Digital Day 2023: The Seeds of Revolution?

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By Andrew Girdwood – Digital Strategist

I’m just back from Digital Day 2022, an event by the Marketing Society Scotland, and it has me even more excited about the future. Will we see a revolution for Digital Day 2023?

That probably sounds more dramatic than it should be, so let me rush to add some context. I’m guilty of using the cringe-worthy expression “Evolution, not revolution” as a way to nudge people along the track of digital marketing progress.

“Evolution, not revolution” is typically about getting digital marketing hygiene, best practices and confidence into businesses so they can grow. It’s about making the unknown, or different, less scary.

Digital Day 2022 was unusually light on digital marketing hygiene, much to my delight. Instead, speaker after speaker, question after question, was more interested in more extensive and more significant cultural issues. This Digital Day was a Marketing Society Scotland event in which the audience cared about the cultural impact of what we do. 

For example, Oobah Butler talked about how he created fake news and buzz around a restaurant that didn’t exist until it became London’s number one restaurant. Then he sent fake Oobahs to interviews to talk about it.

We had Tessa Murray of Tortoise Media, a “slow news” journalism platform, talk about how their open newsroom has helped with diversity and representation. Diversity has many aspects, though, and when Tortoise put together their Responsibility Index of FTSE 100 brands, they also worked with those brands to make sure the Index was robust.

The Index is an example of data journalism that Tortoise offers as part of a white-label service. Data journalism increasingly interests brands for its worth as both content and insight. As is, I’m pleased to report, the desire from companies to do well in Tortoise’s Responsibility Index. 

Yes, sure, I concede; part of the growing importance of being responsible is due to people insisting on it and perhaps not the natural inclination of all companies. But isn’t that pretty good? People prefer responsible brands and companies know this.

Rejoice Ojiaku had another telling example. Invited to speak on the importance of diversity, sharing stats that link inclusive brands with innovative ones, Rejoice made it clear that she expected good employer agencies to stick with her and be proactive and helpful with any mental health issue. It wasn’t acceptable for an employer to back off and fade into the distance. 

On the topic of SEOs (digital marketers who know about search engine optimisation), I was at Digital Day with Emily Hall, Union’s digital director who has a background in SEO, and with Sian Callaghan, who has a pivotal role in helping clients with their SEO and content.

I also got to catch up with some old colleagues from my SEO past who’ve settled in other agencies. It was good catching up with Michael Thomson, now Head of Digital at EssenceMediaCom, and Natalya Ratner, Head of Marketing at the start-up Robotical. Natalya was previously Head of Digital Experience at Brand Scotland as Digital Marketing and Innovation Lead there. I’m proud of what they’ve gone on to achieve.

What else might we achieve? Back to the spirit of revolution rather than the careful nudges of evolution, it was striking just how enthusiastically Catherine Richards, Head of Customer Design at Tesco Bank, championed “How does the customer benefit?” internally. 

I was pleased to be in the audience when Angela Prentner-Smith, the founder of This is Milk, argued that a paradigm shift in thinking would be needed for the coming age of digitalisation and AI. Angela made no bones about it; we’ll need to rethink capitalism, which is a failing model in the harsh light of the near future.

A Digital Day in which the speakers proposed revolutionary praxis such as the nation’s failed economic model. Golly!

But were there any immediate takeaways? I asked Emily;

“I found Jo Halliday from Talking Medicines‘ talk on using data fascinating. It was all about recognising what interests people and their concerns, listening to them, and doing something about it. It was social listening, but with appropriate attention to respect and privacy, so it didn’t seem creepy. I think that level of consideration would reassure people that pharmaceutical and medicine companies paid such good attention to the people who needed their treatments.

It was also terrific to hear about Jo’s experience doing the marketing of a start-up, a health tech company, and the agility required to succeed. As Jo said, you don’t have a product until you have something that makes money; you have an idea.” 

I saw Sian nodding as Gareth Turner, the former Head of Marketing at Weetabix, the man at the helm during the famous “beans on bix” viral, acknowledged that the so-called-viral was months of work and planning. It wasn’t organic at all. But was that Sian’s favourite part of the day? I asked, and Sian said;

“I loved that many of the talks converged around one key theme: the pressing need to humanise our marketing strategy. As marketeers, we often pay lip service to user experience, but are we actually going deep enough? Instead of thinking within the confines of a “customer”- or even “user”-centric framework, the speakers at Digital Day 2022 urged us to break out of these boxes and create digital experiences that reflect the human beings we are trying to reach – creative, imperfect, deeply empathetic and wholly unique.  

Out of a line-up of inspiring speakers, I was especially enthused by Zoe Scaman’s talk on The New Fandom Formula. She dissected the three key elements brands will need to crack in order to nurture genuine communities of advocates and explored some of the exciting outputs of this new, truly two-way relationship between brands and their fans in the wild. It’s safe to say I immediately signed up to Zoe’s Substack for more insights on phenomena such as fan-directed experiences, the democratisation of IP and headless brands.”

Hints at more than evolution then, revolutionary technologies for a world that’s changing rapidly. Blood on the streets? Not quite, but the most controversial sessions were around web3, the role of blockchains, cryptocurrencies and NFTs. 

These are all frighteningly complex ideas to explain. I think it’s easy to have a position on NFTs, however. None of the use-cases for NFTs that any of the speakers came up with required the digital-thing to be an NFT. There was no reason for the Amazon to burn to maintain it, no reason to keep feeding the pyramid by luring people into the bottom. 

It may well be that we won’t hear about NFTs for Digital Day 2023; hopefully, they’ll have evolved into something better by then. If not? Maybe there will be flags waving, front lines and passion-led tribes of digitally savvy experts at the next event. I know which side I’ll be on; embrace the future and guide it ethically and effectively.