Life was simpler when digital media emerged in the mid-1990s. Budgets were tiny and the specialists in "interactive" had plenty of glamour, even if they often lacked power or engendered resentment.
Now that digital has become so pervasive, managing it is a conundrum. Many marketers still have centralized digital specialists, but the trend has been in moving digital expertise and/or management into teams that handle everything else.
For example, Unilever -- Advertising Age's Digital Marketer of the Year -- has no true digital specialists based in North America, having integrated management of its many digital campaigns into broader brand- and media-management roles. Others, including Procter & Gamble Co., still have digital specialists working with brands. Marketers such as Coca-Cola Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. have more of a hybrid approach, holding onto digital expertise but integrating it within general roles.
So how does one best staff and manage digital marketing? That's one of the questions Pete Blackshaw, exec VP-Nielsen Online Strategic Services, gets asked most often in his consulting role -- usually from general-marketing managers.
"A lot of it ... depends on where you are in the time continuum," said Mr. Blackshaw, who was himself one of P&G's first interactive brand managers in the mid-1990s. Dedicated digital teams help in the early stages, he said, but integration with other roles is becoming more common as digital media mature.
The risks of integration
And while integration can hamper development of expertise about a fast-changing marketplace, it helps by putting digital expertise closer to the point of decision making, he said. "To some degree every single one of our brand people has been involved in one digital campaign or another," said Rob Master, North American media director of Unilever. "They obviously carry that on to the next assignment or iteration."
But there are some definite risks in lack of digital expertise among general-marketing managers, particularly for marketers who ramp up digital spending rapidly, said Rex Briggs, CEO of the consulting firm Marketing Evolution.
"You need some specialization at this stage," Mr. Briggs said. But he and others see danger in digital specialists who lack much real ability to transfer or act upon their knowledge.
The worst cases are where companies ramp up digital spending rapidly without the advice of digital specialists or much experience by the decision makers, Mr. Briggs said. He cited a client last year that upped the digital component of its $100 million media outlay to 17% from 1% and found in post-testing that about 80% of its digital efforts were ineffective.
Mr. Briggs did spell out in advance his "five platinum rules" for effective digital advertising, but it didn't help. As the marketer made the digital shift, the marketing group was decentralizing, turnover was high, and no one had checked the company's intranet to apply the rules.
Last year, he said the company developed a simpler process for approving digital creative, better trained all the decision makers on using it, and dramatically improved results.
Perhaps the best big-company approach to managing digital marketing Mr. Briggs has found was at Kraft Foods, shown during the 2004 study that formed the basis of his book "What Sticks." Carole Walker, then director of e-communications, advertising and strategy at Kraft and now director of marketing services at Mars, led an effort to sort through post-campaign effectiveness results from digital campaigns to distill general principles of what worked and didn't work online. As a result, of the four big marketers in the study -- which included P&G, Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé -- Mr. Briggs said Kraft "was the only one whose ads out of the gate were effective."
Brad Santeler, director-media and relationship marketing for Kimberly-Clark, a role he took when the interactive-services unit he headed merged with media services, likewise sees value in having the roles combined, as digital has become part of almost everything a brand does.
But to stay abreast of new media development, Mr. Santeler has added another twist. While the company has media specialists assigned to each brand, each also has a role focusing on a particular digital area, such as search, social networking, or mobile marketing. "They tend to be the filter when we get new vendors," he said.
As K-C has facilitated a rapid shift to nontraditional media, Mr. Santeler says, "We're at the point now where it's almost insatiable in terms of the internal environment for wanting to try things."
'Five Platinum Rules' for Effective Digital Ads
They're not fun, but necessary, says Marketing Evolution.
1. Know the purpose of your campaign and psychological mechanism of your ad.
2. Apply the brand mark persistently.
3. Use a simple, iconic message. and make sure the image and copy work together. It's tempting to use flash animation to create TV-like ads, but outside interstitials, gateways and over-the-page narratives are too complex for consumers with divided attention to grasp. Animation in other formats (such as banners and boxes) should be used to focus attention, not tell a story.
4. Consider the format. Keyword buys can work for consumers actively seeking information, page skins to raise brand awareness, and over-the-page formats for more complex, animated narratives.
5. Optimize creative. Pre-testing is relatively rare outside TV, but it can make a difference in digital, too. Marketing Evolution has found much if not most of the variation in campaign effectiveness comes from the creative, not the media buy.