A Pioneer of the Digital Age

Every year, AIMIA Awards its highest honour to a representative of the digital industry, who has demonstrated inspiring leadership and stewardship in the evolution of the industry over a number of years. 

In 2016, this honour was awarded to John Butterworth.

Over his 20+ year career, John pioneered the launch of a range of Australia's first online real-time information services, run numerous digital companies, lobbied (successfully) on behalf of the digital industry and was the CEO of AIMIA for almost ten years.

Currently, John is the Group Strategy Director at The Gruden Group.

We sat down with the 2016 AIMIA Hall of Fame inductee, to chat about his impressive career and his views on the future of the industry.


AIMIA: What led you to the digital industry? Where does your passion for the industry come from?

John: I originally connected the publishing/conference company I was running to the web in 1994 which got me interested in it all. Our global IT director promptly banned access to the web for all our offices which got me even more interested. Then the global IT director got the sack for being such an idiot so I figured there must be something in this Internet thing so I designed a website information architecture for the company.

In 1996 I joined OzEmail to help set up their online content division. At the time we all thought that publishing on the web was just going to be like publishing printed magazines. We were of course completely wrong but we were having so much fun being on the frontier of something so new and different that I just kept going with digital and never stopped.


AIMIA: What is your proudest achievement (career-wise) to date? Why?

John: Apart from winning a handful of industry awards over the years, my proudest achievement was helping persuade the Federal Government that the digital industry was no longer “niche” (as described to me by the then Minister for Communications in about 2005) and to take it seriously as a driver and enabler of economic activity. The result of all this was the Federal Government moving responsibility for the digital industry from the Department for Water, Heritage, and the Arts (I’m not kidding) to the newly formed Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy after I lobbied the new Minister about it on behalf of the digital industry.


AIMIA: Where do you think digital is heading in the next 5 years?

John: It’s now a cliché that digital has gone mainstream and become all pervasive in economies like Australia’s. However, that’s really reflecting the first and second waves of the digital revolution and we’re now heading into a third stage where the lines between offline and online are becoming blurred and the distinction between them less obvious. We’re starting to see the rise of voice-first interactions – mobile, Google Home, Amazon Echo etc. – as a real, tangible force in digital interactions in the next few years, yet very few organisations have really started to think about how (or even why) they should be looking at how this may change the way they engage with users. There’s also the buzz topics of the last 5 years – AR, VR, IoT etc – where I suspect we’ll wake up one day and realise that they’ve all become mainstream and pervasive and we just didn’t notice.


AIMIA: What excites you most about the future of digital?

John: I love the old saying that we continually over-estimate the impact of technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. One day digital will be so pervasive that it might become boring but I think we are a long way off that. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what the digital world means for our future. The fact that most organisations are way behind consumers in terms of digital capabilities is also exciting as it means that people like me will still have a job to do for a long time to come.


ADMA: What is your favourite campaign from the past 18 months?

John: I’ve been out of the campaign side of the industry for a few years so not qualified to say anything professionally interesting about this. But personally my favourite campaign is this guy’s one-man campaign to sell his 1996 Suzuki Vitara on YouTube - youtu.be/MP06gvFWW64