2014 Predictions: The year ahead for...Digital agencies

Digital no longer means 'digital marketing' - it is increasingly integrated into our physical selves and environments, with a concomitant increase in new business models, Nigel Vaz suggests.

Nigel Vaz
Nigel Vaz

There is a photograph from 2013, taken during the announcement of Pope Francis’ election. The image spread widely at the time for the fact that, in it, we see hundreds of heads pointing towards the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican – and nearly every one of those heads was experiencing the event through the glowing screen of a tablet or a smartphone.

"So, mobile devices are very popular? That’s your insight for 2014, Nigel? We kind of knew that already."

Well, yes and no. The picture conveys several key themes: 2014 will be the year that the internet goes mostly mobile; in the final quarter of 2013, tablet shipments outpaced those of PCs for the first time; the continued roll-out of 4G and the increased authentication and security in devices and operating systems will make mobility ever-more integrated into our lives; and our experiences in the physical and digital spaces have irreversibly collapsed into one.

It’s a hope, rather than prediction, of mine that 2014 will be the year that we finally kick into touch this idea that digital is somehow distinct from everything else that we do. For many, digital is still this "thing" that used to mean digital marketing.

Within these pages, you’ll see a host of predictive pieces from smart people in their respective sectors. We’re artificially segregated by the page turn, of course. The reality is that our businesses have all experienced the transformative effect of disruptive digital innovations. So, could we finally accept that digital is just the way we do things now?

New can be scary; digital disrupts and forces us constantly to innovate and reinvent ourselves. It’s why the protestation that all this digital stuff – data and analytics included – is somehow diverting us from pure intuitive creativity is so deeply ironic.

Digital, whether you view it as a human enabler or a creative canvas through which we communicate narratives, is our reality. It’s big, chaotic and constantly changing, and it’s a challenge to know what’s important and what to cast aside. All of this makes the job of being prescient difficult in the extreme – yet, that is what has been asked. So these are some of the themes I believe will have an impact in the next year and beyond.

Digital breakout

Until now, digital for the most part has been trapped within a screen; 2014 will be the year when it leaps out and becomes part of both our physical selves and our environments. Let’s imagine what that papal election photograph would look like if it were taken a year from now, or three – we would see the number of screens diminish as better interfaces that allow us to experience and capture memories become more prevalent.

We’re on the cusp of that technology reaching a tipping point; while Google Glass and smartwatches may not be the best interfaces, they are very sound as platforms for how things will go mainstream. There are other wearable and biometric technologies that will plug into these platforms. The Google-owned Motorola Mobility is working on a temporary digital "throat tattoo" capable of transmitting voice commands to devices and a daily "password pill" consisting of a tiny signal-emitting chip that effectively turns your body into a password. The point here is that digital is set to break out of the confines we once associated it with.

What will be more interesting is the way the technologies become part of the narrative. In June, all eyes will turn to Brazil and the World Cup. Four years ago, Nike stole the show with "write the future" – an exceptional campaign, to be sure, but one that was fuelled by social and was highly participatory in nature. At this year’s World Cup, it has the FuelBand – a device worn by millions. In effect, FuelBand gives Nike the audience equivalent of its own Super Bowl slot every day. Just as the 2012 Olympic Games were cast as the "social Olympics", we can expect wearable technology to have a creative impact on the 2014 World Cup.

'Just as the 2012 Olympic Games were cast as the 'social Olympics', we can expect wearable technology to have a creative impact on the 2014 World Cup'

Social will also be in the World Cup mix. Last year, we saw Oreo hijack the Super Bowl conversation with "dunk in the dark" – not because it had a better idea than the advertisers that paid top dollar, but because it was better-structured to react nimbly to a story as it unfolded. Despite the best efforts of Fifa to protect its official sponsors and the years of planning that will have gone into the creation of some exceptional TV-led campaigns, there will be an agile and digitally enabled brand that steals a share of the World Cup conversation.  

Products, experience and marketing will continue to mesh. The FuelBand is all three at once, but is still a device made for "conspicuous consumption". More interesting still are the innovations that have the potential to change how we consume. Tesla’s Model S defies our conventional understanding of product, experience and marketing. Among its many innovations is a fully upgradable and customisable on-board operating system, which means that, while the vehicle’s physical shape may stay constant, its digital shape will adapt to be more relevant and useful to the user in much shorter cycles.

Tesco, now both brand platform and business platform, will be emulated by other businesses as they push to create value ecosystems across the digital value chain of brand, product, service and experience in a way that transforms their interactions with consumers. Just as the Tesco business plugs in banking and Blinkbox, rivals with the brand equity to credibly build brand platforms will start to collaborate with a host of partner "apps" from complementary sectors.

New business models

The maturation of crowdfunding is moving it from an interesting phenomenon to something that changes the way we consume. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have grown exponentially and become platforms in their own right as consumers flock to them not to invest but to "back" and buy products and services that are not yet in development – thus turning the supply-and-demand model on its head. We will now see more companies follow Unilever Ventures, which funds its own innovations around product development and marketing.

We’ll see advances in responsive physical environments. Commercial and civic spaces are becoming instrumented, providing an enhanced opportunity to deliver merged physical and digital experiences. Embedded sensors and depth-sensing technology will increasingly allow people to interact with media and vice versa. We can expect a proliferation of experiences that include walls as "information radiators" and motion-sensitive interactive placements.

For connected, always-on consumers, creating and fulfilling demand in the same interaction is crucial. Next year, and every year, will see advances in the creativity, quality and stickiness of the communications that we create. Investment in content marketing, video that integrates commerce and responsive design will result in brands being able to create worlds that respond to how consumers want to shop and be inspired.

This mosaic of digital devices produces an immense digital exhaust, which allows us to know consumer preferences. Last year, Netflix’s House Of Cards won the first-ever Emmy for an internet show, and the company claims it was the most-streamed piece of content in the US and 40 other countries. In fact,

Net-flix is an analytics company that happens to be in the entertainment industry; it had delved into viewing data and worked out a Venn diagram – David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and BBC drama – that effectively guaranteed a hit before a dollar was spent on production. Similar data-driven approaches to content, product development and advertising will follow hard on the heels of House Of Cards.

The theme that all these trends and predictions have in common is that they frame digital as the way we are, as consumers and as creators. They allow us a glimpse of what is and might be, and equip us with the freedom to bring narrative, medium and audience together in a connected, coherent way. Most importantly, they inspire creativity – not as it once was, but as it should be.

Nigel Vaz is the senior vice-president and managing director at SapientNitro Europe