I am writing this on return from a trip with the IPA and UK Trade & Investment to Silicon Valley and Hollywood. The businesses we met were the very best the West Coast has to offer and the stories they told of building new models, products and cultures were nothing short of mind-bending. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that 14 agency chief executives had their eyes opened and will never look back.
The West Coast is setting the agenda for our marketing futures - yet, after we'd sobered up from the huge audience numbers, budgets and initial public offerings, we found that, with every new social gaming idea (Zynga), social platform (Yelp), social commerce business (Airbnb) and social network (Twitter), it was us Brits who held the key to a different type of currency that these impressive businesses need greater access to: creativity.
So here are some predictions (big mistake) on how social thinking could change our industry in the coming year or more. No matter where our industry has been in the past, it looks nothing like where it's heading.
The essentials are now in place: the web, mobile, video, interactive TV, apps, commerce and mass-user expectations of it all mean 2012 won't be about digital adoption; it'll be about digital consumption.
Buoyed by many mass-participation events this year (in particular the Olympics and Euro 2012, but also Wimbledon, Formula One and other social TV phenomena such as The X Factor, The Only Way Is Essex and Downton Abbey), we'll see a tipping point where huge amounts of social content, comment, utility and service will require new ways of discerning what we want, from what there is.
We'll need our own dashboards to control the relevance of it all and, as a result, these dashboards will be some of the most important content platforms marketers will see evolve over the next few years. How they work, inspire and excite us will be a new territory we'll be racing to understand.
Many of these dashboards are already growing around us. Think Flipboard, Zeebox, Facebook's timeline, Spotify's new platform, Twitter's new interface and YouTube's "channels" design. They are helping us build awareness of and direct connections to the things we care about, allowing us to navigate and distribute our preferred content from a single interface. They are beginning to control what we see and when we want to see it.
Interestingly, many of the inbound social feeds we connect with contribute silently. But they play a crucial role in giving us confidence in, and knowledge of, what our wider networks are thinking, doing and suggesting we do.
Crucially, these dashboards are being born from user-centric thinking, so it's going to be difficult to consider them as "display advertising" environments. Agencies will need to think more about creating content that fits - from short links to TwitPics, Facebook events to Zeetags, YouTube channels to even features, baked into emerging interfaces such as Beancounter.
It's this contextual information that will be the skeleton on which social builds its domination of our time, because the positive restaurant review, the +1 vote, the "like", the star rating, the other characters in FarmVille and the Tweets during The X Factor are simple, seductive and effective.
So a major social theme for 2012 seems to centre around content curation and the explosion of game-changing TV products from brands such as Apple, Google and Samsung. We'll see "ultimate video-wall interfaces" being installed into our living room screens and mobile devices - 24/7, anywhere we want them. Cloud-based, curated social influence.
But curation is only the half of it. There's actually something else: discovery. This is the big daddy of 2012.
Discovery is the largest agenda of every comms platform, ie. how the power of a platform can offer things its users want in surprising and exciting ways; how it can inspire and create time for greater depth and interaction. Discovery is what made Flipboard, Facebook, Yelp and Zynga. It's what Twitter has just bet the house on.
Regular discovery of great, relevant content will dominate our consumption through our personalised feeds and, most crucially of all, our peer influence. And all this discovery will have some profound impacts. Mainly, it will change the shape of search as we know it forever. It'll be our feeds that we turn to more and more for information and inspiration. Google is already reporting a decline in index searching.
For brands, it will be necessary for their agencies to generate new outputs and experiences, and this could be a watershed moment for our industry.
In creating smaller-scale, fast-to-market ideas, agencies and clients will begin to learn how to develop fast-fail, rapid-prototype cultures and budgets; and begin to establish launch-and-learn analytics through these new light-touch, high-value ideas.
Agencies will have to become sharper and more nimble. And this is a necessary development if we are to succeed in creating more relevant and contemporary content, as well as business models and agency cultures.
Most exciting of all, being discovered requires a brand to be engaging in the first place. This requires original thought from people who are capable of creating new ideas, crafted into simple expressions - and this sounds a lot like what a creative agency does best.
However, taking hold of this opportunity means agencies must accept that the creative outputs we put our energies into are ever-changing. These ideas must come from a broader canvas of thinkers and thinking. Agencies must take this opportunity to conclude their digital culture problems and set about creating broader ideas for their clients: utility ideas such as Nest from Nest Labs, product ideas such as Jawbone's UP and service ideas such as Fiat's eco:Drive.
These ideas can change businesses, they're centred around positive contribution to the user. And they're born from creative thinking and service, design and technology talent.
Social thinking in 2012 is a chance to change the way we respond to our clients' business problems. In doing so, we would establish new realms, use our talent to broader effect, persuade more than just advertising graduates to join us and become creative businesses with broader budgets and more relevance in our clients' boardrooms.
A focus on discovery could be the thing that saves the ad agency model from the "slow-boiling frog" dilemma that plagues it and many of its clients.
Marc Giusti is the group chief digital officer at Leo Burnett.