Alex Steer

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Predicting the future of advertising: hits and misses

1939 words

Back in 2013, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study exploring what the future of advertising might look like in 2020. I wrote about it at the time, and did some basic and only-partially-scientific word distribution analysis to look at whether the language being used to describe advertising seven years in the future was significantly different from, or more diverse than, language used in predictions of advertising over the next twelve months. I found, at the time, that 'predictions about 2020' looked eerily similar to 'predictions about 2013', and wondered whether they were underestimating change.

Which brings us to today. While the study's website has not survived to 2020 (see its archive), this blog just about has. So now that 2020 is the present (and what a present it's turned out to be), I thought it would be worth revisiting that analysis.

First off, no, I'm not going to deduct any marks for failing to predict a pandemic. We're better than that. Instead, let's re-run the analysis, to see how 2013's predictions of 2020 vary from 2019's predictions of 2020.

To do this, we need a new data set. The old one was built from:

  • The raw text of all the 2020 predictions submitted to the Wharton programme - a total of 39,405 words.
  • The raw text of a set of 2013 predictions from industry sources I found at the end of 2012 - a total 33,041 words.

This time round, I've pulled together the raw text of a set of 2020 predictions from industry sources from the end of 2019 and January 2020 - a total of 37,422 words. As before, all are from reputable sources, mainly interviews/talking heads, appearing in the first two pages of Google search results for 2020 advertising predictions.

So here goes. The table below shows the top 20 words appearing in the 2013 predictions from 2012, the 2020 predictions from the Wharton study, and the 2020 predictions from 2019.

Rank2013 trends2020 predictions2020 trends

You can see the top 500 words/two-word phrases by frequency here (common stopwords and obvious noise removed).

So, from this rather partial analysis, how do the current concerns and buzzwords of marketers compare to what the Wharton participants talked about seven years ago?

The first and most obvious thing is the dominance of data as the single most talked-about thing - up from fifth place in the predictions about 2013, and up from 13th place in the Wharton 2020 predictions. This suggests that the Wharton predictions underestimated the persistence and prevalence of data even at the time, or perhaps assumed it would decline as a topic of conversation and become a solved problem. Clearly not. Digital, which even in 2013 may have felt like a term nearing retirement, has also moved up into the top five.

But beyond the dominance of data, what's interesting looking down the new top 20 list, and indeed the top 500, is how thoroughly the language of business and marketing has come to supplant the familiar language of the advertising industry. Advertising, which unsurprisingly was the most frequent word in the Wharton predictions, doesn't even make the top 20. In the new 2020 data, advertisers are in 27th place, and advertising in 29th. Communications is only the 483rd most common word. The same shift is visible in the movement up of customer(s) vs consumers, a subtle shift that may reflect the increasing dominance of direct marketing and CRM thinking vs the language and ideas of brand marketing. Agencies is in 195th place, on a level pegging with customer data. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the words companies and business are in the top twenty for 2020, as they were for 2013, since they are for the most part the funders of advertising... but they were not as well represented in the Wharton predictions.

There's some reassuring familiarity here too. Brands remain every bit as vital a part of the conversation as they were in 2013, much in line with the concerns of the Wharton respondents. This should act as a sense-check to those who persistently predict their demise. Media has hardly moved - though about a third of the usage is in the term social media.

What else was under-represented? Experience makes an appearance now, as does content, reflecting the new front line of concern for where brands show up and (rightly or wrongly) pushing advertising off its perch. Purpose is also a notable addition, but digging into the underlying text it is used in two different ways - the broad notion of brand purpose, on the one hand, and the nuanced and technical territory of data collection purpose(s), on the other - which concisely demonstrate the competing pressures on the modern marketing organisation, and the need to find a simplicity on the far side of so much complexity. The prevalence of human is exactly the cry for help that it appears to be.

Comparing the Wharton prediction text with the updated 2020 word list, what stands out? First, the extent to which the language used by the predictors back in 2013 suggests that they thought the future of advertising would be recognisably ad-like: advertising brands to consumers through media to achieve marketing goals, even while grappling with the changes and challenges of social, content, digital, data and mobile. These were the concerns of 2013 but (reading back through the original Wharton responses) they also came with a degree of confidence: that advertising was at heart a human discipline and that brands would adapt to a noisier, more democratised environment by learning to listen before they talked, and earning the right to be heard.

Little of that same confidence is found when listening to how we talk about 2020 now. Pandemics and downturns aside, there is a sense that advertising is a complex, technical, precarious and demanding discipline, using data to do digital marketing to customers of a business... while at the same time grasping for purpose and human connection for brands. The word social, aptly, is the 43rd most common word, just one step ahead of AI.

It sounds clever, it sounds complicated, it sounds like a high-wire act of technology, privacy and coordination.

It does not sound fun.

What feels like it's missing, between the data mines and the mountaintops of purpose, is any real discussion of how to create communications and experiences that people might actually enjoy. Or, indeed, how to get beyond the nuts and bolts of how to deliver advertising, to the trickier but more fulfilling question of how to get it to perform. The discourse of advertising feels like it has been been co-opted by those who profit by making advertising sound hard, rather than those who profit by making it look easy.

For all that complexity, there is little sense of progress. Looking back at the next-twelve-month predictions of marketers in 2012, it takes an attentive reader to notice that they are eight years old. Of the dominant concerns of 2012 - marketing, brands, content, social, data, mobile, consumers - only mobile seems like a solved problem.

Agencies may look at the language of the industry today and feel sidelined. They bear a share of the responsibility. By ignoring these problems of capability and coordination - by under-investing in or divesting expertise in data, technology, media, production, etc. - many agencies have left their clients to solve them. It's no wonder they have become preoccupations, and that new sources of help have been sought.

What's driving those preoccupations? Ultimately, I think, the increased difficulty of finding growth from markets, due to more diffuse demand, oversupply of good-enough products and services, more competition, and shifts in the mix of channels where people discover brands, research purchases and buy. Many of the foundations of the economy of mass markets, mass production and mass media have changed. These changes were well underway when the last set of predictions were made. The fundamentals of marketing have become less familiar, and harder, for many businesses.

What's been lost? Perhaps the optimism with which the future of advertising was talked about in those Wharton predictions - the sense that the challenges facing advertising's next decade would be social rather than technical, and that brands would respond by adapting the arts of persuasion to a noisier and more complex environment. Too little effort has been spent since on learning to communicate more effectively, compared to the effort spent on increasingly sophisticated marketing technology and operations. Worse, these have too often been treated as separate conversations - numbers on one side, words and pictures on the other. Agencies should have shown more interest in the mechanics and the maths.

Where next? I suspect that if we asked the industry to predict advertising in eight years' time, the results would just reflect today's preoccupations again, as they did eight years ago. To take that at face value would, I think, be a mistake. Many of the technical challenges of marketing, media and commerce are now well understood by marketers, technology companies and consultants, if not well enough by agencies. As we converge on solutions, the competitive advantage of having certain technology, and even of operating it in certain ways, will begin to decline again. The 'tech stack years' are, probably, drawing to a close. What will become more valuable is what can be done uniquely: this includes building strong brands and creating distinctive and powerful communications, but it also includes analysis, prediction and innovation based on the information a brand has about its consumers (or customers), the coordination of all marketing's assets to be more interesting and more effective.

A new golden age for agencies is far from guaranteed, but far from impossible. Those who succeed will be growth partners, finding advantage from all a brand's assets, mastering complexity rather than selling it or ignoring it, and making it all look easy again.

# Alex Steer (09/08/2020)