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Amaresh Godbole, CEO, Digitas India walks us through his personal journey from 2010 to 2020 in parallel to how the indu...
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Digital marketing: A decade to acceptance

Amaresh Godbole, CEO, Digitas India walks us through his personal journey from 2010 to 2020 in parallel to how the indu...
  • We bring to you a series of columns from industry experts, looking back at the last 10 years.
  • The columns will explore how the media, marketing and advertising industry has transformed in the last decade.
  • Amaresh Godbole, CEO, Digitas India walks us through his personal journey from 2010 to 2020 as well as the different stages of evolution that the digital industry went through in the last decade.
The year was 2009. I was trying to convince my boss to accept my resignation. He couldn’t fathom why I would leave a fast-track career in an established network agency to join an unknown digital shop. I couldn’t blame him. Everyone I knew in the agency world felt that it was hara-kiri. There was a tsunami coming and the MarComm industry at the time was in collective denial about it. In the decade since, I have witnessed the industry get from there to acceptance in classic stages.

2009-2010 – Denial
This was the era of flash banners, microsites and entrepreneur led digital shops. Some got as far as animated ‘viral’ videos, typically depicting popular Bollywood characters or mythology to support the ‘real’ campaign. All of it was at best considered cute.

CMOs and CCOs had no time for digital work and usually the junior brand manager that drew a short straw was put in charge of it. Some industry luminaries were even dismissing digital as a passing trend. With barely 60 million users online, no one bothered to argue.

Of course, the fees reflected the sentiment, and seemed like a cruel joke when compared to the soon to perish 15% commission model.

2011-2012 – Anger
A new reality emerged. Smartphones + Mobile Data + Social Media = Consumer voice at scale. Brands and agencies alike plunged in, trying to understand how to play this game. The ones who didn’t soon realized that it was akin to not attending your own trial where the consumer was judge, jury and executioner. I recall, embarrassingly so in hindsight, that we had an entire brainstorm to understand how hashtags worked.

Facebook applications, paid followers, trending mechanics, always-on content calendars et all emerged in this period. Amidst this the word ‘disruption’ and the consequent need for ‘transformation’ started gaining momentum. A lot of people across industries were angry. Many had spent decades learning the ropes of their business, and suddenly there was a new set of rules. But they weren’t set rules, the only thing you could be certain of is that things would keep changing.

2013-2016 – Bargaining
Okay, we need digital… “But there’s no reach” “But print is more credible”

“But we can solve the problem by hiring 1-2 millennials in house”

To illustrate the sentiment of this period, a couple of us from our agency’s leadership featured in a leading publication’s ‘most admired agency leaders’ list alongside traditionally well-known faces. And instead of calls from other leaders congratulating us, we were asked in genuinely confused tones whether we had paid to be on it, so they could rationalize it.

The ‘buts’ didn’t stop the advent of digital. HTML 5 made engaging interfaces available at scale across devices. Budgets grew and demand for digital talent skyrocketed. It became a 24*7 struggle to keep up with real-time marketing, constantly evolving platform algorithms and the mobile app ecosystem.

Recognizing their gaps, holding companies got into M&A mode and independent digital agencies around the world were quickly bought up.

2017-2018 – Depression
Realization dawned that we were up against Google and Facebook as frenemies, as well as consultancies and tech companies like Accenture as competitors. It really sunk in when we saw a change of guard at many celebrated agencies, with revered talent making way for others if they hadn’t adapted.

For individuals in the business, it was a wake-up call - upskill or soon be redundant. Marketers had smelt the coffee much earlier and had been training their teams for years. These well trained clients too were putting pressure on their agency partners to speak the language of modern marketing.

The final punch in the gut was when a leading holding company merged two of their greatest legacy agency networks into digital brands, changing the face of the industry forever.

2019 – Acceptance
This year was truly the coming of age for modern marketing practices. Creativity powered by technology was celebrated on the world’s biggest stages. OTT players and devices like the Amazon Firestick blurred the line between when that LED on your wall is a TV and when it is a screen. The reach argument in India was dealt a defining blow as the country crossed 500Mn people online. Many of them, who have difficulty interacting with screens and text, are using voice as their first interface. Others are driving up the demand for vernacular content.

Fittingly, this year digital agencies such as ours grew to a scale comparable to many legacy agencies. And it is increasingly dawning on leaders in the industry that the time for distinction between digital and traditional capabilities has passed. Strategy and creative skills are still crucial. But they need to be coupled with data and technology to deliver the demands of marketing today and tomorrow.

2020 and beyond
Voice, video and vernacular will scale as drivers of consumer engagement. Machine Learning algorithms fed by data will transform how things work internally for companies, as well as how they interact with their customers. Emerging technologies like blockchain will change the norms of transaction. New jobs like Data Security Specialists will be in demand.

Many people have barely wrapped their heads around the digital disruption so far and feel exhausted thinking about another upskilling exercise. But continuous learning is the key to survival.

For us, it could mean focusing on cracking a great idea and letting the machine take care of dynamic creative personalization. Formulating a brilliant media strategy and letting ML take care of optimum automated bidding and blockchain powered safe transactions.

My belief is that to succeed in the 2020s, it won’t be about People Vs Machines, but rather how we best play together as People AND Machines.

- By Amaresh Godbole, CEO, Digitas India
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