Digital transformation is dead: Long live digital evolution!
Ignore the hype, says Joel Harrison. 'Transformation' doesn't accurately adequately describe the transition that most B2B marketing leaders are undertaking or experiencing
Yes, I’m aware the headline makes me look like a heretic, or a luddite, or a combination of the worst bits of both. But I feel compelled to make it in the wake of the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum 2018 (which took place at Grace Hall in the City of London on 19 September), and the publication of this year’s B2B Marketing Leaders Report.
What both the report and conference proved pretty conclusively is that senior B2B marketers are significantly more aligned with digital evolution than they are with digital transformation. To put it more pointedly, digital transformation simply isn’t something they recognise that’s taking place in their organisations, or that is even relevant.
I must confess that initially I was pretty gobsmacked by this revelation – it flies in the face of all the rhetoric and overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom about marketing and business in the 21st century. The consensus of opinion is as follows: New digital channels are driving new digital behaviours and thus enabling disruption of markets and business models, putting previously unassailable market leaders under threat from nimble newcomers. Hence brands have to transform to survive: Disrupt, or be disrupted. Or in a Darwinian context, adapt or die.
Transformation then has therefore been the number one challenge or call-to-arms for marketers for much of the past decade.
But the qualitative interviews I conducted for our report, reinforced by a show of hands among those assembled at the event, shows this consensus simply isn’t backed up by reality. While those interviewed all acknowledged that their marketing was changing, and needed to continue to do so, it was the label applied to the pace of change that they took exception to – they preferred ‘evolution’ to ‘transformation’, as it was better reflective of what they were experiencing, and what was both appropriate and possible in their organisation.
As one interviewee put it, transformation implies a looming cliff-edge moment as the driver for change, which simply isn’t the case in their particular sector. Meanwhile, the very notion of disruption was called into question by another respondent, who simply isn’t seeing any evidence of it in their sector. If there’s no disruption, or no real prospect of it, the justification for transformation falls apart.
These aren’t the only factors at play: it’s also worth acknowledging that understatement tends to be the defining characteristic of senior marketers and B2B organisations – exaggeration is out of both context and character. So perhaps it’s not too surprising.
Evolution versus transformation: is this just semantics?
If we acknowledge and agree a transition is taking place, does it even matter what we call it? I would argue it does, and the reason is simply this: Because the word that we use to describe what we’re trying to achieve both reflects and defines the nature of what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and what success looks like. Transformation suggests bold, profound and probably rapid change; whereas evolution suggests more measured, considered and possibly sustainable change. Evolution is free from hype, whereas transformation has a tendency to be overloaded with it.
This terminology isn’t reflective of a lack of understanding, willingness or motivation to change on the part of B2B marketers, but it is reflective of the reality that B2B organisations (moreso than B2C ones) take longer to change… particularly when there’s no immediate, obvious or compelling reason to do so.
Put simply, for most B2B marketers, transformation is not on the agenda, or even particularly aspirational. So let’s get on with evolution. But what should this look like? To my knowledge despite the hype around transformation, meaningful overviews that scope or map what it looks like across various criteria have been conspicuous by their absence. There’s little for marketers considering their journey (be that evolution or transformation) to refer to. So we thought we’d create one of our own – and here it is.
By definition it’s highly generalised, and its designed to reflect the fact that brands will have different appetites and propensities for change, and will be starting from different levels of sophistication. But to a greater or lesser extent, all will need to go on a journey broadly similar to this. And to do that, they will all need a roadmap.
The martech transformation is upon us. This report looks at the role tech is playing in enabling change and how marketing leaders are responding.