In digital, we can’t make up our minds.

Although that’s not actually the case… I’ve been to many a mutually-beneficial meeting within which a bunch of like-minded digital aficionados have taken to agreeing relentlessly and mulling over the wonder of this massive medium. To great effect. But we do like to debate.

In my experience of IAB industry gatherings, it turns out the debate is the most enjoyable, informative and surprisingly conclusive affair that we host. Which is why I was eagerly anticipating The Debating Group’s latest event at the House of Commons, sponsored by the IAB (like I said, we bloody love the things!) entitled: ‘In digital, data is the only currency.’

I should also point out that in my experience of IAB debates, we’re always very keen to point out that being a panellist does require some acting, and for the participants to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the swing of things. There’s nothing more disappointing than for a debater to gradually ease themselves out of their seats, to then sit on the metaphorical fence and eventually conclude that ‘in many ways, I agree with the opposition… Love me everyone! PLEASE!’

The point of this motion was very clear – not to provide a definitive answer to an age-old digital question, or to solve all perceived ills within 2 hours, but to get everyone talking about why and how the internet can offer so much for marketers. In fact (shock horror!) sometimes we just like to talk amongst ourselves, whether it be on a blog, forum, via comments on a trade mag site, Twitter or indeed the trusty Committee Room 10 of the HoC. (Which is why, FYI, it’s not always the best idea to hop into these discussions all guns blazing… just a little ethical tip.)

So as we enter the era of UKOM – the UK’s first industry-agreed planning system for online (I don’t yet have my ‘I HEART UKOM’ t-shirt but it’s a’comin’!) this is an incredibly timely debate, and one which has taken place a lot recently. And rightly so. The internet has long been applauded for its accountability and the fact that every sale can be attributed to a click and every click can be measured and made meaningful. This was happening before UKOM came to fruition and is one of the most significant drivers of the medium’s growth and the 23.5% market share that online enjoyed in the first half of this year.

But an entire industry can be forgiven for not wanting to rest on its laurels, and whilst it’s been proved that online display can drive brand engagement, we’re starting to wax lyrical about the brand-building benefits of digital more and more. Rather than ‘backtracking’ and fickly changing our minds about what the medium’s good for, surely this is just about playing to every strength?

Considering online is the most complicated, multi-faceted medium there is (that’s not bragging, it’s just a fact) the technology talk was kept to a minimum. In fact emotions ran high throughout, emphasising just how ‘human’ and creative the medium is. Our kick-arse panellists (if they don’t mind me calling them that!) were, on the ‘for’ side: Matt Brittin, managing director of Google UK and Louise Ainsworth, managing director, Nielsen EMEA and for the opposing team: Graham Hales, managing director of Interbrand and Glue’s right honourable MD, Mark Cridge. Unfortunately the event didn’t have a hashtag so it’s been pretty hard to track the comments of all attendees, but here’s a general round-up of the arguments presented.

Brittin and Ainsworth, who we discovered were both rowers for Oxford and Cambridge University respectively (what an intro!) were tasked with persuading the audience that data is the only currency in digital. And what better way to start than heading straight to the definition of the motion, with digital meaning ‘information in a binary world’. (My own search told me it was ‘relating to, or resembling a digit, especially a finger.’ Now I’m confused…) Data refers to the collection of facts from which conclusions can be drawn and a currency of course represents the process of ‘exchange.’ So in a successful digital world do we exchange facts, from which conclusions can be drawn? Well yes, technically we do…

But his argument was much more than that. From a Google perspective, data is very much the reason why the bulk of consumers go online (apparently the equivalent of six libraries of Congress are indexed every day) and this is data that is improving lives, driving democracy and enabling people to communicate. Their extremely convincing case was extended further with Brittin stating that at the heart of this digital age we all live in – an emotional, creative, connected world – resides data, the stuff which makes it all make sense. In a digital world, facts outweigh emotion, but it is these facts that enable us to turn images, videos, even numbers into expressions.

Ainsworth boosted the case by taking the debate into the marketing realm, particularly relevant since Nielsen were appointed earlier this year to be UKOM’s official supplier. She argued that it is data that makes the case for digital spending and will do in the future – with only 5% of online spend dedicated to brand-building activity it will be facts and figures that will cause this to rise. Indeed, Ainsworth added that: “If we don’t insist on getting the right data we will hold back the health of our industry.” She finished by declaring that it was data that made the internet what it is today, and accurate data will only serve to generate more funding for the medium.

But the internet can’t be all about numbers? What about the personality it exudes via the wealth of creative content and socialising on offer? The opposing team, featuring Hales and Cridge argued just that, believing that to position data as digital’s only currency removes and undermines its humanity. In fact, Cridge from Glue explained that for the creative professional, numbers are unable to generate what we really crave – attention and advocacy, arguing: “It is ideas that change lives, not data.”

Interbrand’s Hales in fact suggested that as a society we have an over-reliance on data, and that such dependence inevitably leads to a class divide, of the tech-savvy versus the luddites. He argued that: “it’s what we do with the data that counts” and we need to go beyond the 1-dimensional picture painted by his opposition, and see the multitude of dimensions present within digital.

By far the most popular statistic of the evening came from Cridge, who pointed out that 38% of stats are made up on the spot (although of course I have a feeling that figure could be much greater or far smaller depending on who you talk to…) He counteracted Ainsworth’s argument by suggesting that the 5% of online spend that can be attributed to branding campaigns is the digital work ‘that constantly punches above its weight’ and is the stuff that makes it such a dynamic medium. ‘Conversation is king’ he added, and as such when digital is increasingly becoming real life, how can any currency based on data accurately reflect the love, desire, even irrationality that is felt and expressed online.

Whilst the entertained and clearly enthused delegates acknowledged that data is clearly the driving force behind much of what the digital industry does, many pointed out that it is the human element that numbers lack and advertising boasts which in their minds meant the argument fall short. As the IPA’s Hamish Pringle pointed out: “data is a thing people have opinions about, it doesn’t exist in isolation.” And although some felt that our agency panellists may find it hard to pitch to clients without the comfort blanket of data-driven results, it was the opposition that emerged from the debate victorious.

Whenever we at the IAB choose a motion for debate, we find it’s essential to pick something controversial, and a statement that polarises opinion but that will ultimately take you to a sensible conclusion of ‘a bit of both is what we need’. And that is exactly what this debate did. Whilst the creative team won by a majority of around 65%, the event most definitely highlighted not only the vibrancy and colour of digital – it’s human aspect – but also the need for cold hard facts to prove that it works.

The great thing about digital is that we have access to so much data, to do with what we wish. This vastness of data has been both a blessing and perhaps a curse, with the desire to measure absolutely everything about a campaign, regardless of whether it’s relevant, sometimes too overwhelming to ignore. Whilst data is not the only currency in digital, the existence of a currency, or the exchange of agreed-upon numbers that we, as an industry, attach value to, is of fundamental importance. This medium has an outstanding personality, thanks to both consumers and the digital workforce, but as Brittin pointed out, “it can be greater with data.”

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    Surely Mark Cridge made up that stat up? Conversation might be king, but I’m not sure it is the branding campaigns that are having those conversations.