2008–2020: My Lessons in Digital Transformation
The reason why I am a pro at digital marketing and help businesses smoothly undergo digital transformation is that I have seen the digital media and infrastructure grow with me.
At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I want to put it on record that while my peers were either indifferent or dismissive of the digital ecosystem, I was actively learning from the daily changes.
In this blog, I share with you my personal transformation that is closely related to the digital transformation of the world as it started more than a decade ago.
By sharing my personal and professional history, I hope to motivate you to reflect upon yours. Maybe that will give you an insight into your own digital mindset — the single most factor responsible for the digital state of affairs at your company.
You’ll come to know why I have reached a position in which I have advised over 200 companies across industries regarding their digital strategy and why you might be fumbling in your digital journey.
2008: The Horrible Year of Recession
As everyone would recall, 2008 was an awful year for businesses, especially for those who had been earning fat salaries. A lot of people were laid off without any prior notice.
Prior to 2008 was a time when businesses were run smoothly, leisurely, luxuriously. New recruitment used to be a round-the-year thing. There was ample staff to execute, and the strategists would sit in swanky offices and travel all around the world combing leisure with business. Things were just perfect.
Then came the recession and the decision makers in the organisation realised that they could lose a lot of people. The same people who were central to the sustenance of the business and the running of the organisation were suddenly found to be irrelevant. Their positions were in fact found to be responsible for a lot of financial leakage.
In short, the “competent authorities” realised that if they could get one person to do the work of four, three were dispensable. The firing hit those people the most who used to be at the top levels in an organisational hierarchy.
It started on 29 September 2008 in the US and the repercussions were to soon unfold in India.
2008: The Watershed Moment in Digital Transformation
In 2008, a little before the crash, Google acquired DoubleClick, and Internet ads company. The ads business was started by Google way back in 2000. Eight years later, the idea of advertising on the search engine had consolidated enough for an acquisition like that of DoubleClick. It cost Google US $3.1 billion.
If you look up the history of Facebook, 2009 was when it first reported to have positive cash flow. It had launched Facebook Ads in 2007. But it took 2 years for the company to make profit out it.
So, between 2007 and 2009, 2008 was seemingly a quiet year for Facebook. I believe this uneventful year has a lot to do with consumers beginning to shift to online platforms and brands and even local businesses recognising that shift.
Twitter grew to 100,000 million tweets in 2008 per quarter. In fact, if 2007 was known to be the year of Facebook, 2008 became the year of Twitter. Microblogging became an “in” thing — people who never took to “writing” per se liked the idea of keeping it short — 140 characters. The popularity of microblogging changed the nature of language on the Internet withal its missing vowels and brevity.
The iPhone 1 was the first smartphone launched by Apple in 2007. The idea of applications and online shopping was facilitated by this phone.
2008: The Sorry State of Indian Businesses and Their HR Policies
Businesses in India were happily unaware of the changes happening at Google and the other giants. Those were still good years because the IT departments of the offices had not even heard of these names and never bothered to unblock ( office wifi) sites like Orkut, Facebook.
Their blissful ignorance was to turn into something deadly for business — something that made Indian businesses, especially in the Small and Medium Enterprises, take a step back that pushed them 100 years farther back in history. Because when organisations got to know about Facebook etc, they blocked it thinking that spending office hours on Facebook was a waste of employees’ time.
Some organisations made an idiotic HR policy. Deposit your phone at the office entry gate. Facebook would remain unblocked if they would come to office before time. It was treated as an incentive to get them to office earlier. At 10 am, the social media sites would be blocked again.
2008: My Professional Life
2008 was when I had touched rock bottom. It was the worst phase of my life. I had not received any salary for six months. I had no money for auto fare to reach my office. So, I would walk down. I was forced to sit in my office for 8 hours — I was one of the few who was not fired.
I would sit alone doing nothing. There would be no emails, no news from anywhere. I would read the newspaper for the first few hours — cover to cover! I once got fed up with the newspapers and turned to the Internet on the desktop.
It turned out to be a rabbit hole that would change my life forever.
Facebook was becoming a rage. People were migrating from Orkut. The concept of the social media was new. Everyone wanted to be there and hang around together. But monetization was not that big, not in India at all. People loved the novelty of Twitter and were experiencing the magic of being connected and being online.
I saw that this was a new way of marketing that people were simply blind to. Where others thought it was a waste of time, I saw it as a learning opportunity. Those 8 hours of uninterrupted Internet helped me learn. I identified the areas I could learn about on SlideShare. I would download PowerPoint presentations, take screenshots, and use them in my presentations and share with others what I learnt from them.
I was hooked to the digital medium in various capacities — as a learner, as a consumer/shopper, and most importantly, as a marketer. I started out as guest faculty at colleges who invited me to talk about branding and gradually, I was recognised as someone who understands branding on the digital media very well.
Those were the days in which SEO and Google Ads alone were seen as digital marketing. Branding on the digital media was very new. My name came to be associated with a niche and by broadening it to digital transformation of not just marketing and branding but also of people, process, and technology in general.
I had entered 2008 with a lot of stress around my work. I was entering my midlife with a midlife crisis that was not just about personal problems or depression that midlife crisis is normally associated with — it was about the crisis the world was going through.
2008: Lessons Not Learned
I just gave you a glimpse of what I learned. I now turn to what people were doing at that time — they were doing the very opposite of learning.
The opposite of learning is not just unlearning or ignorance. It is also vilification of the new idea/behaviour. With digital marketing, this vilification of the digital ecosystem was the worst thing that ever happened to Indian business.
I strongly believe that all the problems, misconceptions, and failures in contemporary digital marketing are defined by how business leaders responded to the emerging digital ecosystem them.
Let me share my observations/memories about what I saw my peers do at that time and what I see them doing today.
1.They continued to boast about their fancy B-school degrees. They hired people from the same fancy schools. These were elite institutions that still do not offer anything decent in the form of digital marketing. The maximum that they do in the name of teaching digital marketing is do a one-week workshop on the subject and that’s it.
These were the people who refused to recognise a new domain and have continued to hold on to the principles of the older domain without examining the possibilities of exchange or new applications to digital marketing.
2. These are the same people who today have force-fed the keyword “digital” into their LinkedIn bios. They are only now, in the post pandemic world, beginning to realise that digital marketing and digital transformation could have saved them.
Earlier they ran away from it; now they try to embrace it without really understanding it. They proudly declare that they have been doing courses on AI or Analytics but deep down they realise that their theoretical knowledge is not matched by hands-on experience. That claim about knowing digital or being digital experts is false.
3. They hold on to their digital degrees earned 2 years ago to make those claims. The truth is that the digital ecosystem works at lightning speed. The algorithm changes; the features change; the regulations on privacy change; competition changes; ranking on the search engine changes; content changes; the dominant mode of content communication changes; and new networks keep coming up.
If you haven’t been able to internalize this much, it’s because you are still living in the traditional marketing times in which consumer behaviour would stay the same for ages — times when consumers did not have many options to choose from.
4. The pandemic has forced people to post their certifications on LinkedIn. They are desperate for jobs, higher salary, and everything that defined professional life before the 2008 crash — the glamour of big office, steady income, working at a leisurely pace and so on. But the digital ecosystem cannot give you those old luxuries.
It requires a lot of persistence and resilience, and an ability to navigate the constantly changing dynamics of the platform. You see you might fix a bad review of Facebook or Google or Amazon on one day and you’ll see thousands of bad reviews come up the next day elsewhere.
5. Apart from the salaried people, the business owners too have been strong headed in their refusal to understand digital transformation. These are the CEOs and HR directors who saw Facebook as a waste of time once upon a time and got it blocked in offices.
They do not respect the talent that goes into digital marketing: writing, scripting, shooting, designing and so on. It looks like a job that the kid next door or their own kid can do easily. And because they don’t respect it, they don’t like to pay for it.
So, think back to what you were doing in 2008 when the very companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter etc) that you are stumped by today were changing the dynamics of marketing communication and advertising in general.
Did you belong to the category of people who didn’t even know these companies existed and were crafting cutting edge marketing innovations?
Did you belong to the category that found being online surfing the Internet a big waste of time?
Did you say “yes” when decisions were being taken to block these websites in offices?
And do you still hold the same beliefs?
2008 showed us who was relevant in a company and who was not. Those who weren’t crucial for the existence of the company got fired.
2020 too showed us a glimpse of the same reality: organisations have accumulated a lot of unwanted fat in the form of human resources who do not add value to the company by bringing in any kind of digital training in their domain. The job losses have been very serious, more than the losses in 2008 of course.
What makes the 2020 situation insufferable is that most of this could have been avoided. Digital technology has been around for several years. But mindsets haven’t quite wholeheartedly changed towards digital transformation.