Industry Education and Why it Must Live Between Zeroes and Ones

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Thank goodness for far-sighted and forward thinking ad-tech. Without the benevolence of the cutting-edge minds running the ad-fraud-riddled, opaque world of data-driven advertising we’d all be back in the dark ages where creativity, real strategy and real creative strategy served brands in the complex real world rather than the sci-fi simulacrum of the data cowboys. Those of us trying to move beyond thin data into the complex realities of humans, their cultures, their media and their world – what Tricia Wang calls ‘Thick Data’ – should doff our caps and try desperately to get on board. And none more so those than those ivory tower academics.

“To be frank, universities are struggling to catch up.” No. We’re not. We’re trying – like our partners in the real industry world – to provide real understanding and insights, creative thinking and making.

As Nate Smith, group manager of product marketing at Adobe Analytics so pithily puts it in a story in The Drum:  “To be frank, universities are struggling to catch up.” No. We’re not. We’re trying – like our partners in the real industry world – to provide real understanding and insights, creative thinking and making.

Smith has just launched the 13th edition of his company’s competition, this time in partnership with T-Mobile, which gives selected US university students a brand’s real-time data together with Adobe’s tools and challenges them to solve a number of business problems by analyzing that data. There are $60,000 of prizes for the students and as The Drum has it: “T-Mobile will take home fresh, data-informed insights and both brands will be exposed to more than 1,000 potential employees with analytical capabilities.”

Let’s leave aside the ethical issues of using University students desperate for jobs as some sort of ad industry Mechanical Turk; a free shift in the T-Mobile/Adobe factory just to see how it goes. Let’s even agree that the students will get an interesting hands-on experience of industry data and data tools – no bad thing. There are issues here for industry-focused education and for the industry.

What are we teaching the newest recruits to the industry? I tell my students that they are already in the industry, they don’t join it when they leave. They are in my class as (admittedly unpaid) ad people, researching, creating, prototyping, thinking and yes learning as we all should be. My team teach them to move beyond the Survey Monkey (no matter how sophisticated it may be), to locate data in a wider picture; to bring thick data into contact with thin; to be critical. We require our students address culture and power and the messy world of the real alongside the crunchable world of the data. Whether they are mapping a user journey or drawing a persona, prototyping a voice skill or drawing a scamp, we demand they ask the difficult questions, challenge accepted wisdom and data ‘truths’. The industry partners we work with see our classes as innovation labs, thinking into the future. We are not struggling to catch up. We and our partners are struggling to lead. I am happy for my students to get hands-on experience of T-Mobile’s data and Adobe’s tools. But I am not happy to think that this is a privileged route to “solve a number of business problems”.

The Drum story is clear that Adobe is trying to fill the data-analytics recruitment gap – its own and its customers. I have no argument with that. I do however have a problem with the taking over of wider marketing and advertising education programmes by data obsession. Data analysts, like everyone else in the industry, need a wider view.

This is not partnership. This is entryism.

And that’s why this is an issue for the industry too. They should be demanding a wider and more innovative and critical curriculum than this initiative seems to represent. Smith is clear:  “We develop a curriculum for universities now. Along with training for professors, we give them and their classes access to Adobe Analytics sandboxes. We really see this as a great partnership with education, to help one and other.”

This is not partnership. This is entryism.

A modern curriculum for a modern industry with modern problems demands a complex mixture of breadth and depth. It needs to dive deep into data including its problems and limitations, use and misuse. It needs to engage with Sharp and Contrarian thinking. But it needs breadth too. It needs to explore the Anthropocene and anthropology; digital cultures as well as digital data; the spaces between zeroes and ones. Why? Because that is the world brands have to engage with and the industry has to understand to ‘solve business problems’.

As I have discussed previously, that is what we are imaging to do with our partners. They work with us to develop spaces of industry-relevant, critical, speculative and innovative practice-research. Our students are working with them not simply for them. Because the industry needs that speculative, research thinking. That is what our best University courses provide, not just to the students but also to industry.

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