The year ahead for media: an opportunity to grow

Did Covid-19 give us a year of “peak media” as so many spent more time at home and lived online than ever before? Or did it simply accelerate the move to more streaming, deeper personalisation and higher expectations of what data can deliver? As hope brightens for a vaccine and a future beyond coronavirus, four media bosses reveal what is blipping on their radar as we approach 2021.

The year ahead for media: an opportunity to grow

'The challenging environment has led to incredible creativity and innovation'

By Rakesh Patel, regional head of sales, UK and pan-EMEA, Spotify

For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to the notion that “the darkest hour is just before dawn”. In later life, I found out that it was an English historian and theologian Thomas Fuller who was the first to commit this to print. From personally using it over recent years when describing the plight of my beloved Manchester United to the quote having been used by Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, the use case has been far and wide. 

Recently I discovered that it’s not exactly accurate, as the brightness of the night’s sky is dependent upon the Moon’s appearance. Fake news is clearly not a new phenomenon. 

What I’ve been inspired by is the picture the notion paints; light follows dark, the necessity to go through dark times in order to reach better times, optimism of what the next day may bring.

No doubt this year will be documented like no other, a global pandemic disrupted lives in every corner of the world and the rise in racial and social justice rightly taking centre stage. Consumer habits have been forcibly changed, and one consequence has been that our advertising industry took a direct hit. I’m sure we’ll all agree that this has been a pretty dark time. 

However, life is full of ups and downs, much like the constant cycle of day and night. For those that know me, I’m often described as a “glass half full” type of guy. It’s this cycle that fills me with the constant hope that things can become better and that we are on a continual journey of learning. 

In fact, what I’ve learnt is that those glimmers of light are constantly all around us. The challenging environment around us this year has led to incredible creativity and innovation. I’ve been lucky enough, and privileged this year, to judge the Media Week Awards Agency of the Year and be chair of Campaign’s Publishing Awards. Both left me genuinely inspired by the incredible work that has gone on day after day across the industry – from agencies leaning deeper into the insights that partners can provide on changing user habits, to some truly remarkable activations that have effectively captured context and sentiment.

CNN’s partnership with CALM is one such example, utilising all its platforms to support a hugely important message. Closer to home, I’ve been awestruck by the team at Spotify. They have become the first-ever digital business to win the Media Week Sales Team of the Year award. No small feat in 2020. There has been some fantastic work to note. One that stands out to me is the innovative voice-activated campaign we produced with beauty brand NARS, working alongside StoryLab, that gave consumers the ability to request make-up samples through their Alexa or Google Assistant devices – tapping into the insight about how the Covid-19 outbreak has changed the way consumers sample and shop for beauty products. 

Above all, I’m reminded that we are part of an amazingly resilient, resourceful and talented industry. 

So, perhaps I do have to question my understanding of the notion itself. We are on a constant cycle of day and night, however, there are glimmers of light around us all the time. What’s ahead of us? Well, I’m certain there will be a stronger, more united and diverse industry… something for us all to look forward to.

'Like a delicate ecosystem, we thrive when all of us are thriving'

By Clare Peters, deputy head of client sales, Channel 4

The best of times, the worst of times” – that’s how we sum up 2020 at Channel 4. 

There’s nothing clichéd about this year and next year isn’t about to get any more “typical”. But in strange times, great things happen. We unite. We adapt and we find our fight. 

Triumph out of adversity is something writ large in history and in many an advertising career, so while we’ve never experienced adversity quite like this, we know good things can come from bad times. 

TV has undoubtedly risen to the challenge – with viewing soaring and the power of TV to inform, connect and entertain proven. But it’s been tough. 2021 will bring an even bigger challenge that means the unique talent, creativity, ingenuity and damn right grit of this industry will need to continue to fire on all cylinders.

We will need each other

Having spent the majority of my career agency side, the “great industry divide” is something that’s not lost on me. What I’ve come to appreciate this year is how dependent we are on each other. Like a delicate ecosystem, we thrive when all of us are thriving. As the full might of the advertising industry begins to flourish again, the collaboration that got us here will continue to play a fundamental role. Keeping this industry vibrant, relevant, diverse and inclusive.

We will make decisions even faster 

2020 has given us a new speed and agility – our #ClapForOurCarers ad break takeover saw 39 advertisers unite to thank the NHS and was turned around in just three days. We’ve seen businesses switch to agile working and the ability to pivot to survive, keep afloat or capitalise has been staggering. Media owners acted swiftly across the board from cutting advanced booking (AB) deadlines to launching dedicated funds to help brands get on air. 

2021 looks like another year of fast decisions, and maybe some big and scary ones. We know now that change can deliver creatively and commercially and will continue to do so. The phrase “we can’t do that” will become something we will say less and mean less – we know businesses need to evolve to survive so expect to see much more of that in 2021.

We will stay more human

I have two cats and a puppy – they haven’t had as much screen time as me in 2020 but that isn’t without them trying! We have let our guards down as an industry this year. The “human” in what we do has never been more important. In an industry that has, quite rightly, focused a lot on data, algorithms and automation, we have been reminded of the value and need for the “human touch”.

Lastly, 2020 reminded us of something we already knew – this industry was built on brilliant people, with a passion for what they do and a unique ability to laugh their way through anything. That’s certainly not going anywhere in 2021 either. So, thank you 2020 and bring on 2021. We’ve got this.

'Marketing effectiveness will be more important than ever'

By Tim Pearson, chief executive, OMD Group UK

Effectiveness is a subject that is always high on the agenda – in 2021, it will be at the very top.

There is no need to dwell on the challenges of 2020, it’s over, and 2021 will be brighter and better. Media will be a vital lever for recovering that lost growth and realising those ambitions. All of which means marketing effectiveness will be more important than ever – putting every pound of investment where it makes the greatest difference and doing it in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation or the ability to take calculated risks.  

As an industry, we can rise to this challenge, and there’s no better time than 1 January to make a change. So here are my five resolutions for a more effective 2021.

Focus on the metrics that really matter

The digital revolution has given us access to more data than we could dream about. But in practice, some of it is a distraction from what helps our clients grow. This is the year to refresh that balanced scorecard, focusing on valuable indicators of growth and throwing out any vanity measures.

Use advanced techniques to get a better view of what’s going on

The past few years have quietly represented a step-change in measurement capabilities: big data got more useful and machine-learning and AI-driven methodologies became more productive, giving a quicker and more complete view of marketing performance.

Embrace these new methodologies but beware the lure of black-box systems. They have a role to play but with increased sophistication comes the need for greater levels of transparency.

Balance risk and reward

Communications is a low-risk investment. But we can play it too safe too often, and our instincts tell us that a global pandemic is no time to try new things. However, history tells us that disruption creates the perfect environment to embrace opportunities for higher return. So, make test-and-learn part of your culture and ring-fence budget to make bets on new channels, emerging audiences and innovative executions.

Rewrite your own rulebook

The basics of great marketing will remain the same once the pandemic has subsided – we’ll still need to think long and short term; use marketing to increase penetration and build loyalty. But it’s also the right time to take stock of your own campaign performance, challenge assumptions and develop a personal playbook of what drives growth.

Embrace the new developments that 2021 will bring

Next year will bring a surge of shoppable ad formats that will provide new opportunities for conversion and growth. We will also see new targeting and measurement solutions created as we prepare for the death of the third-party cookie. On top of that, key players in the market will evolve their cross-device measurement capabilities.

All of this will further demonstrate the important role media and advertising plays in our wider economy – an unquestionable source of pride for all of us in 2021.

'Events in 2021 offer excellent opportunity for growth'

By Bobby Din, investment partner, Goodstuff Communications

Our industry has long come to terms with the negative impact of Covid in 2020. Fortunately, the picture emerging in Q4 probably reflects the more optimistic of mid-year forecasts. 

The legacy of lockdown(s), from a media trading perspective, could be cause for optimism in 2021, and beyond, too. 

The industry has had to ditch dated trading practices and quickly adapt to shorter-term, nimble and flexible operations to meet evolving priorities and the needs of advertisers. 

The relaxation of broadcasters’ advanced booking deadlines is one of the most significant moves within this. It has given advertisers the ability to better manage cash flow and react on a more short-term basis – essential across this year but impossible to turn back from, surely? 

This increased flexibility has been embraced by all channels and I’d cite this as a rare positive to come out of the year.

Media agencies, in turn, could previously be accused of operating in ways that encouraged this stasis. Independent agencies have long placed flexibility and fast optimisation at the heart of their offering and in 2021 we could see some more major advertisers recognise that metrics for measuring value should incorporate this – thus accelerating even further growth for indies.   

Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that 2020 will decline by an estimated 17%. This is a £4bn loss to media owners and, for some, this will make their businesses unsustainable. This is true across all channels and leads to the inevitable conclusion that we’ll see further sales house consolidation and possible mergers and acquisitions. The out-of-home industry has suffered disproportionately, and it’s easy to see the rationale for the number of players reducing. 

Pressure on costs will compel accelerated adoption of machine-based trading, but the truth is it’s still in its relative infancy outside of pure-play digital. However, the undoubted tilt towards it (particularly in OOH) will mean agencies needing to step up the task of “reskilling” teams to meet the trend. 

Back on the brighter side, events in 2021 offer excellent opportunity for growth with several big, global sporting fixtures that should help. Sponsors will be keen to amplify their investments and younger, harder-to-reach audiences will be consuming more media, enticing more brands and money to market. 

In summary, we expect year-on-year growth will begin from Q2. While all channels will experience growth, broadcast and digital will combine to contribute more than 80% of the growth in volume terms. We’d all be overjoyed if the market recovered to approaching 2019 ad revenue levels, but our forecast is that it will be a little short of this with an anticipated growth of 14%.

Illustration: Ben Jennings