A reason to be cheerful: things can only get better

19 Dec 2016  |  Dominic Mills 
A reason to be cheerful: things can only get better

Adland in 2017: onwards and upwards?

Looking back on adland in 2016 last week I found myself taking a fairly dystopian view of events. To cheer everybody up, not least myself, I promised to find reasons to be cheerful for 2017. And then the mind just went blank. Thank goodness then for some of the industry's luminaries. When I asked for help, they dug deep and came up with plenty of causes for optimism.

Indeed, that indefatigable optimism, that ability to find light when others see only gloom, is a defining characteristic about adland, and one of the things I love about the people.

Some reasons, it must be said, are based on the observation that, in certain areas, we've reached rock bottom and the only way is up.

With a couple of exceptions, my helpers asked for anonymity. So my thanks to them. They know who they are.

Here we go...

1. Marketers hold their nerve

Despite Brexit and general uncertainty, marketing budgets look secure. The latest Ad Association forecast showed continuing growth, albeit at a marginally slower pace. That's a lot better than the doomsday scenarios predicted in late June.

Richard Robinson, managing partner of Oystercatchers, says he's seeing a lot of exciting briefs coming through for agencies. In part, he says, this is due to the Brexit backdraft - marketers can't stick their heads under the duvet and hope it will all go away - and part to the growing tide of populism. "Populism will disintermediate everything from voting to buying. Brands that go with the flow will win. The ones that stay mute will die," he says.

2. Price pressure means branding matters

Longer-term, sterling-induced price pressure - remember the Marmite skirmish should force brands to defend market share with better brand advertising that reinforces their price differentials. Sure, they can go down the promo or bogof route, but that way lies death by a thousand cuts.

If anyone wants an example of elegant advertising that celebrates the price premium, they should recall Stella Artois's 'reassuringly expensive' campaigns. They dropped them, and look at Stella now.

3. "Mad as hell"

In the film Network, a disgruntled US TV newscaster (actor Peter Finch) asks his viewers to vent their dissatisfaction by simultaneously shouting "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore". They do (today, they'd do it on Facebook or Twitter).

Substitute the ANA and other advertiser bodies for Peter Finch, and CMOs for the viewers. The target of their ire will be the media agencies, or more specifically the holding company-level group buying operations. Expect to see more reviews focused on transparency and accountability, both financial and operational.

4. No getting away with nonsense...

It's a source of continual frustration to the grown-ups in the industry that the likes of YouTube and Facebook have been able to peddle half-truths and misinformation (hmm, there seems to be a theme here in the wider world) in the pursuit of even more advertising pounds and dollars without being subject to proper evaluation.

No more. Facebook's serial missteps - read this brilliant Mark Ritson column - have revealed the idol has feet of clay.

This will result in far greater levels of scrutiny applied to the digital giants. Their claims to be open and accountable will be properly tested. In fact, irony of ironies, they will be subjected to almost the same levels of scrutiny as the media they are happily pinching budget share from.

5. ...As long as agencies hold them to account

Ok, points 4 and 5 go hand in hand. Despite all the issues with digital - viewability, fraud, adblocking, opacity, measurement, aka the Digital Horsemen of the Apocalypse - money has continued to flood in. How does this paradox work? It wouldn't in any other media.

As part of increasing advertiser focus on their media budgets, agencies won't be allowed to get away with shovelling money away in this manner anymore. The result: they will be forced to account for their actions, and increasingly, to explain any conflicts of interest.

6. Teenagers will grow up

Someone at the Guardian once compared the digital giants to clumsy teenagers, blundering around without much idea of the destruction they leave in their wake. Think of YouTube's crass attempts to knock TV.

No more. They'll grow up and become more responsible, functioning, members of society. At Brandcast, YouTube made an indirect apology - which is the best place to start. Next year, expect to see it and Facebook cosy up to Thinkbox and Barb. Full association is out of the question, but some form of courtship will occur. And, who knows, we may even see the 'mainstream media' stop writing stories about the death of TV.

7. Illumination, not propaganda

My thanks to Denise Turner of Newsworks, and a judge for the Media Research Awards, for pointing this out. One of the weapons in the vicious battle for ad pounds is media-owner research - or at least stuff that genuinely illuminates rather than tells us the bleedin' obvious.

As a result, we see a lot of good stuff around, stuff that properly adds to the industry's collective understanding. I predict even more. That can only be a good thing.

Here's the shortlist for 2017. It's dominated by media owners - with a few media agencies that also see research as a key weapon. There's no pure-play digital outfit in the list. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

8. Creatives walk tall

Thanks to Laurence Green, founding partner of 101, for his perspective on the Accenture purchase of Karmarama.

"The scientists," he says, "are placing a big bet on the power of artists".

They certainly are, and we can expect more of this. For all the focus on the science of data analysis and insight, this is a timely reminder that you still need creative skills to turn that into something memorable and impactful.

The deal should make all creatives, who have maybe been feeling under-appreciated, walk just that little bit taller.

Nor can I believe that Accenture's rivals - IBM, Deloitte, E&Y - will allow it to gain competitive advantage through such a deal. They'll follow suit, which is good news for creative-led independents.

9. Diverse in its talents

Diversity in adland comes in all shapes and sizes. But it is indisputably here to stay, given a shove in the right direction by IPA President Tom Knox's agenda.

Agencies will continue to do good work, whether taking a more progressive approach to recruitment, or producing ads that reflect it. Two that stood out this year were from Lloyds Bank featuring a gay marriage including - double bonus - a black man, and the wonderful Maltesers 'hand shandy' ad (below) that made us reframe how we look at disabled people.

10. A new model - a bit like the old model

There are signs that, from both sides, agencies and clients are opening up to new business models. In some ways - moving creative and media together - such as Havas or VCCP Media (the latter appointing Marie Oldham to sit between the creative and media arms) is a nod to the past.

Others, such as Omnicom's launch of Hearts and Sciences and its cost-plus-results unit to run McDonald's media business suggest a new way forward. Historically, the agency world has always talked a good game about new business models without ever doing much. This time feels different.

11. Trust and context

This may be wishful thinking on my part - although nowhere near as wishful as point 12 - but I wonder if the spotlight currently shining on 'post-truthism' post Trump, Brexit and, well, almost everything else, doesn't play into good things for the ad industry overall.

First, unlike fake news, advertising is regulated and, relatively speaking, inherently trustworthy. People may not like it, it may be intrusive, but it is fundamentally true. You may not trust the content on your screen, but at least you can trust the ads. Perhaps the cycle of decline for trust in brands will reverse.

Second, the rise of fake news will highlight those providers of real news - i.e. quality providers such as newsbrands. Over time, audiences will return.

12. The Mighty Whites

If you've stayed with me thus far, please allow me an indulgence. The Mighty Whites, aka Fulham, have been rising, far from inexorably, but slowly and painfully up the Sky Bet Championship table. Today they sit 9th, which doesn't sound great but is just four points off the play-offs.

It's a hell of a lot better than the past two seasons, and they're scoring hatfuls of goals. Following Fulham turns you into a professional miserabilist and invariably affects my Monday morning column.

No more. As of 2017 Mills on Monday will be a cheerier place. COYW.

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Mark Barber, Planning Director, Radiocentre on 19 Dec 2016
“If you think your Mondays are bad, you want to try supporting Charlton.”

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