Don E. Schultz – What Will Advertising Be Like in 2020?

Don E. Schultz, Professor Emeritus in Service, The Medill School, Northwestern University

What will advertising be like in 2020?  If the past seven years are any indication, quite different from today.   In 2003, the world was just recovering from the “Internet Bubble” bust.  Facebook, Twitter, iPads and apps were still in the future. Marketer’s commitment to traditional mass media forms was still strong.  Agencies, both creative and media, were still critical to the process.

But, dramatic changes are occurring now and will continue into the future…most likely even greater than the ones just seen.

The trend lines are clear.  Interactive communication between buyers and sellers, customers and compatriots, channels and choices will grow.  Consumer’s information access and negotiating power will increase.  Today’s “Big Data” will be consumer, not marketer controlled.   Lines between media forms will continue to blur.  And, “advertising” as we have known it since the Industrial Age, particularly that delivered through various mass media forms, will become an increasingly hazy memory.  Fragmentation, specialization, re-orientation, all will rise while commonality will decline.

Yes, advertising will change, because the marketplace and the people who inhabit it will continue to change and evolve.

From Markets to Villages

The marketplace in 2020 will be much more a McLuhen-esque “global village” than a “Mad Men” “huckster haven”.   And advertising, which has always been about “selling” or “talking through a one-way channel” to unknown and, often uncaring, audiences will become increasingly unimportant.  It will matter little how much money traditional marketers, media and the associated support organizations want to throw at keeping “advertising” alive, the economic facts of life simply will not support it.

Advertising always worked best when customers were dumb….or lacked marketplace knowledge.  Those days are over.  With six keystrokes and in 0.02 of a second, the Google world is at the buyers command, instantly and electronically.  Knowledge, information, comparisons, contrasts, history…..whatever else is needed for a customer to make a purchasing decision is there.

Creativity simply cannot compete with information.  It’s not so much that advertising will no longer “work” as it is simply that it becomes a non-relevant economic fact of life…..why talk to a crowd when the buyer is right in front of you?  In short, the challenge is more “what can the seller say that will interest, inform or persuade buyers to buy or even consider” when the customer has the same or even better information, knowledge and resources than the seller?

From Persuasion to Reciprocity

With buyers and sellers on equal ground, persuasion is rapidly being replaced with negotiation.  The “showroom shopping” that Best-Buy and other mass market retailers are experiencing today is just the tip of the iceberg.  The marketplace is becoming a massive bazaar with haggling, either in person or electronically, the order of the day.  Give and take. Thrust and parry.  Posture and assuage until both parties believe they have found the value that meets their needs.  Make the deal and move on.  The traditional advertising approach of trying to implant some type of persuasive message in the consumer’s mind will occur through a multitude of means, some individual and specific, some from the marketer, but, increasingly from friends, associates, recommenders and influencers.  The traditional :30 television commercial or a Tweeted comment from a celebrity pale in comparison to the massive number of customer-accessed resources available.

From Talking to Listening

Traditionally, advertising has been about talking.  Getting a point of view across.  Making a point.  Leaving an impression.  Advertisers talk, customers are supposed to listen.  That has always been the way of advertising.

By 2020, however, advertiser talking will be replaced by advertiser listening.  Hearing what the customer is saying will be more important than trying to devise a break-through creative idea.  Answering customer questions.  Filling customer needs.  Right now, not tomorrow. Being responsive to customer requirements will replace the “tell and sell” history of advertising as we have known it for the past century.

We will increasingly live in a world of reciprocity….shared value where each party contributes and each party is rewarded.  No longer will the corporate motto “Leave no money on the table” be in play. To survive, the marketer must truly become “customer focused”, trying to generate some type of relationship so that customers become loyal and return for more, not because of clever packaging, jingles or catchy visuals, but simply because the seller is the best source of value for the buyer.

From Linear Models to Network Affiliations

One of the primary reasons advertising will change is that it is a linear model…..generally one way and outbound.  And, even when numerous media are included in the mix, advertising is still outbound.  What the advertiser wants to say, when the advertiser wants to say it.

That outbound control is dying.  Today, the world is networked.  Connected through continuously changing relationships and associations.  With advertising, there have always been clearly defined players.  Buyers, media, sellers.  But networks create continuously changing relationships that evolve, grow and erode as needs and requirements change.  The growth of interconnected and interrelated networks among people and organizations will create as much or more of the change in advertising than will the various new media technologies being developed.

Advertising, with its one way, out bound, marketer controlled forms and formats simply can’t continue in 2020.  It must change and it will change.  How quickly that will occur is not dependent on marketing and advertising organizations, but. on how quickly the consumer realizes and demands change.  Marketing and advertising organizations resist change because of the vested interests of the players involved.  Customers have no such restraints.  So, as customers change and demand new and better ways to live their lives, the changes in advertising will come, too….with most likely the most resistant players being the advertisers themselves.

What will advertising be like in 2020?  Only the customer can say.