Friends Reunited: How has digital changed in 10 years?

The Dadi Awards turned 10 this year, which is a long time in the digital industries it celebrates. To

The Dadi Awards turned 10 this year, which is a long time in the digital industries it celebrates. To mark the occasion we brought together some of the sector’s early pioneers to find out just how much things have changed since its 2006 launch.

When the world wide web was launched on an unsuspecting public some 20-odd years ago, little was known about the technology, let alone its possibilities. Now it’s impossible to imagine a world without it.

Picking up speed in the late-90s, digital’s pioneers pulled it up by its bootstraps when the first dotcom crash hit at the turn of the millennium, with peer-to-peer sharing, chat rooms and social media wheedling their way into the public consciousness during the mid-noughties.

When The Drum launched the Dadi Awards in 2006 to celebrate digital excellence, the landscape was very different. Pre-recession and at a time where valuations were going crazy, Bebo was the social media network de jour and the iPhone little more than a rumour.

Since then we’ve seen platforms come and go, budgets disappear and reappear, as well as a seemingly never-ending argument over whether the word ‘digital’ even matters any more.

To celebrate 10 years of the Dadi Awards, we asked digital pioneers, from Helen Milner who introduced the internet to school kids in the 80s, to Pete Cashmore who started a digital media empire from his teenage bedroom, to recall their earliest experiences of digital – what they were doing 10 years ago and what they hope the next decade will bring.

Pete Cashmore, founder and chief executive officer, Mashable

To me the internet meant freedom and opportunity. I was 12, living in rural Scotland when my family got an AOL dial-up account, I wasn’t allowed to use it too much though because no one could call us when I was online. I found the website of a US maker of ‘smoke ring’ guns and decided to become its UK distributor. It didn’t pan out and my parents still have an attic full of those things, but it opened up an entirely new world for a kid like me – I would actually adjust my sleep pattern so that I wouldn’t miss anything coming out of Silicon Valley.

In the early days, no one knew who I was outside of my avatar and it meant a lot of people thought I was much older than I was. The anonymity was great. It was a fun time. Everyone who wrote a blog knew each other and it was a small community of dedicated people.

Then it went from being a geeky pastime to something that required some tech expertise to becoming an essential part of everyday life. Now it’s integrated into everything we do; every part of our lives is now digital and connected, so there’s inevitably less focus on ‘going digital’ and much more on what the next phase in connected computing might look like. From the internet of things to virtual reality and self-driving cars, the excitement is about what we can build on top of the infrastructure that has been built.

I hope that by connecting the world we can build a more informed, tolerant and peaceful society. I think that by being connected to people from different countries, backgrounds and walks of like we become more understanding of others. But our newfound reliance on connectivity also brings risks. Ultimately, technology is just a tool. It’s up to us as humans to decide how we use it.

Helen Milner, chief executive officer, Tinder Foundation

I started working in the industry in 1985 before the world wide web was invented. It was exciting and new and I was hooked – you could say I just fell into it. Back then, no one really knew what it was and there was a lot of hype, kind of like the way we think of driverless cars and the internet of things now.

My work is about closing the digital divide to make sure socially and digitally excluded people get the opportunities that they deserve to be able to use the internet, Tinder Foundation has helped 2 million people use the internet and that’s the most exciting thing for me.

The biggest difference from 10 years ago has to be mobile as, for those who know about the benefits and opportunities that the internet brings, it has changed how often in a day we will use the internet and how dependent we have become on the internet to do everyday things.

There’s also more worry about things. With more than half the world’s population on the internet, there’s more criminals around and more risk online. Digital detoxing is also something that’s become popular too. A lot of people think the internet is taking over people’s lives and damaging the way we communicate with one another.

Nik Roope, creative partner and co-founder, Poke

My first step into digital was in 1994 creating interactive artworks for an experimental CD project called Antirom which later became a company. Where most professions were mature and inaccessible, digital was wide open and messy and I knew things would move fast.

People thought digital was cool and many jumped in, but then the bubble burst at the end of the millennium. From 2001 to 2007 we climbed steadily out of that hole with 2007 marking a huge shift, not just in momentum but with the emergence and power of the social and mobile mix that has come to define our business.

Today digital is a proper business and profession, many of the risks have gone and the scale is there. In short, it’s grown up a bit but also got a bit more boring and predictable in the process. We’ve gone from one freak-out to the next and rarely found the confidence to be bold. There’s a huge opportunity now for brands to not just be more successful, but to use all these new forces in play to be better, more inspiring and more responsible.

Natalie Gross, former chief executive officer, Amaze

I started in 1999 and people were always intrigued about what I did because, even if you boiled it down to ‘we make websites’, back then it wasn’t a reference point people understood.

I joined the industry at a time when the commercial internet was just getting going and it really was a baptism of fire, but I fell in love with the possibility it presented. 10 years ago was a particularly exciting time because, after many false starts, mobile was finally arriving. It also converged with a growth in social media. Crudely speaking, pre-2006 we had the web and post-2006 we have the web, mobile and social.

We’ve moved from digital as its own industry to a literal land grab from the big advertising networks and professional services companies who were late to the table but have caught up through acquisition.

Personally, I don’t think we’ve quite delivered on the potential to truly change how we produce content and tell stories, so I would like to see us be more creative. But the passion for digital is growing and digital pervasiveness is forcing businesses and organisations to change.

Wayne Deakin, executive creative director, AKQA

I started out in traditional advertising agencies and got bored of the usual formats. When I left a very famous advertising agency to go to a digital one people couldn’t understand why. I had won awards for big TV ads and was told I was putting my career at risk.

10 years ago digital was matching luggage to other marketing channels, but today it isn’t at the back of the pack and everything is now digital, so much so that the word is redundant as we’ve moved beyond that.

Mobile and AI are the game changers and we’ve only just scratched the surface. People are more passionate than ever before; the industry has moved from youth to maturity but the startup attitude and hunger lives strong.

I’m looking forward to a new generation of thinkers and makers creating ideas and stuff that wasn’t remotely possible yesterday.

Ross Sleight, chief strategy officer, Somo

Despite being cumbersome, slow and frustrating, it was clear to me that the web had the potential to change how people communicated, engaged with content, shopped and were entertained, and the main attraction was that, unlike all other media, there was no rules.

Trying to work out how this medium would develop was pioneering, and led to a huge amount of discussion and experimentation. I was a pretty forceful evangelist in the early days. People would look at me and laugh, but people are always wary of the new.

For those of us in the industry before the first dotcom crash we went through a rough time. Post-bubble, ‘digital’ became a dirty word, even though it was clear there was a huge chasm between the hyped expectation and reality of business growth online. But over the years, leading up to 2006, digital hauled its ass back to the top table through sheer hard work.

A decade ago digital was a department in business. Now digital is business. It’s marbled in and that’s a huge shift in a decade. What’s amazing now is that everyone joining the industry in their first role is a digital native. They understand the potential because it’s part of their lives.

My hope is that we concentrate on solving real problems rather than selling more goods. Our world has huge issues we need to address and technology and digital can play an increasing part in this process.

Marco Bertozzi, global chief revenue officer, Performics, Publicis Media Performance

In 1999 I heard whispers of a new part of Zenith – Zenith Interactive Solutions – being set up and I immediately put my hand up to be part of it.

TV was all-powerful then and it was considered a strange move – when I moved I kept getting emails to ‘come and fix my monitor’ as people basically assumed I’d moved to IT. It was generally considered career suicide.

We were considered the ‘fun’ bit at the end of every meeting and that began to wear. There was a feeling we were going to take over the world, but there was a lot of naivety as many digital natives had started to throw out the old-school thinking. It took some time for the realisation to set in that there was as much benefit being provided by those channels.

Since then there has been many different waves of innovation and digital is far more grown up and less separated. It bleeds through everything and, in some respects, it’s hard to call digital an industry, rather than simply the media industry.

Our industry is fascinating. We’ve been distracted by the negative headlines but when you take a step back and take in everything that’s happened in such a short period, it’s nuts.

This article was originally published in The Drum magazine.

The Dadi Awards 2018 are now open for entry, download your entry pack to take park.

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