Seven trends to drive UK ad industry forwards in 2021

Focus must be on positive change after virus disruption.

Making predictions during a pandemic is difficult. 

Forecasters were surprised that the coronavirus advertising slump of 2020 was not as bad as initially feared, thanks to big increases in media consumption and ecommerce. 

So we should be hopeful but also cautious about predictions for a strong rebound in 2021.

The first few weeks of January have been wearily similar to last year, as we are back in lockdown – like being stuck in “treacle”, one agency boss says, speaking from home. 

But we know how to work from home, and advertising production shoots have been allowed to continue, unlike during the first lockdown.

Last week’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was also a feelgood moment that signals a reset – not only for the US but for all those, including in newly Brexited Britain, who believe in the importance of globalisation, collaboration and inclusion.

Here are seven trends that we can expect to dominate in 2021:

Ecommerce will keep booming

Online shopping has been the saviour of many businesses during lockdown and is good for the ad industry because brands need to advertise to drive sales, build their brands and collect customer data.

News that Boohoo is to buy the Debenhams brand and that Asos is looking to acquire the assets of Topshop owner Arcadia emphasises how digital brands are in the ascendancy.

Customer experience forces integration

Digital customer experience was already central for many brands but the pandemic underlined the need for a joined-up approach that integrates creative, media, content, data, ecommerce, customer relationship management and technology.

Innovation and speed have risen up the priority list, as customer habits are changing rapidly (and, in some cases, permanently).

Expect more big brands to reorganise their agency relationships and integrate their communications, marketing and data activities, as Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) did last year, or to run consolidated creative and media pitches simultaneously, as Coca-Cola is doing.

More media consumption requires more content production

We have been spending more time online and watching and streaming video and gaming, which means there are more customer touchpoints that brands need to manage.

This is about much more than paid media as brands invest in owned platforms, including apps, websites and social media channels, to communicate and sell directly to customers, especially as website cookies on third-party sites are being phased out.

Recent pitches involving BMW, Mondelez, GSK and Visa show the growing importance of fast-turnaround digital content production – as opposed to just big-brand, creative storytelling.

It can seem like “invisible work”, as one agency strategy chief admits, but it is booming. Unilever’s content studio, U-Studio, increased content production 40% last year.

Agencies are reinventing

Many of the legacy agency groups were struggling to adapt before the pandemic and had to take drastic action at the start of the crisis but, arguably, they start 2021 in better shape.

They have sped up efforts to simplify and digitise their operations, and there is anecdotal evidence that client satisfaction and net promoter scores increased during Covid-19. 

What’s more, customer experience, commerce and technology services are more predictable and stable than campaign and project-based work.

All of this disruption has been a catalyst for an exciting wave of creative agency and content studio start-ups to emerge. 

Improving diversity, equality and inclusion

The Black Lives Matter movement went global after the killing of George Floyd. The first anniversary of this in May 2021 will be a moment of reckoning, because companies will need to demonstrate the progress they have made in the previous 12 months.

Collecting diversity data on employees is essential, because that can help to drive progress in many areas, including recruitment, pay, training, promotions and education.

WBA made diversity of agency teams a scoring criterion in its recent review and Unilever has committed to increase the number of people from diverse backgrounds in front of and behind the camera in its ads.

The PPA, which represents magazine publishers, is conducting an industry-wide diversity census this spring and other trade bodies are planning similar efforts. 

There needs to be more openness, transparency and collective will.

More responsible advertising

Donald Trump’s support for the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol finally prompted Twitter and Facebook to suspend his accounts but last year’s “Stop hate for profit” boycott by some brands had already raised the stakes for these ad-funded platforms.

The threat of regulation hangs over many parts of the advertising ecosystem, including online harms, real-time bidding and foods high in fat, salt or sugar.

Big advertisers and platforms need to demonstrate greater responsibility and self-restraint when it comes to ad bombardment, brand safety and advertising context, and privacy.

Less office space, less travel, more remote working

Some elements of remote working will continue long after the pandemic. WPP expects a 20% drop in office space and a one-third fall in travel costs. That will improve profit margins for many companies and could improve the environment.

However, remote working comes with risks, including the impact on company culture, learning and career progression, mental health and family well-being.

It levels the playing field in some ways, by theoretically allowing talent to compete from anywhere, but it will also encourage companies to move jobs – not just away from London to the regions but also offshore to cheaper locations.

The UK has been a global advertising leader but the speed of change and the fallout from Brexit mean greater progress is required.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief of Campaign

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