor based in the Twin Cities. He’s been published widely, and has been a contributor to Grit Daily since March 2019.

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