The Year Ahead For ... Creative Agencies

Alison Hoad says social media, as well as new digital communications, will be crucial to the customer journey in what will be a great year for the industry.

Alison Hoad
Alison Hoad

It's going to be a huge year. We're going to have pride in our step and passion in our hearts as this summer, with all its flag-waving, unfolds. Let's just hope we get through it without any riots.

Last summer, London really was burning. I was home with our three young children and I started to check Twitter with increasing frequency to see how near to our little pocket of North London the rioters were moving. It was the first time I had used Twitter as a real-time newsfeed and I suspect I wasn't the only mum doing so. BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook played a significant role in enabling the riots and it was these same platforms that enabled the clean-ups.

Once again, we see that it's not the platform that has a moral character, but the user. And the users were anything but niche. Looking back, 2011 was the year that social media and digital communications became part of the fabric of everyday life. Looking forward, brands that succeed will be those that are social from the start, not as an afterthought.

The internet has always been about connecting people and helping them find information and community; this is precisely what made the chatrooms and forums of the nascent web exciting to begin with. It is also why social networking has finally ousted porn as the most popular online activity of today. There has only ever been one magic ingredient for truly compelling online interactions: other people. The more brands can help people connect with each other, rather than simply project messages to them, the more successful they will become.

Amid all this excitement, let's remember that the economic outlook remains bleak. There are continued mutterings of a double-dip and average earnings are set to fall as food and fuel inflation continues to rise. We will have to wait some time to see the green shoots of recovery. Our clients will be under pressure and will want to do more, with less. They will look for upstream-converged strategies, and ideas and platforms that can make a difference in the customer's journey. This can be a huge opportunity - allowing us to play across a much larger part of this customer journey, creating value for our clients and, consequently, ourselves in genuinely new ways. And there's no time like the present to step up and grasp the nettle.

Traditional boundaries across the customer journey are blurring

People used to think of digital and social media as the most important at the research and recommendation stages of the purchase cycle. Now it's clear that they have a role to play at every stage of the customer journey, from promotion to in-store to PR. Let's just consider in-store for a moment. In Japan, a department store has introduced digital interactive clothes hangers that have content that guides the browser elsewhere in the store.

Ah, but that's Shibuya, I hear you cry. Well, over here, the trusty high-street retailer Marks & Spencer is trialling touchscreen wardrobes where, in true Minority Report style, you can pull together outfits virtually. Elsewhere, virtual shopping environments, such as KinectShop, are being developed where you can browse and try on items on a moving augmented reality 3D version of yourself.

Where this gets beyond the conceptual and niche is when you think about how it works with the devices people already have. We've seen Diesel connect customers to Facebook to rate its products in-store via their smartphones and, last month, Topshop launched a location-based gaming app to drive people into its stores. In 2012, we'll see more of this, and I suspect it won't just be promotional, nor limited to retail or youth brands. I was surprised to read an editorial in The Garden raving about QR codes on plants, providing would-be purchasers with more information on planting position and companion plants.

Agencies that best understand their customers' mindset at every stage of the purchase cycle, and can serve them content accordingly, will be best-placed to help their clients succeed.

Trust will be built and lost in new ways

The former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan declared to the Leveson inquiry that "privacy is for paedos". A ludicrous statement, perhaps, but one that is not so out of kilter with Mark Zuckerberg's doctrine of radical transparency. The ability to gather data is, of course, critical in today's world of personalised communications. Someone cool once said "Data is the new oil - only valuable when it's refined", and brands must be careful that, in refining the data, they don't lose customers' trust.

People are anxious about how the information they unwittingly disseminate about themselves on social networks is being monetised. This anxiety will be compounded by the trend for "frictionless sharing", where your social networks are notified of what you're reading, watching and purchasing without you explicitly choosing to share that information. We need to get smarter at accessing, analysing and visualising data but, most of all, we need to be thoughtful about how we use it. I predict that our considerable skill as an industry in creating consistent brand voices will be advantageous in sustaining customers' trust.

Branded utility can light the touch paper in communications

Entertainment, predominantly through advertising, has traditionally been the Trojan horse that brands smuggle themselves inside to bypass consumer cynicism and gain an invitation into people's lives. However, branded utility is an alternative social currency based on the principle of giving people something useful that is worthy of being shared. In an age where people are increasingly able to filter and block ad messages, there is a significant imperative for brands to shift from merely telling people that they make their lives better to actually making their lives better by providing value-added content, services and utilities that people will want to own, use and share. See Nike+ or, more recently, Lloyds TSB's Money Manager as great examples that build from existing brand equities. We must build from what we already do - creating valuable ideas - but apply them in ever-more helpful ways.

The pace of new technology is unbelievable. In 2012, we'll see 3D printing and the next big thing, "digital wallets", become a reality. Tablets and internet-enabled televisions will become the norm with the launch of IPTV set-top boxes and budget-friendly tablets such as Amazon's Kindle Fire. The mainstream has historically adopted new devices around big national and sporting events and, to go back to where I started, we've got a huge summer ahead of us. Expect more connected customers as a result. I know it's January, and it's a tough business climate, but look ahead. It's going to be a great year for our nation and for our business. Bring it on.

Alison Hoad is the joint chief executive at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.