Changing fortunes and power grabs

J. Walter Thompson's new global CEO offers his predictions for the year ahead

What did Roosevelt say? The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. That’s also quite a Latin spirit. Brands have got to be bold, brave and fast right now because the future is coming quicker than ever. As marketers, we’re facing the same challenges that many brands do: volatile economies, fickle public opinion, an increasingly empowered consumer who is seizing control of the conversation.

People now expect engagement on their own terms, and they do not believe everything they read — so brands have to be totally spotless. Brands need their agencies to help them navigate this new reality. But what they need changes every day.

As we begin 2015, foremost on my mind as the global CEO of the J. Walter Thompson Company is how we're going to service those needs in every city in the world — because that’s the other thing. America is no longer the center of the universe. Brands and strategies are increasingly global, requiring a 24/7 workday and the ability to create strategies that are as relevant in Colombia as the Eurozone. Global and local simultaneously.

Here's what I think will be driving the industry’s changing needs over the next 12 months.

1. Consumers will grow more powerful, and smart brands will help them do it. Every day, consumers are claiming more control, more say over how — or if — they will interact with your brand. Everyone now has the power to create their own universe, tuning channels in and out, creating content as readily as they consume it. These people are decisive, empowered and far less influenced by brands than previous generations. If they don’t genuinely connect with a brand, they're simply not going to engage with it. My four kids (the youngest is 11, and the oldest is in college) prove this to me every day.

That's why smart brands will make it their business to provide exactly the content the consumer wants at precisely the moment she wants it, but also sprinkle in surprise and serendipity. That means being always on, creative, relevant to consumer needs and reliably transparent. We need to own the brand, to stick to our

DNA and be honest with consumers. To forge those genuine connections, brands will have to be something the consumer chooses to spend time with. A story earned is a penny saved. Brands should tell useful stories and engage audiences, in an unfiltered way, earning consumers’ attention.

2. Data will be at the center of everything we do (and that'll boost creativity). Data is like Panettone: Only once it's available do people decide they need it. Five years ago, clients were not particularly obsessed with data. But now with feedback flowing from every channel and platform, their appetite has been unleashed. This year, data will be at the center of everything we do. Hard data that tells brands how to behave, where to focus resources and how to maximize R.O.I. Because now we have the tools to measure these things, and the clients have come to expect it.

Big data will result in better creative, too, because we know what works and why.

We will gain deeper insights that inspire grand ideas. We will understand more so we can connect more closely. Data is the key to engaging with the public over and over again.

3. The acquisition market will grow even more competitive. As client needs expand in new and unexpected directions, and agencies vie to pick up a greater share of client work, competition to acquire smaller players will continue to heat up. At J. Walter Thompson Company, we enter 2015 with mobile and content at the top of our priority list. So there will be fights, and not just among our competitors; private equity companies and the Googles of this world will be fighting just as hard to scoop up the brightest talent.

4. Europe will struggle. North America will thrive. As an economist, it's amazing to observe all the change occurring on the global stage. Even if Greece doesn't exit the Eurozone, Europe will is headed for a down year. The Euro, already weakening in comparison to the dollar, will fall dramatically, and new political parties across the continent will renew their threats to abandon the Central European Bank. The U.K. notwithstanding, Europe's prognosis is a roadmap for low consumption.

But North America is on the upswing. In just the past three quarters, employment has risen, oil prices have fallen thanks to plentiful natural gas and the dollar has gained strength. As Sir Martin Sorrell recently noted, Brand U.S.A. is reclaiming its allure. Along with China, which is low down but still growing, expect the U.S.

to serve as a pillar of global strength in 2015.

5. One way or another, mobile will be the driver of change.

WhatsApp, an instant messaging service that most people over 40 have never heard of, just passed 700 million users — up from 600 million five months ago.

Subscribers — 70% of whom use the app daily — send 30 billion messages a day.

As George Anders recently noted in Forbes, it took Christianity 19 centuries to reach those kinds of numbers. WhatsApp was founded in 2009.

We all know smartphones are changing our lives, but none of us knows where this is all headed. The freedom to text, email, share content, FaceTime, buy stuff and play games anywhere, anytime has rapidly become second nature. Every day new apps and capabilities arise.

Who knows what we'll take for granted 12 months from now? Maybe you haven't even heard of it yet.

Gustavo Martinez is global chief executive officer of the J. Walter Thompson Company.

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