Richard Ayers

Let’s start with some basics: Vinyl is not dead. Journalism is not dead. Long-form content is not dead.

Having said that, the record industry isn’t a record industry any more, the newspaper industry isn’t about paper and the artist-formerly-known-as-television is now content production for (mostly) passive consumption delivered through multi-channel networks.

Why are we talking about this? Because of Mark Ritson’s excellent piece in Marketing Week: “Three reasons why having a digital prefix will stunt your career.” It’s a good read, aimed at people working in marketing and has the theme of job titles. As ever, his provocative and engaging style prompts a range of thoughts.

Articles like this are influential, well-argued and delivered by established, credible publications. That is why they are dangerous.

I’d like to add to the discussion.

Digital Transformation is a process which has been around for 20 years, but has only recently been recognised as something that C-suite executives need to plan and resource for. I’ve worked across the news, broadcast, TV, film and music industries in my career and the same is true in every one.

Sport, where our company works, still has a lot of resistance to the idea that digital technologies are transforming the sector. Many CEOs believe their job is solely to ensure players are paid, tickets sold, bums are on seats and pies ready to be eaten. Often they fail to recognise the impact digital has on everything from marketing, communications, commercial, sale of media rights, retail and the sport itself in terms of performance data or athlete management.

I was lucky that my first job in sport was as Head of Digital for Manchester City in 2011-12. I had a great CEO and a management team which came from outside sport. They wanted to change things up with a vision of being a global entertainment brand, and gave me the freedom to do so using digital. That was seven years ago. Sport is transforming faster than any other sector I have come across, but still has a long way to go before digital transformation has really happened. How long is up to those of us working in it – my best guess is a minimum of five years but it could easily be another 15.

Let us go a little further back. I was working for BBC News on a radio program when the Mosaic web browser came out and I built the show its first website. From those early days, the digital transformation process at the BBC took at least 15 years. Many of my former colleagues who are still at the venerable institution would say it is still ongoing. We started putting video on the news website in 1999 – the iPlayer is still evolving today.

The intoxicating (and I think unintentional) message in Mr Ritson’s article is dangerous because many people who do not understand the complexities of digital will see this kind of polemic as an early sign that they don’t need to bother. That it is all over, the disruption is finished, we’ve undergone the change and we can now calmly go back to our original positions. Nothing to see here. They may not stop dead, but I bet there are a lot of marketing directors who would take the subliminal message that they should take the foot off the accelerator with all this digital stuff.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The pace of technological change is accelerating. John Boyd’s fundamental OODA-loop lessons must be learnt and acted upon – we need to speed up our change processes, not slow down.

For example, we are going into an ever-more fierce period of competition between platforms. Platform wars, we call it.

Amazon and Facebook have each recently purchased major football rights. This is the beginning of major upheaval in the way in which the stories of human endeavour on the field of play are told to humans around the world. It’s not new, but it’s accelerating.

To put it in the jargon, we are seeing the transformation of content distribution and media rights in an Attention Economy driven by the proliferation of devices, improved storage and processing power, ubiquitous computing, internet of things and omni-channel marketing approaches.

The way sports organisations connect with audiences/customers/fans is going to radically change and we need to be prepared. We at Seven League are driven by a passion to help sport adjust to this because sport makes things better, and if sport can’t connect the world is worse off. In short we are not clinging to the idea of digital for its own sake: we are driving digital transformation by guiding our clients through its complexities. To Mark’s point, we are a content and marketing company with a reputation for our digital expertise.

Which brings us to another group: digital charlatans.

Bear with me for a bit more ancient history. The first wave of people who worked on websites were all something else – I was a broadcast journalist but just happened to develop a responsibility for everything we put on the internet. It was an emerging skillset so did not need to be identified specifically.

Then came a wave of people claiming to be digital experts and asking for what became rapidly over-hyped salaries on the basis that hiring managers were incapable of checking their credentials. These are the digital charlatans.

I’m sure you knew some of them – social media gurus/managers claiming expertise they couldn’t prove but you couldn’t disprove. So we developed job titles that had digital in them, filled by people with qualifications (academic and vocational) and measurable experience.

If you remove the word digital from all titles, you head in the right direction where everyone is assumed/required to be digitally proficient, but you also risk letting the charlatans get away with it once again. Every marketing manager, every communications director, every commercial manager will claim to be 100% digital. They will be lying.

I am lucky to have an excellent research team who spend their working lives looking at the newest changes – algorithm tweaks, new products, changes in value attribution, the latest partnerships and rights deals.

We deliver a monthly digest to some clients who find it invaluable for staying on top of what is going on and what will have an impact on their business. If you are a marketing manager, how can you possibly stay on top of everything that is going on in the digital aspect of your job? You can’t. You will fall behind and very quickly the blind will be leading the blind because no one has expertise in a sector which is still rapidly evolving.

Having said all that, we also believe that digital should, at some stage, cease to be something we specifically identify as a department or a specialism. We are a content and marketing company with digital expertise – and one day we can drop the ‘digital’ from all of our job titles. But for most organisations that is a long, long way away and is difficult to achieve through organic change. I want to give a case study which proves both Mr Ritson and I are correct.

One of our football clients had an audit 2.5 years ago by one of the big consultancy firms. It mapped out the opportunity for the digital channels and in rather an academic way, talked through the options for everything from advertising to organisational structure. We were then asked to deliver the reality.

The plan was to deliver commercial success to digital channels over a three-year period, WITHOUT creating a digital department, or having a Head of Digital, or in fact creating any new positions that were digital-specific. The plan was to leapfrog the whole ‘digital or not’ debate and go straight to the place that Mark was pointing to. So we joined the organisation and we are still driving the transformation, with a view to gracefully withdrawing when the time is right, leaving them in a much better place and with digital capability across departments. This process is slower than putting it all in a silo and bringing in a bunch of experts, but it achieves long-term goals more effectively and without the disruption of creating, then later needing to disband, a silo.

In conclusion, I read Mark’s article with both delight and horror. One day I will go back to being a content guy. Or a marketing guy, or whatever the hell I have become. In the meantime, we must not encourage organisations to prematurely relinquish their focus on digital expertise. If they do, they risk slowing the pace of change to the point that damages their organisational capability to react to the challenges of digital disruption.

Does the process of Digital Transformation get enough focus and resource in your organisation? Is it understood and embraced? If so then sure, go ahead … kill the job titles.

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