Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, Keith Weed, headlined the first day of the Festival of Marketing 2016 in the UK. He argued that there is an entire generation of marketers, most of them working for leading businesses, that has very little knowledge of the digital landscape. He cautions that if these marketers don’t act fast and skill up to find their place in the digital world, it’s likely they will be left behind.

In a recent article posted on marketingweek.com, Weed describes three categories of people when it comes to digital understanding: the digital natives, who have been born into the digital world; people like Weed himself, who are in their 50s with children in their 20s and are forced to engage with them on digital platforms; and what he calls the  “lost generation” – people in their late 30s and early 40s who are not digital natives and whose children are too young to be fully active in the digital world. He claims that it is this lost generation that is leading brands and businesses –  and is bluffing about digital based on what they read in marketing publications.

The only way to combat this gap on skills, Weed believes, is for those who belong to the lost generation to embrace training and admit they don’t know as much as they think they do. To this end, Unilever has increased its training budget and introduced mandatory workshops that deal with basic concepts relating to search, programmatic work and websites, which can later be built upon.

Weed believes digital needs to be mainstreamed more, and says the reason he has never appointed a chief digital officer is that rather than doing digital marketing, marketers need to operate in a digital world.

Charlie Stewart, CEO at Cape Town-based digital marketing agency Roger Wilco, agrees with Weed’s sentiment. There’s too much bluffing about digital in boardrooms, he says, and it does the industry no good at all. He points out that SA marketers need to skill up, and adds that he would like to see the marketing industry implement a recognised continued professional development process to foster ongoing training.

For Stewart, a major part of the disconnect is that too many people see digital as a discipline in its own right. It is the only marketing segment in which you see people describing themselves as gurus, mavens or ninjas – and Stewart believes anyone adding that sort of appendage to their title is almost certainly not one of them.

He argues that though digital requires an understanding of technology, its fundamental mandate – like that of any other channel – is to engage customers with a view to getting them to make a certain purchasing decision. Whether you work in digital, PR or traditional advertising, the key is understanding the target market well enough to formulate a strategy that will deliver engagement and encourage the audience to take the course of action you want them to.

Moreover, many digital activities are closely aligned with traditional marketing platforms: SEO, despite its opaque reputation, is much like PR, as are social media. They all seek to build visibility and encourage action by creating and distributing content.

The big take-out: At the Festival of Marketing 2016, Unilever’s Keith Weed argued that there is too much bluffing about digital and that there should be less focus on digital marketing and more on marketing in a digital world.