We’re currently living through the ‘mid-digital age’, according to Zeniths Tom Goodwin, but it’s time marketers started considering the post-digital age.

In the pre-digital age, products generally did one thing well – whether that was a DVD player, a TV, a magazine – and in the post-digital age everything will work – consumers will move seamlessly between devices, personalisation will be real, data will be secure.

Today, however, one can frequently detect an air of digital disappointment as people’s expectations grow faster than technology can deliver. “Our internet experience is quite crappy,” Goodwin pointed out to the recent IAB Engage conference, and often the new shiny things that we are capable of developing are not very meaningful. This is the mid-digital age or “the interim of things”.

“We’ve taken what we knew before and pulled it through a digital frame,” he explained. So catalogues have become e-commerce, TV ads are transferred to YouTube, Instagram ads are effectively updated print ads, celebrity endorsement has mutated into influencer marketing (“attractive people holding things up”) while something like Land Rover Stories is just content marketing for today’s environment in the same way that Michelin Guides were for a century ago. It’s not that these tactics don’t work, he said, “but we congratulate ourselves a lot for taking things that have been done before, making minimal changes and feeling like we understand the modern world”.

In the post-digital age, however, we don’t repurpose. “We make things from scratch, we make brand new experiences, brand new advertising forms that have never been done before.” And there are, he suggested, three ways to think about this future.

There is no digital world

“The digital world doesn’t really exist any more, Goodwin said: asking a teenager how much time they spend on the internet makes no sense to them – you have to explain what the internet is, when it starts when it stops. “But that has no relevance – it would be like asking us how much time we spend with electricity every day.”

Emphasising the point, he continued: “There is no such thing as online dating, it is just dating in 2018. There is no such thing as mobile banking, it is just how you do banking if you’re not an idiot.

“We do not need to have a global head of digital any more than we need to have a global head of electricity or oxygen. Technology can be deeply, profoundly, incredibly exciting and absolutely essential for us to understand, but also not something we have to have completely separate in a different building.”

Digital will be the pipe for essentially all media, he added. “In the same way that everything is powered by electricity today we will enter an environment where all media is supplied digitally. Arguments about TV versus digital make no sense in that context.”

Alongside this shift in mindset, devices are becoming more intimate (wearables and smart speakers, for example) and the data gathered is becoming more personal. “The ability to keep all this data and do incredible things with it cannot be underestimated,” said Goodwin. “How we do so in a way that is respectful of people and that people trust and that we’re transparent about is probably the biggest conversation we haven’t really had in this industry.”

The future will likely see advertising experiences that “blend around us” a lot more, he predicted – so,  less channel-centric planning and a more empathetic approach to deliver advertising that helps people.

New structures

“The lines are blurring and we haven’t noticed,” Goodwin argued. The ways we have segmented things in the past don’t necessarily make sense any more. When does TV become video? How does a 360 video become VR? “Devices are becoming more similar. They’re ‘black mirrors’, all connected to the internet, all with screens that can play video and sound – some are in your car, some in your house, some on your wrist. The only thing that’s really different between them is the context of consumption. The idea of planning and targeting advertising based more on context is interesting.”

But current agency structures are inappropriate for this world. “Every time a new technology comes along we build an agency around it because it’s easiest to sell it that way” – whether that’s the internet back in 2001, or social subsequently or voice today. “It’s the wrong way to think about advertising,” Goodwin asserted. “We need to be much more focused on people and their behaviours and the opportunities we have to connect with them.”

Rethink everything

The advertising industry may pride itself on its creativity and innovation “but we haven’t really made anything new in about the last 50 or 60 years,” said Goodwin. You might pretend turning a 30-second TV ad into a six-second video is new “but we need to be bolder than that”.

And how to do that? Take a leaf out of the Silicon Valley playbook: Steve Jobs was only able to make the iPhone because he had no experience of smartphones, Goodwin pointed out. Similarly, Elon Musk was able to create the Tesla when people told him it wasn’t possible because of “a lack of muscle memory”. People are limited by assumptions, he argued, and the greatest threat to any incumbent is not knowing too little but knowing too much.

That means marketers have to start asking themselves things like:

  • What would marketing look like if you’d never known marketing? (Explain your job to an eight-year old and answer all the whys.) What would ads would you create if you had no memory of what ads should look like?
  • What assumptions do you hold that aren’t necessarily true, that stop you making huge leaps?
  • What tools can you work around? What is out there that can be used to form new advertising experiences? (In the same way that the advent of steel beams allowed architects to build skyscrapers).

The internet has been an extraordinary development that has changed and continues to change people’s lives. “If we think much more proactively, much more profoundly and much more excitedly about it, this is probably the best time ever to work in this industry,” Goodwin concluded.