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David Pidgeon 

The Year Ahead: can we have a bit more fun?

The Year Ahead: can we have a bit more fun?

This week Mediatel hosted its annual January kick start - the Year Ahead; a review of the year gone by followed by forecasts and hopes for the future.

Now in its twelfth year - and hosted at The London Waldorf Hilton (after humble beginnings in a Fleet Street pub) - the Year Ahead brings together senior and influential media professionals to network, before panellists and selected guests share their views.

In a shake-up of tradition (so-long, Ray Snoddy and Torin Douglas), this year's all-new panel included Mediatel’s Editor-at-Large, Dominic Mills, alongside Caroline Foster Kenny, CEO, IPG Mediabrands; Jan Gooding, Chair of PAMCo and Chair of Stonewall; and Karen Stacey CEO, Digital Cinema Media.

And with a new Mediatel CEO for 2020, chairing duties were assigned for the first time to Greg Grimmer, with Derek Jones - now executive chairman of the business - watching from the wings.

You can read what the panel thought of 2019 in this article - which includes their favourite media moments, disasters, personalities and companies.

We also have a video (just below) with panellists and guests giving their 'media hopes' for the coming year and beyond.

In this overview, we'll look at some of the top highlights of what was a diverse discussion about 2020.

Judging the mood

Mediatel Group CEO Greg Grimmer

It's a strange and turbulent time to be alive, and the world's many problems were all noted by the panel. Climate change, dirty politics, fakery on a mass-scale, a decline in trust throughout society - there's no shortage of difficult issues.

But there's only so much adland should worry about, argues Dominic Mills.

"My hope is that 2020 will be the year in which adland gets back to doing what it does best; which is producing great and fun advertising that entertains the nation and does it alongside good and responsible media owners.

"I also hope it stops pretending that it needs to change the world, and focuses instead on changing products and services for the better."

Indeed, as Caroline Foster Kenny said, a new year is also the right time to end the "constant self-flagellation", and try to become more positive about the change heading the industry's way.

But more than that, the panel, and many in the audience too, just wanted to get the fun back.

"We want more fun in publishing, more fun in outdoor, and audio and in every media. That is the clear message and theme. We should try and entertain people more."

Transparency and trust

ISBA DG Phil Smith

A major theme to sober the mood, however, was the ongoing debate around transparency - a nagging headache still felt from 2016's bombshell ANA report into media business practices.

Holding companies have been "quite slow and painful" in addressing transparency, said audience member Tina Fegent, a marketing procurement consultant, so what is the outlook for 2020?

Foster Kenny, in keeping with her mantra of maintaining a positive outlook, said a "huge amount of progress" had actually been made since 2016.

"Certainly major progress just in understanding the issues, bringing in specialisms and boosting accountability - but yes, there is still more to do."

Collectively, she said, the industry has created a complex business model. That means it is "fundamentally necessary" to be more transparent and to be held accountable.

IPG Mediabrands' UK CEO Caroline Foster Kenny

"It remains a critical issue, and it still comes up a lot in pitching. But in our experience, it is less of an issue day-to-day."

However, speaking for the client side with experience working for major brands including BT, British Gas and Aviva, Jan Gooding said she "always despairs at how hopeless clients are; they're not interested enough."

It remains incumbent on clients to demand and scrutinise more, Gooding said. "I really do urge brand owners to be a lot more interested."

However Phil Smith, director general of ISBA, representing the UK's largest brands, argued from the audience that although more must be done in the coming year, it was "wrong to generalise too much" and top brands tended to be very media savvy these days. However, he admitted there was an issue in the long-tail.

Smith also noted the industry should remain worried about transparency in the digital supply chain, so he welcomes the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO)'s investigation of real-time-bidding on the programmatic open exchange.

Indeed, the ICO had done such a good job, Dominic Mills - to some laughter, but it was a fair point - named the body his 'media company of the year'.

A confident outlook

Alex DeGroote

Analyst and consultant Alex DeGroote, who delivered an economic outlook for 2020, said all the indicators suggested the global economy will show signs of modest recovery in 2020/1 to around 3% year-on-year.

However, the UK and Europe will remain "below par", at around 1% growth (while India is the world's highest growth economy).

DeGroote highlighted climate change, geopolitics, and a less ordered world as some of the big structural changes to frame economic analysis (with obvious nods to Brexit and the upcoming US election too).

Despite these issues, however, there was still cause for general optimism in the UK - although it was too early to tell if the 'Boris bounce' was to happen - with business confidence in the economy leaping to its highest level for more than three years following the Conservatives' election win.

Indeed, for the first time since spring 2018, firms are optimistic about the economic outlook, with a key confidence measure swinging into positive territory and hitting 21% in December, up from -18% in November 2019.

Quantitative easing remains "pretty loose" in the West, meaning interest rates remain low, money is being printed and asset price inflation remains "intact".

Globally, advertising has enjoyed uninterrupted growth and this has gone hand in hand with continuous tech innovation - from iPhone to bitcoin, or Netflix to Uber.

Twitter UK's MD Dara Nasr

"A decade of continuous growth may not feel real, but it's being largely fuelled by social and to a lesser extent emerging market growth," DeGroote said.

"So while the outlook for the macro economy might feel a little subdued, the amount of innovation taking place within the media sector is staggering and will be ongoing. There are legitimate grounds too that we'll experience a 'Boris bounce', and thereafter whether we get a hard or soft Brexit. But lots of ground to be optimistic."

For those in the room, this was enough to start 2020 with a spring in their step.

"The future is rosy," said Twitter UK's MD Dara Nasr in one of the closing statements. "And the more we can do together would be better.

"We're also up for more collaboration to help fix issues online, and we definitely support having more fun along the way."

So in a nutshell, what words should define the year ahead?

The panel told us: ethics, context, climate, Alexa ...and, of course, fun.

2020 Panel

Jan Gooding, Chair of Stonewall and Mediatel News columnist // Caroline Foster Kenny, EMEA CEO, IPG Mediabrands // Karen Stacey, CEO, Digital Cinema Media // Dominic Mills, Editor-at-Large, Mediatel News // Greg Grimmer, CEO, Mediatel Group (chair)

Don't miss our next event: The Future of Brands Wednesday 5 February 2020

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