Tom Morton – Advertising 2020: A Point of View From Euro RSCG New York

Tom Morton, Chief Strategy Officer, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Futurology is a strategist’s opportunity to be both grand and wrong.  It’s too easy to extrapolate today’s trends in to the future without considering how those trends could burn out, spark off each other or even fragment.  My solution to answering the question was to talk with the people whose advertising careers will come of age around 2020: the millennials working across planning, analytics, user experience and social media; and ask them what they saw emerging.

Technology, unsurprisingly, emerges as the driving force behind advertising in 2020.  The ability to infer a person’s consumer habits from their media habits and serve messages accordingly is likely to be the goal of many brand owners and their advisors.  Meanwhile, the ability to make marketing decisions based on billions of data points of consumer behavior should shift advertising’s intelligence from the questionable lab conditions of claimed behavior research towards something more reality-based.

We call this the Smart Big Data Scenario: pioneered by IBM, powered by Google, championed by consultancies such as Accenture as they develop their marketing services offering.  The potent mix of objectivity, tech utopianism and powerful supporters means that this is likely to be the standard model of advertising in 2020.  Preparation for this future means restocking agencies and marketing departments with the equivalent of the Whiz Kids[1] who progressed from World War 2 Army statistics units to running Ford.  McKinsey estimates that the US workforce needs 1.5 million new data literate managers[2].  Advertising will need an unfair share of them.  And it will mean running entire organizations on data – a marketing monetary union where individual functions surrender their units of currency, from GRPs to Cannes Lions to IPSOS tests, in order to live by the dashboard.

Yet there are cracks in the Smart Big Data Scenario.  It requires a level of alignment and objectivity that many brand owners won’t live up to.  If your organization isn’t IBM in 2012, it probably won’t be in 2020. And it focuses on optimizing one variable: the more efficient targeting of messages.  That ignores the subjective but undeniable truth that many brands are built by capturing people’s imagination, not just by showing up on time and on message.  Optimizing advertising could make brands more similar[3], when the evidence is that brands grow by distinctiveness.[4]

And there has never been one model of advertising.  Historically the scientific advertising of Rosser Reeves jousted with the characterful humanity of Bill Bernbach. Today’s advertising industry looks very different viewed from a digital startup than from a holding company’s legacy agency.

Together this suggests that there will be alternatives that will share the future with the Smart Big Data Scenario.

Optimization leaves no room for breakthrough branding that built Axe and Dos Equis in to powerhouse brands.  And it leaves no room for the lateral minds that build brands on human truth and emotion: what Douglas Holt calls cultural branding and Adam Morgan calls challenger branding.  Many of the young minds in the creative industries won’t want to work in cultures that look more like Accenture than like Pixar – this is the scenario they will gravitate to. As data-led advertising takes care of more of the mainstream, we’ll call this the Boutique Spectacular Scenario.  Preparation for this scenario requires agencies to rebuild the culture of brilliance from the TV era for the digital era, holding companies to recognize the difference between their agencies of scale and agencies of spectacle, and for brand owners to consider a wider roster of agencies to supplement their day-to-day brand maintenance.

A more humanistic view of technology leads to the Usability Scenario.  As brands and media become more digital, usability becomes more important.  The data explosion that could target messages can also inform advertisers how to give customers more seamless, useful experiences.  Amazon, Instagram and Nike Fuel are poster children for the Usability Scenario.  The growth of CSR relates to this scenario.  Millennials favor brands with a sense of purpose[5]: baking that in to brands is a form of usability.  Preparing for the Usability Scenario means a new model for creativity, where design supplants narrative as the magic for engaging audiences.  Agencies will need to staff with designers, technologists and user experience specialists, creating an appealing mix of smarts and humility that will attract new talent to advertising.  Marketers will need to regain control of their products, as the product will replace the screen as the canvas on which they express their brands.

The same technology that powers the Smart Big Data Scenario will give rise to a less inspiring sibling.  Leaving aside creativity and audience preferences, big data lowers the cost of targeting messages, while media owners are tireless in finding further places and spaces in which to insert advertising.  So we’ll see a Dumb Over-Targeting Scenario, where brand and media owners will pursue consumers through emerging media channels with barrages of offers based on half-correct algorithms. To paraphrase Russell Davies, it will be a Blade Runner future, bought to you by Groupon.[6]

Preparation for Dumb Over-Targeting is already under way, as anyone who has been stalked by a cookie-powered ad for something they searched for months ago will tell you.  We should hope that consumer advocates prepare by campaigning against invasions of privacy, and brand owners remember the unwritten compact that consumers tolerate advertising when it is entertaining or useful.

While technology drives these future scenarios, humanity and organization will temper them.  They will move as fast as firms can adopt them.  Disruptors who embrace them early will have the advantage, and could topple incumbents, whether on Wall Street or Madison Avenue.  Clients and agencies alike are short of enlightened data analysts and visionary product designers.  The speed at which they can hire them and, crucially, hand authority over to them, will set the pace.  But we will see a multi-speed future, just as we see a multi-speed present.  IBM, Axe, Nike Fuel and Groupon’s 2020 successors will rub along together.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiz_Kids_(Ford)

[2] http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/technology_and_innovation/big_data_the_next_frontier_for_innovation

[3] http://bbh-labs.com/wind-tunnel-politics

[4] http://byronsharp.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/differentiation-vs-distinctiveness/

[5] http://www.prosumer-report.com/blog/2011/04/understanding-the-millennial-mindset/

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jan/02/25-predictions-25-years