2020 was a year of growing pains the industry needed

No matter how painfully and violently one door closes, another opens.

There really is no sugar coating it: 2020 sucked.

I won’t go through the litany of ways our lives have changed over the past 10 months, but I think we can all agree we miss human connection; we’re longing to travel and congregate; we’re still mourning the loss of our former “normal.”

But times of rapid, tumultuous change often give birth to periods of great innovation.

WWII led to the ubiquity of household items like the microwave. The dotcom bust disappointed at the time but its groundbreaking legacies included Google, Amazon and universal broadband internet access. The 2008 recession gave birth to brands such as Uber and Airbnb, which revolutionized the way we travel, move around and live our lives.

There’s no telling exactly how life will change as a result of the pandemic. But the trend lines on consumer habits like e-commerce and streaming are clear. The innovations we’ve achieved in healthcare are nothing short of astounding. Our national reckoning with racial injustice won’t soon be forgotten.

These are all trends we’ll carry with us into the next year and beyond, changes to our daily rhythms that will reset and reshape the way we live and work, the way we interact with each other and with brands.

I’m no blind optimist, but I think the advertising industry will emerge from this year leaner, more focused and more digital-centric than ever before.

2020 has brutally and painfully ripped the Band-Aid off a legacy business model that was festering like a wound. As a result, the unemployment crisis has laid carnage to the advertising industry at agencies, brands and media companies alike. At U.S. agencies specifically, 35,000 jobs will be lost this year, and 17,000 more will disappear in 2021.

But while our skin is still stinging, it’s starting to subside and heal into something more functional than it was before.

Instead of shying away from inevitable forces, agencies are embracing trends like automation and distributed, remote work. That’s led to a new crop of startups that make marketing services jobs accessible to more people — regardless of their background, skillset or location.

As Jacki Kelley, CEO of Dentsu in North America, put it: “We don't require people to be from New York City anymore. That can help us diversify our talent.”

This shift is also giving large global agencies and clients the confidence to embrace new ways of working. As newly minted McCann global president and CSO Suzanne Powers describes it: “There are moments when it is better to be together, and then there’s time when our specialists need to do what they need to do.”

Instead of sweeping systemic injustice under the rug, companies are making structural changes to the way they attract, retain and support talent. Agencies, brands and media owners are taking a cue from their employees, and allowing more female and BIPOC executives to rise up the ranks. Even agency recruiters are joining forces to make a change.

Brands are relinquishing offensive, racist logos. Creatives are making a concerted push around more inclusive advertising and imagery.

As Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of the 4As, wrote in an October op-ed in Campaign US: “DE&I is no longer a segment of the business. It must become integrated into every conversation, staffing plan and decision, from the top down.”

Instead of obfuscating processes to make an extra buck, agencies are embracing agility and transparency, and trying out new business models. The days of flying across the world for a short meeting now seem lavish and illogical with tools like Zoom and Slack — and we’ll be more efficient and productive for leaving some of those things behind.

Just like the 300,000 and counting Americans who have died from the virus, there will be business casualties as a result of these shifts. There have already been too many.

But no matter how painfully and violently one door closes, another opens.

Thank you for all of your support in 2020. I’m looking forward to opening the door numbered 2021 and exploring what lies beyond with you.

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