Unprecedented, uncertain, unpredictable: All the “un” words we could have imagined have been used to describe 2020. It’s not that these words are wrong—overused maybe—but they are both completely appropriate and somehow totally inadequate to put into words this singular year. 2020 is a year that has literally changed the way we live, work and interact with the outside world.
While we could look back and analyze what has happened, it seems like now is a moment to look forward and try to begin to make some sense of where we are going. With that in mind the editorial team at Higher Order reached out to some of the smartest people we know to do a little prognosticating on what might be coming next.
While we like to take comfort in the clear demarcation of calendar years, our world and lives have become increasingly fluid. One year spills into the next with little change; momentum ebbs and flows. That said, everyone wants 2020 to be over as soon as possible. Simply not seeing those four numbers strung together will provide a sense of collective relief. The trend I see that will fuel marketing—and society, in general, in 2021—is Social Nearing.
Brands, business owners, consumers, governments, families and friends will spend a good deal of thought and effort navigating how, when and at what pace to come together again after 10 months of being told to keep their distance. Social Nearing is as much psychological and emotional as it is physical and will dominate the year ahead.
—Mark Fisher, President & Creative Director, Plum14
Empathy will be critical. Coming out of the year we’ve all just experienced, my hope is that we continue to show empathy to each other, both as humans and as brands. Let’s meet friends, family members, co-workers and consumers where they are. Let’s support them and listen rather than telling them what they should be doing and how they should be feeling. We can turn our listening into genuine and authentic ways of meeting their needs.
—Inga Grote-Ebbs, Brand Director, FIFCO USA
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the future is not promised. Doubly optimistic because, if we can survive the last 10 months, we’ve demonstrated significant mettle. I’ve had business challenges I’ve never even considered in 7 years of running an agency. I can draw on those reserves of strength and knowledge in tough times moving forward. My team feels cohesive and battle-tested.
A major change that will last, I think is a large part of the workforce will not want to work in person anymore. I think it will seem wasteful to have in-person human interaction, from a time-management and cost perspective. To me, those are negatives. I like the collaboration and camaraderie. I like hosting clients for lunch or a big meeting. I like the speed and efficiency of real-time interaction. Travel can be a fun part of the job and a great bonding experience for co-workers and clients alike. So I’ll be curious how those attitudes and practices evolve.
On the positive side, I think consumers (and, subsequently, clients trying to sell to those consumers) are getting comfortable with – or even prefer – more down-and-dirty DIY production. Bigger budget stuff is being seen by some clients as oddly inauthentic and artificial. So for a boutique agency like ours, I think this aesthetic shift levels the playing field a bit, and will allow us to compete for clients that were previously more exclusive to large traditional agencies.
—Tim Cawley, Chief Creative Officer, Founder, HeyLet’sGo!
The first significant scaled disruption of the three industries (education, finance and health care) that account for over a third of US GDP due to post-COVID Experience Mindsets combined with the rise of Third Connected Age Technologies (AI, 5G, Cloud and Voice/AR/VR).
These three massive industries suck in significant capital and assets and are so friction-filled and rent-seeking that post-COVID they will be wracked, with some companies wrecked by change.
Education whose inner emptiness has been seen by parents, students in real time as the classes came home and the pedagogy was found wanting especially given the sums being sucked from payers.
Finance that accounts for 11% of GDP whose friction-filled ways and fee- grabbing for no clear benefit will be hacked by the Robin Hoods, Lemonades and Robo-Everything.
Health care, whose spaghettiness of complexity and tortoise-speed process, where for every doctor or nurse there are five administrators, will meet an overstretched government and patients who realize with the COVID vaccines that a bit of urgency and focused incentives can accelerate progress.
—Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Growth Officer, Publicis Groupe
After a wild 2020, I’m truly optimistic about the opportunity and growth to come all around in 2021. In a more specific digital sense, we’re going to begin to see a seismic shift in the SEO landscape, which I’m excited to see. One of the most prominent changes coming in the future that will impact the SEO of every website will take place on the Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP.) While Google attempts to accomplish their ever-improving goal of enhancing the user experience, look to see them find ways to get users answers even quicker, like showing multiple “snippets” on the results page. This could end up changing the prospect for display ads and blogs in a big way.
—Zack DeAngelis, Digital Marketing Manager, Iron Smoke Distillery
Here’s what I’m thinking about next year FWIW: In 2021, we cannot move forward without acknowledging the pain and loss of 2020. It’ll be important to recognize trauma and the impact of this year on our collective mental health. Emotional triggers are high, people are exhausted, and we are all ready to put this year behind us. We need hope, badly. But it must be real. Upbeat “shiny happy people” won’t resonate with any audience of 2021. We are a changed people. Many have hit rock bottom and struggled back up. Resilience matters, in messaging across every platform. Community matters. Humanity. Vulnerability. Storytelling will be more important as we’re looking for deep connections and meaning-making.
—Meaghan de Chateauvieux, President and CEO, Willow Domestic Violence Center
Looking back, 2020 was a year of foundational transformation. It uncovered every hole and every opportunity for companies playing the long game versus those playing the short. For us, our offering evolved, ready for the next challenge. I’m excited to take the learnings and pivots of this year into an incredible next year.
AR will be everywhere. It is truly just beginning to catch on in the mainstream, but COVID has accelerated its true uses in entertainment, advertising and retail experiences. This will be the first year where I can see digital-consumer buying journeys beginning to shift into the future state.
—Aaron Gordon, Executive Producer & Founder, Optic Sky
It’s an AND world now. This year, the outside world had to find its way to us in ways that we would never have expected in the past. Takeout from your favorite restaurant, cocktails delivered on a Friday night, and curbside pickup of everything from groceries to clothes changed the way we shop. Ecommerce experienced 5 years of innovation and growth in the last 8 months, and there will be no going back. As consumers, we will want to go out when we want to, and, after these many long months of quarantine, people will want to. But we’re also going to expect our favorite places, brands and activities to come to us when we want to stay in. The controversial decision by Warner Bros. to release all their feature films on their streaming service HBO Max at the same day as they come out in theaters is an acknowledgement of the new consumer reality. Disney followed suit with an investors meeting focused largely on the content they are bringing to their streaming service Disney +, with the feature films as a secondary focus. Consumers want brands and businesses to come to them when they want and be out in the world for them when they don’t.
—Joshua Coon, Experience Director, Truth Collective
Going into 2021, I’m feeling hopeful that there will be less burden placed on people, families, communities, businesses and the world. I’m hopeful that through all the transitions we will make in 2021 that I never lose sight of all there is for me to be thankful for – my health, my family (and their health), a job I love, etc.
Though 2020 has been a beast, I’m appreciative of how we’ve been forced to pressure-test some ways of working and ways of thinking (even while hating why we’ve needed to do that.) One topic I’ve been thinking a lot about is the balance between data and insights. Certainly not a new idea, but one that has felt much more pertinent recently. Data is abundant, but marketing teams and business aren’t all using that data to understand and design for the most common and critical needs of customers. I’ll be pushing myself and others to extract the most important insight within and across sources to enhance a deep and broad understanding of people. We’ll need to do this with speed and empathy to continue to meet and exceed the expectation of customers.
—Sarah Landsman, VP, Customer Foundations, 84.51°/Kroger
Heading into 2021, I’m hopeful (even after the year many of us have had). I choose to believe that we can still call upon the best within ourselves and bring about the change we want to see. Inclusion is here to stay. And for many, it’s long overdue. Now, it’s up to ad agencies and brands to creatively inspire a new understanding of equity, fairness and opportunity. Will they rise to the challenge? The answer will be clear by the end of 2021.
—Shameka Brown, CEO, Certified Executive Coach, The Only One There
More walls will fall. I’m talking about the traditional, artificial walls that exist in the creative industry. 2020 has shown that bigger is not better, that awesome talent is not landlocked to NYC or LA, and that team culture matters. Independent companies may be tightening a belt here and there, but, in many ways, this is the time we’ve been waiting for.
The most significant trend will be toward honesty. We all watched our supposed “certainty” wash away like a sandcastle this year. Honesty toward professional relationships, colleagues and self. There’s no time for BS, and there’s no shortage of problems to be resolved. Honesty is here, and it’s always a two-way street.
— Bob Bailey, Chief Executive Officer, Founder, Truth Collective
The line between advertising and film has always been blurry (Think Reese’s Pieces in E.T.), but the documentary genre was historically guided by norms that producers disclose funders to avoid perceived conflicts of interest. Now, brands like HP and YETI are producing premium documentary short films that encourage viewers to connect emotionally with the brand, often without showing the product at all. In 2021, this approach will continue to reach smaller brands that in the past were reluctant to spend finite marketing dollars on videos whose ROI can be difficult to measure. Whereas most viewers skip paid ads, we seek out these films. It turns out consumers love great stories, and they don’t care who paid for them.
—Mike Bradley, Founder & Executive Producer, Big Slide Creative
The adage “Adapt and overcome” comes to mind when I think of 2021’s outlook. All brands just went through a massive litmus test for survivability. The companies that weathered the test will continue to make strides in controlling their own destiny and diversify offerings to minimize risk. Either going vertical, controlling as much of their value chain as they can, or horizontal, balancing brand performance based on customer access. Logistics, infrastructure and adaptiveness will be the differentiator and a major source of industry innovation that will push the world forward. I am looking forward to overcoming the challenges and getting creative in the now-more-than-ever competitive landscape.
—Dave Ferguson, CEO, Echo Victory, LLC
“This isn’t working.” I know its hip to be optimistic and to use big words while being optimistic, but I’ve spoken with hundreds of people this year, and I’d say the main theme is that the ideas they’ve bought into – careers, romance, democracy, capitalism – aren’t working. Depression, addiction, domestic violence, divorce, excessive alcohol consumption, loneliness, political indifference, distrust in our institutions, and unnecessary deaths are all up.
Many brands will try to revert to their “Truman Show” and “Stepford Wives” shallow parodies of advertising and hope they can distract people from what they feel deep down for a few more quarters. But the opportunity is to acknowledge the pain and to try to help people fix it, not just run from it.
—Mark Pollard, Strategy CEO, Mighty Jungle
As we think to 2021, I think the need for brands to relate to people on an empathetic level will be more important than ever. Being optimistic but not tone-deaf. Being inclusive, not in a check-the-box way, but in a genuine way that showcases a true respect for all people and their circumstances and experiences. Being present and available when needed, but not overwhelming and overly capitalistic. And then expertly shifting as the world shifts, emerging from the needs of love, comfort, safety, and protection to once again exploring, gaining a sense of freedom, achieving goals, and redefining what daily life looks like. Not forgetting all the lessons learned in 2020, but evolving because of them.
—Preeti Philip, Managing Director and Partner, SRG
It’s a shame that a pandemic had to happen to move specific industries forward, but there are a few positive benefits to the past year. More people work from home with their families and pets, favoring it to their regular office commute. In some ways, Coronavirus has sped up what we already knew via data. The national restaurant association predicted that by 2024, 70% of all restaurant meals would be eaten at home. Understandably, this statistic came into fruition four years ahead of schedule. I hope we can unify to a degree to fight the pandemic and nip it in the bud in 2021, keeping the more positive learnings from this year in mind while moving forward. Until then, it’s on us to use our buying power to support small businesses and creatives.
A trend I see sticking with us throughout 2021 and beyond is what I call the “home video” approach to social storytelling. COVID-19 has forced creators to make do with imperfections, given the inability to hire and work with large teams.
Whether it’s Shudder reinventing the found footage genre with its shot-in-quarantine movie “Host,” the charmingly lopsided Instagram feed of Phoebe Bridgers, or the self-edited videos of Kelly Stamps and Charli D’Amelio— creatives are diving into the low-fi and DIY. The results have been deeply personal and relatable. This aesthetic also dovetails nicely with algorithmic needs: organic growth requires daily uploads over highly produced infrequent posts. Some brands will dive into this trend headfirst. Others will have some difficulty posting what hasn’t been refined and wordsmithed.
—Raf Antonio, Content Strategist, Truth Collective
2021: the year of making change happen in diversity. If we’re not comfortable with being uncomfortable and making mistakes, how are we ever going to learn? If the ad industry practiced authenticity and transparency with owning where we’re at with our diversity numbers and what we plan to do about it, not only would we be more serious about actually effecting change, but people would respect us more.”
—Alexis M. Agosto, Director, Talent, Equity & Inclusion, 4A’s
Amongst all the frantic and draining elements of 2020, if we look really, really hard, people can find what matters most to them. In 2021, let’s focus on what brings us all JOY.
Not just being platitude pleasant; joy is a deep sense of flourishing, an appreciation of the contribution you make, the way doing good feels good.
Brands can help, of course, and so can business. After all, what is “business” but a group of people connected in achieving a common purpose. So focus on giving everyone you work with a sense of how they help, their role, and how it contributes to the bigger picture. And you’ll see how this “fluffy” emotion drives business impact. Joy is the new virus I’m hoping for in 2021.
—John Roberts, Chief Strategy Officer, Founder, Truth Collective
A special thanks to all our amazing contributors. We hope they inspire you to look forward to the new year honestly, with energy and passion. Let’s lift each other and make this new year about rebuilding better than ever before.