Last year, there was something of a kerfuffle when the communications agency adam&eveDBB dropped 'digital' from all its job titles. In the words of Adam Hesz, its newly-dubbed 'executive interactive director', “‘Digital’ isn’t a subset of what we do here, just as it isn’t for consumers. It’s a part of every aspect of day-to-day life for us, just as it is for them.”
However, in his Marketing Week column, brand expert Mark Ritson argued that the agency's decision to opt for 'interactive' was equally silly. 'The solution is not a new word for digital," he wrote. "The solution is the extinction of the entire concept because it has been totally absorbed into our discipline."
But then James Whatley (who spoke at FutureBook 2016), at the time digital director of Ogilvy, published a further riposte, suggesting that the d-word remains necessary because businesses are far less integrated than they like to think. "It could become redundant one day, maybe a generation from now – when the entire marketing job suite fully understands and gets what it means (and to whom)," he wrote. "But that’s not going to happen this year and I very much doubt it’ll happen in the next."
What are we to make of the news this month, then, that Pan Macmillan has appointed its first-ever metadata manager? Does this sort of super-specific 'digital' role herald the death of woolier ones? Pan Mac's head of, er, digital and communications, Sara Lloyd, told me the logic behind the appointment.
"I came home buzzing from a digital conference a few years ago and sent a note round to my colleagues on Pan Mac's executive management team about new digital trends to which I believed we should be paying attention," she says. "But I knew briefing them on the importance of 'metadata' was going to be tricky; I could imagine their eyes glazing over as I started to write the email... So I said that if we failed to clean up and enhance our metadata we would lose sales, and rapidly. I was lucky that our US sister company had hired someone to focus on metadata and I talked to him; we arranged for him to visit and give us all some training. I launched the concept at Pan Mac with an email entitled "Want to know about the magic fairy dust that helps sell books?" I think more people opened it than if I had sent one entitled, "Come to a metadata training session." I was lucky that people got the point very quickly, and in fact got really excited about the potential upside of getting it right - and our MD and the rest of my colleagues on the exec team supported me to hire the role."
So could we soon see the first head of VR take residence in a traditional publishing house? How about immersive producer? Micro-video manager? Anti-hacking bouncer? Are we about to witness a profileration of new, weird and wonderful publishing roles?
"Yes. Definitely," Lloyd agrees. "New platforms and trends are emerging all the time, and consumers are interacting with brands and with each other in new ways all the time, all of which lead to the need for new roles to strategise the approach and capitalise on them, in an integrated way. The key thing is to ensure that new roles deliver to the same objectives as the rest of the business; we are all in the business of selling more books, driving discovery and conversation around books and sharing the joy of reading. Whatever new-fangled role you might be doing in publishing that is still what you are there to do."
When it comes to big-picture roles, there's a chance that 'strategy' might be the new 'digital', where 'digital' stands for 'someone whose job it is to figure out where the hell we go from here'. Justin Small and Eva Applebaum (another FutureBook alumnus) recently founded The Future Strategy Club out of their belief that "a new kind of strategy is emerging, brought about by the rapidly evolving needs of organisations due to the massive disruption caused by the digital revolution." They believe that a new kind of strategist is being born – "an analytical visionary creative whose knowledge of human behaviour and data allows him or her to help organisations re-orientate their strategic vision towards more agile, customer experience-led products and services" - and they're launching a new magazine and event series to prove it.
But Lloyd, like Whatley, isn't sure that we're quite ready to give up the digital label just yet. "I've been debating that one for some time and I have concluded that digital specialists will be needed for a lot longer yet," she says. "The only time we'll stop needing them is when digital change stops happening. It's all very well saying "everything is digital" or "everyone does digital as part of their roles" but without expert leadership, evangelism, drive and focus the ability to stay on top of the changes brought by digital can slip out of people's grasp very quickly. To provide that leadership and generate the excitement about digital opportunities as well as the capacity to try new stuff, you need people whose job it is solely to focus on digital. It means they care more, apart from anything else."
So although it's almost inevitable that publishers will start to bring more specialised roles in-house, they'll also probably hang on to the d-word for quite a while. Unless they also opt for a headline-grabbing rebrand, of course. Chief cross-platform officer? Head of physicodigital marketing? Integrated sales manager?
Suddenly digital doesn't seem that bad after all.