What do we really mean when we throw around the word ‘digital’?

Mobile icons iPhone

Mobile icons iPhone

I think it’s time we had a little chat. It’s been coming for a while now, but the time is right. You see, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve been using the word “digital” like it’s a tangible thing you can see and feel, a finite object that may be complex in the way it works but still describable through some universally accepted definition. I was wrong to assume this so after thinking about it, it’s become clear to me that we all think different things when the word “digital” pops up in conversations or is used to describe what it is that we do.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I work at a digital agency”,
  • “We’re a digital agency”,
  • “You’re the digital guys; you should know how it works”
  • “We need to assign more budget to digital”

The problem with the word “digital” is that it’s nothing more than a very broad descriptor for a whole collection of technologies, disciplines, channels. It’s a cocktail of vastly different concepts shaken, stirred and poured into one neat seven letter word.

This causes confusion. It blurs the lines of responsibility. It creates assumptions around capabilities that may well be invalid.

Defining the D-Word

The best definition of digital, and the one that we use wherever possible is this one from Bud Caddell, SvP of Invention and Digital Strategy at Inventionist, part of Deutsch LA agency:

“Today, digital is a participatory layer of all media that allows users to self-select their own experiences, and affords marketers the ability to bridge media, gain feedback, iterate their message, and collect relationships.”

Why do we like this definition? Well, it represents a more horizontal paradigm – digital is not a channel, it’s a layer across multiple contexts, like the cling wrap that stretches over your sandwiches, your lidless Tupperware in the fridge, and your (now secure) luggage in the plane’s cargo hold.

(This definition represents fertile starting points for a whole lot of future blog posts and so I won’t break it down any further for now.)

Once we understand that it spans channels and contexts, we already see it starting to lose its usefulness as a term to describe a specific discipline or set of capabilities. Apart from print media, there’s very little that isn’t in fact digital in some way or form.

Take a look at this billboard in Piccadilly Circus for British Airways:

The only thing “traditional” about it, is that it has been placed in a physical (media) space set aside for advertisers to book and place their ads. The content contained within the billboard is entirely digital and packs a solid amount of conceptual technical thinking and engineering to bring it to life. I’d go so far to say that without understanding the world of APIs and flight path data, the team behind the idea would never have considered it.

Thoughts for brands and agencies:


  • Are you able to clearly articulate your digital agency’s capabilities?
  • Are they specialists in a particular area or are they full-service? (There’s no right or wrong answer here, only what’s best for your requirements!)
  • Are they stronger on the thinking/planning or the doing/building/designing/engagement side of things? (again, no right or wrong answer here)
  • Have you clearly articulated your expectations of your digital agency? Do they only run your website updates? Do they maintain your social presence? Do they need to revert on your OOH briefs?


  • Do you clearly articulate your areas of ability? (Full-service is absolutely an acceptable answer if you’re able to manage everything that represents the word “digital”)
  • Do your clients know that “digital” is more than something that just happens in a web browser?
  • Are you aligned with the definition of digital offered above? (I’d love to hear an alternative if you have one to offer)

So, in closing, here’s a new year’s resolution for marketers and advertisers to consider: I will accept that “digital” is a broad and blurry concept; it’s the electricity and not the light bulb. This will open my mind to the amazing creative potential technology has to offer on my more traditional channels. It’s a participatory layer of all media that allows people to choose their own experiences, and offers me the ability to bridge my media channels, learn how people interact with these channels so that I can refine and optimise my messaging, and establish and grow relationships that push the brand forward.

This article by Scott Gray originally appeared on Gottaquirk and is republished with permission. Follow Scott on Twitter.



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