tl;dr: I wrote a blog post for the IPA, on "Is Data the new Digital?"

I came into the media industry through the back door marked "technology". I've always been interested in computers and gadgets, but it was the explosion of the web that made things really interesting. Suddenly, the interesting thing about new technology wasn't the technology itself and what individuals were doing with their gadgets, but what people in general were doing with it, and how that seemed to be changing… well, everything.

What that meant for me, coming into a media agency, understanding the technology of the web, browsers, operating systems, mobile devices and so on, was that the media and the technology world were speaking a different language. To the world of technology "digital" means something very different to the world of media. In technology, "digital" is about ones and zeroes - encoded information, copied and bounced around the world by servers and clients, where it would then be converted into text, images, videos, software, communications — pretty much anything.

In the world of media, "digital" means something else. You have "digital planning", "digital thinking", "digital strategies", "digital mindsets" - the media world was changing, without a doubt, and "digital" was the bucket that represented everything that was going to be left after the revolution.

The story always started the same - the growth of digital. More digital. Ad spend was going more digital, people's media use was going more digital, more digital connections, more digital devices… Which always made me wonder what would happen when the growth plateaued? When broadband penetration stopped going up, when "digital" share of ad spend levelled off. What would happen next?

Well, it seems to me that the trend has shifted slightly. Now, everything is "digital" (I've even dropped the word from my job title, because specialising in "digital" doesn't seem to actually mean focussing on anything in particular any more.) The new thing, the buzzword that you should probably get somehow to be drowbarred into your job title, the thing that is inexorably growing - and will continue to grow exponentially long after the "digital revolution" is over, is "data".

But, like with "digital" before it, what we mean by "data" in the media industry doesn't seem to match with what "data" means out there in the technology world. But, I think, more importantly, what we mean by "data" in the media industry isn't even consistent.

There is "data" that is really just information; insights, research, knowledge, facts, statistics, observations and so on. The stuff that, frankly, we have always had. And then there is the kind of data that you can actually do something with - data that relates to an individual, that you can plug into your systems and change what you say to that person - whether that is the message you present to them when they arrive at your website, or the products that you tell them about in a mailshot, or simply making sure that when you buy online advertising, you don't buy it to reach people who you know aren't going to be interested in your product. (Which, incidentally, is a side of "personal data use" that never seems to come up in the data debate. Maybe a topic for another post...)

Which is basically the background to why I wrote this piece for the IPA's blog.

Is Data the new Digital?