What age are we in?

The question of what age we are in?, is important for us as marketers because it helps us understand our macro environment and informs our strategy and our decisions about the future.

There can be no doubt that we are seeing a transition at the moment – and I’m not talking about from capitalism to socialism, but rather something less tangible and equally pervasive. This change, I think, is from an age of objects into an age of ideas. Be it an iPod, a Blackberry or an iPhone, we as a society have come to depend on our objects, but the trend toward ‘one box solutions’ and centralising our PDAs, mobile phones, e-mail and music devices shows a longing to free ourselves of the objects, devices, countless power cables and the increasingly cluttered assortment of gadgetry churned out over the years. The inevitable movement towards cloud computing shows the urge of our society to become less dependent on material objects in favour of something more powerful and less immediately tangible. It is in this very transition from physical to ideological that we can see the beginnings of a permanent change.

The definition of an idea most relevant here is: a process of cognition fed by information that leads to a conclusion, which goes on to influences either our opinion or a course of action. We hold ideas above all else. The next time you look at a £10 note you will see the Queen of England, a living monarch on one side and on the other is Darwin, long since deceased and yet still going on to influence the world and appear on currency from beyond the grave. This is the ultimate testament to the power of ideas: where genius and ideology trump royalty. But before we categorise our current time as one defined by ideas – perhaps we need to step back once and look at the raw material behind ideas: information. More than ever in our history, as a society we deal with information, statistics and data on a daily basis. One has to only look at how Wikipedia expands, as it is constantly changed, added to, subtracted from and altered – to see a living, organic, expanding model of information. What is notable about our current time is the simultaneous multiplicity of ideas – and the fuel behind this all is information.

In Digital media we have first-mover advantage in dealing with an age of information, and are all lucky to have begun to work in creative ways in trying to understand and interpret the enormous amount of data that we receive. We have also realised that our biggest challenge doesn’t only lie in increased complexity, but also in the sheer quantity of information we have access to. For anyone who has tried to condense an ad-segmentation report into a single conclusion, or looked at trying to de-duplicate display impressions from SEM clicks will know – we face the challenges set out by an age of information on a daily basis, with the majority of our time being spent re-purposing data in order to make actionable business decisions. As marketers, we know that we cannot simply segment our market in terms of the objects they choose, leaders they follow or ideas they embrace, as these monochromatic measures are outdated. If you really want to understand today’s consumer, you must first look at the information they have access to and the way they use and interact with it.

No doubt this leaves us in a world of complexity. However if there is one thing we know about the world it’s that things rarely, if ever, get less complex. A perfect example of this is IP.6. At current most IP addresses are IP.4 – and we’re beginning to run out. When the infrastructure of the internet was first laid out it was inconceivable that we would need more than 10 addresses each – but we have pushed the boundaries by assigning IP’s to our iPhones, laptops, home computers, work computers, Xbox 360s and PSPs – and such has been the uptake and rate of adoption that we’ve needed to move to IP.6 – which basically allows every single human being to have as many internet addresses as there are currently internet addresses.

A saying we have adopted at Unique Digital is ‘the future is already here, it just hasn’t been distributed evenly’ and for a glimpse at what IP.6 and the future may look like, we only have to look at cows in Japan, which are amongst the first users of IP.6. which may not be as obscure as it sounds, because if you think about it, as digital marketers one of the first things we do in the morning is get a snapshot of the previous day’ activities. All of our future plans are based on trends of what has happened before. Much as we might look at click-paths or the previous days’ conversions, Japanese farmers are able to access information about their livestock remotely at any time of day. They are able to study the impact of weather, grazing patterns and land usage – and cross-tabulate such information to deduce whether they need more land or more livestock for the following year.

Already this may challenge our current assumptions – if search engines organise the world’s information… in a world of IP.6 will also organise livestock? Suddenly Eric Schmidt’s claim from last year that Google’s next focus will be the energy sector seems far less outlandish. We will all begin to get our first taste of IP.6 this year when it comes standard in electrical appliances – and we will find that our new kettles, toasters, microwaves and fridges will come equipped with their own data feed into the world wide web. Does this mean then that search engines and the algorithms that power them will not only give access to information on click through rates and agriculture… but energy grids and energy efficiency too?

What age are we in? As marketers with unprecedented access to an ever increasing amount of information, we are in constant search of answers most of our working day. In a discussion over lunch, James, our associate MD reminded me of the part in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book Life, the Universe and Everything, where we come across a group of scientists who are obsessed with looking for ‘The Great Answer of Life.’ The quest for this answer has consumed them to point of not being able to contemplate anything else. However, after years of searching they are mortified to find that the answer is 42. 42! What they realise is that in their obsessions with finding the answer, they had forgotten the actual question. And though answers are useful, without an accompanying question they are quite useless. I think therein lies an important lesson for marketers within the age of information… if we want answers, we first need to take a step back – and understand the questions.

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