The year 2020 threw everything it had at us. But the time for playing defense is over. In 2021, it’s time to switch to offense.
That doesn’t mean going back to normal, because normal doesn’t exist anymore—and the critical shifts are about far more than COVID-19. And 2021 won't be like years in the past, where you could just open last year’s plan and "file save as” with a few modest tweaks. If there was ever a "file create new” moment, this is it.
Two major shifts have become so normal that it’s easy to forget how utterly extraordinary they are.
First, our entire existence is now online. The ad-supported internet has been keeping the world connected, working and in touch with family and friends. This impacts everything: entertainment and communication, news and information, workspaces and personal spaces, retail and consumer experiences. And being digital citizens comes with responsibilities as well as obligations.
Second, the leap to a fully digital species has accelerated the rise of disruptive, direct-to-consumer brands. The way brands are born, thrive and die is being fundamentally changed. How people discover brands, how loyalty is built, where and how advertising happens and where and how people buy are all changing.
Although we need to be ready for anything in 2021, I make these 10 predictions for the new year:
2021 will be the year of first-party data
Preparing for a world with no cookies or third-party identifiers has gone from hugely important to red-alert urgent. The smartest publishers, agencies and brands in the industry are racing to build first-party data capabilities. Those who take a wait-and-see approach might find they don’t have a 2022 to plan for.
Streaming will soar as linear continues to erode
Outside of sports, all signs point to us living in a streaming world. The battle for streaming superiority has already seen the major media players investing billions on incredible content featuring incredible talent. The battle does face an upper limit: Households will not be able to afford to subscribe to it all—and this is actually a great thing for advertisers. Free ad-supported TV (FAST) will be a major factor in streaming’s future. In 2020 we saw streaming buoy the digital ad sector. This will not slow in 2021. It will accelerate.
Shoppable media will disrupt stores
My colleague Randall Rothenberg said it best: “Stream your way to shoppability.” There is no doubt that virtual engagements are replacing stores. Media and advertising increasingly will focus on driving participation in these events. Successful publishers, brands, retail brands and experience providers will partner to promote and fulfill live experiences, and to enable live shopping directly within the experience.
D&I will shift from check-box items for HR to real initiatives with real funding
In this entirely new context, nothing will be more valuable than fresh thinking and the ability to view challenges and opportunities from multiple points of view. Leveraging everyone’s talent and creativity isn’t just the morally right thing to do, it’s vital to success. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard.
Attention spans will become even more fleeting
The consumer ad experience will be critical to retaining and engaging audiences. If there’s one thing publishers should be focused on in 2021, it’s recognizing that in a world where there are unlimited choices for news and entertainment, it's all about the ideal consumer experience. Content is abundant; experience is the differentiator.
Cross-device measurement makes a quantum leap
This will be the year we stop quibbling about the minutiae and align on core principles to enable true cross-device reach, frequency and attribution. Finally.
“Below the line” marketing will flood into digital channels
With 30% of all retail sales now taking place in digital stores and brands now commanding stronger direct relationships with their consumers, the importance of trade promotions will decline. The power of the authentic, social, influential brand will rise. The new “end aisle display” and “shelf placement” are moving from physical to digital. This is really important for big CPG companies who have built powerful competencies in physical retail and now need to adjust.
Gaming and esports will continue to grow
Gaming is already a huge industry and will continue to grow. Audiences love sports, and they’ll adjust and love them in whatever form and flavor they come in. There’s a huge opportunity for brands, publishers and everyone else across the ecosystem in gaming and esports, and our next phase of growth will include these in a big way.
Consumer privacy and the tech sector will top legislative agendas
We are likely heading into a year of legislation unlike anything we have seen. Our top priority is to work with Congress to introduce and pass a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind nationwide privacy reform bill.
Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra will both be right
Nobody’s sure whether it was Niels or Yogi who said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen—and not just what we expect.
I’m excited about the year ahead, about shifting our mindset to offense, and not letting the past dictate our next phase of growth. Change is good, and my final prediction is that we’ll look back on 2021 as a year when we set the stage for the future.
Let’s do this.