Digital Differentiation and Doing More Than Just Owning a Hammer

My father retired six weeks ago. After serving in the military, he spent the better part of the last four decades in jobs that required an extensive amount of manual labor. The last two decades were spent running facilities and grounds for a summer camp. If it needed to be built or fixed, my dad was the go-to guy.

While growing up, I would sometimes accompany him on work assignments, with him laboring and me trying to do anything but that. It was on one such occasion that he imparted a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “Son, you better figure out how to make a living with your brains, because you are surely not going to do it with your hands.” Now, to an outsider this might seem harsh – the ideal that a father believes his child can do anything he wants was, in that moment, shattered within two sentences. For me, however, it was simply an affirmation of a truth I had already realized. I was never going to be a builder in the physical sense of the word. Instead, my success (if I was to experience any) would be derived from building, in the literal sense, with my mind being the tool of choice.

In today’s digital advertising space, there are many individuals who think of themselves as builders. They hold on to this belief because they have the tools required for the job. Some companies build their own tools, while others do the digital equivalent of borrowing from a neighbor by licensing technology. Everyone needs a hammer and, in this industry, everyone seems to have several; however, just because someone owns a hammer doesn’t mean they know what to do with it.

A search on Home Depot’s website returns 282 different types of hammers. Most of them have a very specific purpose, and left in the hands of someone like me – a person who was once told never to make a living with his hands – they are better off left on the shelf rather than misused. Apply that to our industry. For brand marketers, it’s important to understand in making decisions – whether for internal usage or application by an outside vendor – what’s led to the decision and how it is being or will be applied.

Sticking with the hammer analogy, there has to be solid rationale behind the hammer chosen and then an outcome that validates the decision. The same is true for technology selection. The selection rationale should match the criteria that are most important to achieving business objectives. For example, some technologies integrate buying data from multiple channels (such as search and social), making that specific tool of greater worth. While in other cases, there is great tolerance for having multiple tools, which means you may opt for the single best tool at doing something (delivering ROI, creating efficiencies, etc.) and then repeat the decision process for the next channel to be managed.

An organization’s view of how media should be managed will dictate the technology choices they make. If you cannot overlay an organization’s strategic positioning and their chosen tools and find commonality, you are staring at a near certain failure.

This leads me to the second piece to look for when determining value derived from a technology. If you cannot isolate specific, measurable uses based on organizational approach, then either the tool is lacking, or the craftsman wielding it was not as proficient as they might wish you to believe.

Technology is an important part of the digital business. The tools utilized daily for search, display, social media, and every other channel are a key piece of the successes and failures of the industry. But a tool left in the hands of someone unable to understand that everyone has tools is a waste. True differentiation comes in choosing the right one for their organization view and using it to maximum effect. That is what separates the builders from the workers and those who are truly using their minds, not their muscles, to maximize outcomes.

This weekend my father will be at my home helping with a few odd projects around the house. Drills and hammers will be used and since he’s now retired, I’ll do the lion’s share of lifting and laboring. Regardless, the reality is that his experience and know-how will make all the difference.

The life lesson I got as a teenager remains the same today. Just because you can swing a hammer doesn’t mean you’re going to like the outcome. Without preparation and follow-through based on that vision and experience, it might be best to leave the hammer for a true professional.

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