Confessions of a freelance digital strategist

confessions of a digital strategist catalyst mdc blog 300x180As a self-styled ‘digital expert’ I’ve copped a certain amount of flack over the years. Back in the 90’s, anyone who wasn’t in the safe confines of an all-digital agency or the Wired magazine offices, was basically considered a freak. I remember in an ad agency in London, I nervously stood up to present the new microsite I’d done for the launch of a car – pretty revolutionary website actually for its time. At the end the account director asked me ‘What is it?’ and I replied ‘It’s a Flash movie’ (emphasis on the word ‘Flash’) to which he responded by waving the signed off budget for the TVC (to be shot in Arizona) and saying: ‘No, sweetie, THAT’S a flash movie.’ Lots of male guffawing. At the same agency, I was having a conversation with someone in Spanish on the phone, and after I hung up, the guy sitting opposite me who’d been listening raised one eyebrow and said: ‘Was that HTML?’. How we laughed.

The advantage was that in those days the clients were so ignorant, you could get away with murder. At one agency, we had two rugby accounts (one was a rugby union organisation, the other something to do with league). The night before a meeting when we were meant to present the website results and statistics to one of these clients, the developer confessed that he’d deleted all the web logs (“You didn’t say to keep them!!!”) so we had to make a swift decision; a simple cut and paste turned one code into the other. The client didn’t bat an eyelid, and in fact was delighted with the results.

When clients did try and understand what web analytics were all about, they were often quite horrified. I explained to one that, if we implemented proper tracking and used control file techniques in banner advertising, we would prove with 98% certainty (one standard deviation etc) the exact $ uplift or otherwise driven by the campaign. ‘Christ!’ she said ‘For f**k’s sake don’t implement the tracking!’.

Then the clients started taking more of an interest in analytics, and sometimes you wished they hadn’t – a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I regularly had to sit through reams of metrics regurgitated fairly pointlessly from Google Analytics or elsewhere, with cries of “Our conversion rate on this page has increased by 30%!” (out of a total of 15 people who got there in the first place, not really a case for percentages, chum). Or “The amount of time they are spending on the site is much higher than the industry average!” (not surprising given your abysmal UX, they can’t find anything) or “We’ve just topped x,000 likes on Facebook!” (yes, and your edgerank is in the toilet…).

And just as every client’s a creative, so everyone became a digital expert. “My brother in law built a website!” (did he really!). Or worse, perhaps, the digital bimbo: “Oh all this technical stuff goes right over my head!” (well, it’s not technical, it’s strategic, and aren’t you thick). And the digital jokers are still out there. Only a few weeks ago, a more elderly client (I don’t normally provoke this sort of reaction these days) winked at me and said “you can roll over and click with me any day”. Sigh. Last year, someone who was actually a very senior technologist in a prominent organisation, expressed his disappointment at my incompetence in reputation management as, “when our video finishes on You Tube, all the recommended videos that come up are pretty racy and explicit!”. I mumbled something about it “not being determined entirely by the video just watched…..” and left it trailing in the air. He went very pale. I have learned that often, the most important thing you can do in digital marketing, is keep your mouth shut.

Camilla Cooke is Head of Strategy at Catalyst MDC – read her bio or email her: camilla@catalystmdc.com