Kip Voytek – Advertising 2020

Kip Voytek, SVP, MDC Partners

Answering “what will advertising look like in 2020” literally is a fun way to tune our crystal balls.  By 2020, much of the magic of advertising won’t look like anything – it will be invisible.

For decades, advertising has measured itself almost exclusively with images and tag lines.  By 2020, much of the “magic” of advertising will live in esoteric lines of code buried in software, button clicks, and algorithms.  The effectiveness of advertising will spring less frequently (not never, just less frequently) from our cultural acuity and storytelling skills and more from our ability to turn insights into code, prompt and measure tiny behaviors, and design algorithms.


The most prominent sign of advertising as code came from AdWeek when it dubbed Nike+ the “Digital Campaign of the Decade”.  Nike+ is a product – started as a physical object in a box with a price, built by dozens of engineers and designers. But we view it as a “campaign,” a brand-enhancer, that generates demand for and boosts the prestige (and price) of Nike products.  The Dominos Pizza Tracker, another celebrated advertising object – is also software, inspired by data and crafted largely by engineers.  After becoming the 4th largest commerce platform on the internet, it became the center of an actual ad campaign.  By 2020, lines of code bundled as software, doing things that customers value but don’t “see,” and with shelf-lives of years instead of quarters, will be recognized as powerful and efficient brand drivers.


According to research by Shopper Science consumers consult 10.4 sources of information before purchase – a sharp increase over previous years and one that’s expected to increase.  Shopping has moved from emotional response into research. Even for low-consideration items – pet food, soft drinks, diapers – research is the dominant and dominating activity in the purchase path.

At the heart of this research are button clicks:  sharing, blogging, tweeting, commenting, tagging, rating (and berating). These clicks validate opinions, spread them, and drive them to the top of search results – and they will be decisive in customer perception and decision-making. No amount of famous work can overcome a wave of negative comments, make true a claim that is demonstrably false – brands will live and die in these button clicks, supported by design and rooted in code. Getting these clicks right will be as important a skill to advertisers as tugging at the heartstrings or pumping the adrenaline of a TV viewer.


Algorithms are the parts of software that make decisions – lines of code that assess context and decide what pieces of content (ads, articles, links, other pieces of software) serve the customer and brand best. These algorithms are truly complex – Google has served ads they can’t explain, Amazon once priced a book about flies at $23 million. Algorithms are potentially dangerous, as we learned when brands talked to women about being pregnant before they’ve talked to their families.  (I imagine we’ve already outed men with ED as well, it’s just not getting as much press.)

Algorithms are the path to the marketing nirvana of right message + right place + right time (+ right price + right product + right geo + … + rightn). We can’t see algorithms, most of us can’t read the code that executes them – but we will be absolutely dependent on them for success.

Within our network, we have hundreds of engineers encoding business rules, customer segments, merchandising guidelines, and ad placement into algorithms.  But this is not a technology job.  Marketers of every discipline need to be involved in their formulation to determine brand behaviors such as transparency, automation, service, intrusiveness, and intimacy.

The invisible magic of advertising will be sad for some, but the nerds among us will embrace the onslaught of whiteboards – loaded with boxes and arrows, if-then statements, and even math – that will dominate our work day.

Most digital folks already groove on the invisible. Like Steve Jobs, we’re prouder of the stuff we took out than what we put in and obsess over tiny “back-end” details the way he obsessed over typography, plastic textures, and bezels.  John Maeda, a guru of digital design, writes about the importance of S/H/E – Shrinking, Hiding, Embodying – which emphasizes the way we tuck the real magic away to create the outward magic.

The move from sexy cultural objects to include subtle (dull), invisible moments of code will be a difficult shift in skills and culture.  Will we go to Cannes to collect algorithm awards?  Do we need to learn to code and invite developers to even more meetings?  Do we have to hit the books?

The answer to all of these questions is probably yes.  The industry needs to start awarding the invisible work, account execs and creatives need to stop throwing important decisions over the wall, because they involve “tech,” and we all need to become life-long learners of this space that shows no signs of settling into a steady state.

But this shouldn’t be daunting or even new to us.  Ad people regularly immerse themselves in new categories and brands as direct participants or amateur ethnographers.  A colleague of mine once took a job stocking shelves at a big box retailer as research for a pitch.  Two weekends, wearing a pinney and wielding a box-cutter … for a pitch!   Part of the joy of being in this business is the variety of people, products, and information we encounter.  Curiosity and exploration have been hallmarks of our best practitioners.  We just need to re-direct some of that energy to the invisible part of advertising.