The Refinery of Data and Culture

Introducing a new editorial series on the future of data for marketers

Data has been the cool kid on the block for years now, so time's up for those who haven't really (I mean really) wrapped their heads around it. Andrea Cook unpacks different ways to consider data and how we must use it to fuel creativity and business performance for our clients. This is part one of a four-part series on the future of data.

The phrase "Data is the new oil" was coined by British mathematician and data scientist Clive Humby back in 2006. Since then, the concept has been expounded on by academics, economists and the marketing community alike. Not surprisingly, there have also been an equal number of contrarians to the statement—and I happen to agree. Because it never was true. 

Data is not a finite, unrenewable resource—arguably the most obvious thing about oil. And unlike a coveted barrel of crude (especially these days), data does not particularly hold any meaningful value in its raw form.

In its simplest definition, data is a record of everything that makes us human: language, arts, fears, wishes, perceptions, love, hate—everything. And if we believe that data delivers value only when it's understood and activated as an extension of humans, we realize a beautiful and powerful thing: Data is culture. But also, culture is data.

This is why I've been obsessed, since the earliest days of my career, with connecting brands and customers one-to-one through data. When I think about some of the work I'm most proud of, work that changed me and that holds the power to change the world, I see this perspective come to life. Take, for example, our recent Black Elevation Map, developed for our clients at Black & Abroad. It takes more than 330 million points of cultural data, including Black population data, historical markers, Black-owned businesses and social media activity, and visualizes the data as points of interest on a dynamic, searchable elevation map of the United States. The greater the density of data, the higher the elevation—hence its name. The Black Elevation Map helps Black travelers see the country in a way that prioritizes and celebrates the contributions of the Black community and facilitates travel choices that deepen engagement therein.

Another example of using data to connect brands with people and culture was the Destination Pride platform our team created for PFLAG Canada a few years ago. In that work, we connected thousands of sources of publicly available data to build a global utility for the LGBTQIA2S+ community to know where it's safe to travel. We collected and indexed disparate data across the six bars of the Pride flag—like a bar graph—to create an informative and arresting data visualization for every destination on Earth. So, whether you're traveling for business or leisure, anywhere from Paris, France, to Paris, Texas, or Jaipur, India, to Jakarta, Indonesia—a quick search on Destination Pride provides an understanding of LGBTQIA2S+ acceptance wherever you travel around the world.

Both Destination Pride and the Black Elevation Map are perfect examples of the intricate interdependency between data and humanity, ideas driven by data in culture with an equal ability to also impact the culture from whence it came. 

So what? So this: We are in the eye of the most significant human and cultural evolution of our lifetime. Perhaps multiple lifetimes. The impacts on our industry are both disquieting and inspirational.

The attention crisis. The amount of data required to make an impact is growing, requiring smarter and more sensational efforts. Existing tactics are failing, and there is an inflationary effect driving the price of attention ever upward. As attention scarcity rises and data control tilts to the individual, brand relationships need to grow in respect and cultural relevance, and the old-school lessons in loyalty and equity are also rising in importance.

The dichotomies. The amount of data available continues to grow exponentially, and with it our expectations of what is possible. All the while, our tolerance for error and risk has decreased. Privacy regulations continue to tighten, while the globalization of customer experience grows. We prize data security but find ourselves unclear on ownership, bias, expiration and portability. Furthermore, we're desperate to venture into the uncharted, and let's face it, glaringly ungoverned territory of Web3.

The data web. Remember when A.I. was the future? Ahhh. The good old days. Now we have new sources of data to find, digest and interpret; like advanced heuristics, group and synthetic data. Not only that, we also need to figure out how to make everything unstructured, machine-readable, portable, measurable, storable and useful in decentralized economies and metaverse playgrounds.

Can you say your "data culture" is keeping pace? This is where those getting it wrong really get it wrong. It's NOT about data as insights. That's too binary. It's also not about data as measurement. That's too yesterday. Segments and audiences can't be the final destination—they're too general. And, for the love of all things good, data in the absence of technology enablement and community is just theater and nothing more.

The stakes are high, but we are a creative industry ripe with potential. Marketers and agencies must remain as agile and fluid as the pace of growth in data and at the pace of cultural change. We must prize diversity, speed, accuracy and an ability to be profound. Or thought of another way, not coincidentally, it is our agency's "Why?"; successful brands of the future will be built in the hearts, minds and actions of individuals—not in the server-room equivalent of an oil rig.

I look forward to geeking out with you again as we explore the future of data and culture in coming installments of this editorial series.

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