Feature

Medium of the Decade

It has been a troubled period for commercial media, from the rise and rise of the internet giants to the decline of print publishing, even if there were innovation and growth too.

Medium of the Decade

No company stood out as the medium of the decade, so Campaign has decided against picking a winner.

It has been a troubled period for commercial media, despite 10 years of consecutive growth in UK and global adspend. UK media spend recovered from £14.3bn in 2010 in the wake of the global financial crisis to an estimated £23.3bn in 2019, according to Warc. 

In some respects, it has been an astonishing success story as the internet moved from disruptor to dominant force. Google, Campaign’s medium of the previous decade, had already passed ITV to become Britain’s biggest media owner in 2009 and the internet itself became the biggest medium in the UK by adspend in 2011.

Annual online ad expenditure went on to jump more than threefold from £4.1bn at the start of the decade to £14.9bn this year, thanks to the UK’s high adoption rates of smartphones, super-fast broadband and ecommerce.

"The digitalisation of British advertising has been a true modern revolution," Keith Weed, president of the Advertising Association and former Unilever marketer, said this year. 

The rise of Twitter, our choice for medium of the year in 2013, and Facebook, the medium of 2014, underscored how global technology giants were transforming media.

By the middle of the decade, Google and Facebook, in particular, had established themselves as a virtual duopoly, sucking up nearly all the growth in digital advertising.

However, there was a contradiction at the heart of the way these Silicon Valley giants behaved, because they insisted they were platforms, not publishers, and did not bear responsibility for the content.

British news publishers, which saw their ad revenues tumble because of the rise of the Google-Facebook duopoly, were among the most zealous in holding these platforms to account.

A 2017 investigation by The Times exposed how YouTube was hosting jihadist and other extremist videos on its site and allowing ads from household brands to appear next to this inappropriate content.

Facebook came under fire a year later when The Observer and The Guardian helped to reveal the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the way that social-media users’ data was wrongly used in a bid to influence the Brexit vote and 2016 US Presidential election.

None of this curbed the duopoly’s revenue growth. Google and Facebook were set to bring in upwards of 60% of all UK online advertising in 2019. The Competition and Markets Authority announced in July 2019 it was to investigate the "market power held by platforms" and whether "the digital advertising market may be distorted".

A decline in trust in advertising, questions about fraud, transparency and measurement, and the rise of ad-blocking and ad-free services, such as Netflix, added to a sense that the ad industry was under pressure. 

Despite the litany of problems and growing anxiety about the impact of global platforms on UK creative industries, there were many positives. TV defied the doommongers by bouncing back, as advertisers had a new-found appreciation of its ability to build brands and generate fame. There were also innovations, such as Sky’s AdSmart. It helped that the TV market consolidated into just three sales houses – ITV (medium of 2012), Channel 4 (medium of 2015) and Sky. 

Out of home, radio and cinema prospered for similar reasons and ended the decade on a high. UK OOH revenues hit a new record, with digital screens accounting for more than 50% for the first time last year, commercial radio’s audience smashed records as it overtook the BBC this year and cinemas have been enjoying their highest attendance levels since 1970. 

Global, which owns Capital Radio and was the medium of 2017, was one of the big consolidators and led an audacious triple M&A foray into OOH in 2018.

Newspaper and magazine media owners suffered most from the disruption. Annual adspend on UK press peaked at £7bn in 2004, and it was still bigger than the internet at £4.2bn in 2010. The decline continued, with press spend set to fall to £1.5bn this year, as digital ad growth offset only a small amount of decline.

There were exceptions. The London Evening Standard, medium of the year in 2010, showed print advertising could hold up in a densely populated urban setting, and The Guardian, the medium of 2011, went "digital-first" as it bet on online ads and global scale.

For a time, the ad-funded, online model looked like it might work as international entrants such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media took off, only to hit the Google-Facebook wall.

Many publishers rushed to put up paywalls or ask for reader contributions but MailOnline, Britain’s most successful online news export, held firm and kept faith in advertising.

However, the direction of travel was clear. Rupert Murdoch shut the News of the World in 2011 due to the phone-hacking scandal, and The Independent axed its print edition in 2016.

As we look ahead, advertising is going to change radically as AR, automation and AI go mainstream.

The medium of the next decade might not yet have been invented.

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