Digital isn’t dead, it’s iterative

digital evolutionIt wasn’t more than a couple of years ago that I wrote “digital” as we knew it was dead. Dramatic as the title was (and still is), it didn’t take away from the cold hard reality that we have labeled so many things in our industry “digital” that the term itself was now meaningless.

And “digital” isn’t the only one; in fact there are lots of similar terms and catchphrases that have gone the way of pop culture lexicon, having lost their inherent meaning.

Today these terms, though once very descriptive, now require some form of additional context to provide any true value in their use.

Entrepreneur. Another term that means nothing in the modern age without context. When I was young (mind you, I’m only 35-years-old) “entrepreneur” was a badge of merit.

Calling yourself that (or better yet, being referred to it by others) meant that you had created a life for yourself and your family from scratch. You created wealth in monetary fashion or lore. In any case, you were someone to be considered, even admired, by the general public. You were a successful businessperson.

Enter today, where we call anyone with a Federal ID an “entrepreneur” and dropping the F-bomb more than once in a presentation is sometimes enough to get you a cover story in the Huffington Post or Mashable. Today you have to add context to give meaning to a word that was once a simple description of a life inspired by many and revered by some.

It’s no longer sufficient to be described as an “entrepreneur,” rather we want our peers to say, “He’s a successful entrepreneur.” And yet each time I hear it, I cringe. It bothers me because it’s a term I once felt passionate for.

It defined the very reason I went to the office in the morning and stayed through the night. It was something I wanted so badly because I knew that it bucked the trend. Being an entrepreneur meant I was different.

Digital was different

Today we live in a world where digital means nothing. Anyone who builds a website (which is easier to build than a Facebook page these days) is digital. Do you buy digital media? You are digital. Do you manage social media? Create communities? What about video? Do you create it and upload it to YouTube? Wait a minute? Have you made an app?

What about an installation that uses a computer and some form of interactive infographic? Wow! You are digital. Everyone is digital because nearly everything is digital. Yes! Digital won, right?

Oops. So what’s to become of all of us, the “digital” agencies? What do you do when your identity is hijacked by pop culture? You rebrand of course! This is a “marketing” marketplace. Some became “interactive.”

Others became “technology-first” or “experience” agencies (….guilty). A few just kept marching on as production companies embracing the maker movement, creating new technologies or finding cost-effective ways to subcontract to other firms. Last, but not least, some took hard-earned money off the table and sold to holding companies and agency conglomerates sensing the “end was near.”

That didn’t stop the marketplace either, did it? The people still demand digital. I hear it every day. In fact, I often find myself in this conversation…

Them: “What does Phenomblue do?”

Me: “We are a brand experience agency using strategy, creative and technology to connect people and brands.”

Them: “So…that means what exactly?”

Me: “Basically…we are a digital agency.”

Them: “Oh, right. I get it.”

Several months ago I was at a conference and this question came up again: “What is digital?” I forbade my usual tirade on “digital is dead” and contemplated the question and thought about how Phenomblue goes about business.

I thought about my SoDA peers and how they “do what they do.” I considered the methodologies and the trial and error. I thought about the prototyping and the incessant tweaking of beta 1, 2, 3. Then it dawned on me. Digital is iterative. Traditional is fixed.

That’s what our clients have been talking about all along. They desire a digital agency because they want to innovate and innovation is iteration.

I started processing agencies in my head and categorising them as digital or traditional, and all of a sudden a line that seemed to blur infinitely looked razor sharp. I thought about the world we live in, and what we do as consumers using technology to interact with everything and everyone and it clicked.

We live in an iterative world and that requires sustainable adaptability. It requires digital. Digital is not dead, it’s iterative – a continuous evolution.

Why are digital agencies starting to get everything as opposed to just the “tech stuff”? Branding. Positioning. Business strategy. Full on creative. Because we are iterative by nature.

In a world where every market on the planet is seeing unprecedented competition, where pop culture changes at an exponentially faster rate year over year and where technologies rise to power more rapidly than the public can keep up, we’re forced to move first and iterate.

Digital is iterative and it’s everywhere.

Joe Olsen is the president and chief executive of Phenomblue. He co-founded the agency in 2004, and is a SoDA board member. 

This article appeared in The SoDA Report, a trend report out this month.