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Goodbye 2020, hello 2021: five lessons for the year ahead and beyond

Digital and creative chiefs shared their thoughts on reshaping the future at Campaign’s The Year Ahead Breakfast Briefing

Goodbye 2020, hello 2021: five lessons for the year ahead and beyond

2020 might be over, but its impact was seismic and the aftershocks continue. Marcos Angelides, chief strategy and innovation officer at Spark Foundry, points out that – aside from battening down the hatches – the world of media and advertising was also adapting, becoming leaner and more efficient.

Speaking at a Campaign’s ‘The Year Ahead: Ready for the rebound’ online event (sponsored by Spark Foundry), the digital expert told delegates we’ve learned a lot that will help us reshape the future.

The Campaign Breakfast Briefing, hosted by editor-in-chief Gideon Spanier, saw Angelides joined by speakers including Lucy Jameson, founding partner of Uncommon Creative Studio, and Trevor Johnson, TikTok’s head of marketing, GBS, Europe.

“You’ll have already seen and been very aware of the massive changes in behaviour that emerged through lockdown last year,” Angelides said. “In particular the meteoric rise of online shopping, where we’ve seen ultimately 10 years’ worth of change in under 10 weeks.

“The pandemic effectively propelled us a decade into the future.” And while the journey was fraught, it has thrown up a number of realisations that will change the manner in which agencies, brands, media owners and digital platforms will operate.

Here are seven lessons learned during that annus horribilis.

1. It’s evolution, not a revolution

Riffing on Angelides’ point about a decade being crammed into 12 months, Spanier posed the question: was 2020 a profound revolution or an evolution of existing trends?

For Angelides, it was “more an evolution”, even if it was characterised by a stupendous rate of acceleration within a condensed timeframe. 

“There’s been a huge increase in the speed we have to deliver it at,” he said. “In order to achieve that, we’ve had to look at two options. One is speed: do we do things faster? You can to an extent but there’s only so much you can do. You can’t make up for four years’ worth of speed by just doing stuff faster.

“So the alternative, and often the better one, is you look at all the things that were slowing you down in the past – all the friction points, all the restrictions, the red tape – and work out how you can shed them.”

Likewise, for TikTok’s Johnson, 2020 was an evolutionary year. “The reality is that most of the big changes that we saw were ones that were already happening,” he said. “The period of time meant a few things had happened. It could either be an excuse for companies to make the changes that they were reluctant to make, or it forced customers to adopt new behaviours, behaviours they didn’t know about or felt they didn’t need to know about before.”

2. Embrace change: “The woods are burning”

Jameson described 2020 as a year of “radical acceleration” but one that for Uncommon resonated with its founding principle of change.

She referenced Arthur Miller’s seminal play Death of a Salesman, with a quote that sums up the agency’s outlook:  “I’m not interested in the past or any crap of that kind, because the woods are burning. There’s a big blaze going on all around.”

Jameson and her colleagues have always loved that quote, she said, “and it’s never felt more pertinent”.

“On the whole, while it’s been horrific in many ways, there have been some really good things that have come out of the last year and a half. Whether that's the speed – the ability to do things that might before have taken years of testing – there’s been a necessity for bravery and just getting stuff done, which has cut through a lot of the things that I think we all used to find quite boring.”

3. Unite, share and collaborate

The need for agencies, clients and media owners to unite, to share information, to be concerted in their efforts has never been more crucial, Angelides said.

“Whether it’s brand and performance working more together, or media agencies, creative agencies, media owners and tech partners sharing more, exploring more together… Because we’ve sometimes got just hours to turn things around, you can’t have those old divisions and ways of working that we used to see.

“Media agencies are getting a greater appreciation of what creatives need to do and creative agencies are getting a stronger appreciation of the insights and the data that media can offer to inform the creative process. Media agencies are becoming the engines of creative insights.”

This attitude of heightened collaboration has been vital to Spark Foundry’s work with clients in 2020. Its work with Dixons Carphone Group is a case in point. It helped the retailer “plan, produce and execute a campaign in less than 24 hours following an unexpected government announcement on a Sunday afternoon”.

“That’s a combination of Spark Foundry working with AMV and a few media partners,” Angelides said. “You can’t do that unless you’re working as a single team, you can’t do that unless there’s a profound level of trust and understanding. You can’t be jumping onto a status call every five minutes figuring out what’s going on, or what you’re doing.

“You’ve got to trust each other, you’ve got to anticipate what’s happening, you’ve got to bring it together, otherwise you just won’t turn it around in the time that’s needed.”

4. Promoting diversity, but strive for inclusion

Of course, 2020 wasn’t just defined by the pandemic, but by events that – while abhorrent –  provoked debate and incited change. Most profoundly, the horror and activism sparked by the killing of George Floyd reignited #BlackLivesMatter and brought it emphatically back into public consciousness.

Many brands and agencies laudably launched their own anti-racism initiatives, promoting diversity and inclusion. But TikTok’s Johnson was quick to stress that the two are “different things, one’s harder than the other” and much more effort is needed to combat hatred.

“From a diversity perspective, we saw significant change last year,” he said. “With George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter, we started to hear different voices talking about the oppression of black people in the world, and people were protesting. Then we started to see more faces, more black people in TV and ads.”

Johnson cited Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which featured a black family and attracted complaints from both implicit and explicit racists. He commended people’s rejection of such sentiment, adding: “we are seeing change and some people aren’t very comfortable with that”.

“Where we’re not seeing anything, and may be going backwards, is inclusion. If you look at our industry, at our senior folks, at the people making decisions in any industry, who have power or influence over how we think or act, there is still a lack of people of colour and a lack of women. So we can play the diversity game and make sure we see people, but actually are we seeing more black people in the boardrooms of our industry, are they making the decisions, are they deciding where the money or power goes?”

The answer is clearly no.

“We should be proud of what we’ve seen last year. But we need to see more funding around inclusion,” Johnson said.

Spark Foundry’s Marcos agreed that, while many agencies are making efforts to foster greater inclusion (such as his own agency’s diversity and inclusion steering body The Collective), “we’ve got to show continuous progress” and “a lot more needs to be done”.

5. Empathise — we’re all in the same (same but different) boat

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the notion of inclusion extends beyond skin colour and into people’s minds and their particular circumstances. Understanding people is vital to both brands pushing their messages and how organisations treat their own people.

Johnson stressed that “accepting that people are in different situations in terms of the environment they’re having to work within”, such as dealing with homeschooling kids, is critical.

“There are people working at the ends of their beds, with workmates in their lounge, and it’s important to have sympathy for all of those people. The idea of professionalism and what you think of as professionalism has completely changed and been ripped up now. Everyone has to cope in a very different way and we have to give people leeway.”

Empathy, Jameson argued, will be key to tackling 2021. “Importantly, you just have to continuously put yourself out there and try to see other people’s perspectives,” she said.

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