This is the fourth and final post in a series based upon our submission to Wharton’s Advertising 2020 initiative. The structure we’re loosely following here: 8 years, 8 potential future opportunities, 8 things to do now.

Previous instalments in the series are available here: Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3.


#7 Big Data, Big Patterns

“No thought can perish” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

“There is no point in collecting and storing all this data if the algorithms are not able to find useful patterns and insights in the data,” says Mr. Kleinberg at Cornell. “But the software is scaling up to the task.” ~ New York Times, 09.09.12, ‘Tech’s new wave, driven by data’

According to Gartner earlier this year, the hype curve for Big Data reached ‘The Peak of Inflated Expectations’ (with an estimated 2-5 year gap before it reaches the ‘Plateau of Productivity’). The accuracy of that timeframe has been debated, perhaps fairly when we consider the exponential growth in speed and volume of data collection and analysis and the collapsing path to purchase that we’ve discussed already here.

In advertising, it seems only likely that algorithms will continue to do more of the commoditised, heavy lifting for brands and their users in terms of achieving reach, frequency and low level message optimisation. And, in monetisation terms, successful media owners will have recast themselves as data owners. To take just one example, The Weather Channel’s CEO, David Kenny, described to us how he sees the growing commercial role of data:

“We see data as a huge weapon for a marketer’s arsenal. We can already slice and dice data in virtually limitless, privacy-friendly ways to accurately target consumers, and that will continue to be refined and strengthened in the future…Retailers use our data to know what to put on sale this weekend, travel companies use our data to manage their yield and to know which locations will be most popular this week, insurance companies use our data to anticipate needs and make their messages relevant, food and restaurants can predict tastes and volume with local weather data, etc. Unlike most data, we do not just share history, we predict the future with increasing accuracy.  So, data is the backbone of our audience promise and is also increasingly accessed and used by the advertisers.”

Understanding the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom will define who succeeds in this context. Gorging on data won’t be enough, marketers will need to focus on finding patterns in the data and, more than ever, the skill will be in deciding which opportunity to back in a sea of potential. We won’t just value this in an algorithm, we’ll value this in the people asking the right questions in the first place. In that sense, nothing will change.

What will change? Undeniably there will be less wastage in advertising spend terms, as we’ve touched on earlier in this series. It’s also possible that a spike in privacy anxiety around our data will have been reached and passed by 2020. As facial recognition technology improves, the choices surrounding our anonymity online appear to shrink, but it’s equally possible that society will have found ways to deal with this. Businesses and brands will need to come to terms with the fact we may well have moved past an era of data collected and sold. The recent cookie law in Europe is a low level attempt to wrestle some control back into the hands of users. In future, will savvy users take ownership of their own data, able to sell it to the highest bidder?

Whatever happens, advertising is likely to be centre stage, as Jennifer Chayes, who leads the new Microsoft Research Lab in NYC, notes:

“A lot of the Big Data questions are being driven by the fact that the a lot of high-tech business models have to do with ads. There’s tons of creativity around this, but there’s also always a question of what’s going to fund all of these new products and all of these new initiatives. A lot of that is centered on ads.”

One thing to do now: prepare for faster feedback loops

Within the advertising industry, much faster, data-driven decisions are already the norm, from Real-Time Bidding (for a decent explanation of the evolving RTB ecosystem check out Econsultancy’s here) to on-the-fly course corrections in terms of messaging and behaviour. Whilst we’re all for leaning in and enjoying the ride towards greater efficiency, one word of caution: let’s not leap to make real-time, instant decisions on truly ground-breaking initiatives, where early audience reactions aren’t always an indicator of future performance. Let’s pause before we press delete. And we should remember to listen to the nuances of actual customer interactions, not just crunch the numbers. Even Big Data needs a human layer.

#8 Expect a Creative Renaissance

“It was inevitable that meaning would force its way back in” ~ Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Sometimes in marketing, it can feel – however nimble and agile the team – as if we’re still hand-building cars, when the future is more akin to a 21st century, virtual equivalent of Henry Ford’s mass production assembly line. The truth is, we believe this algorithmically-driven future represents a huge opportunity; a chance to free our minds, a chance for a renaissance in commercial creativity. Finally, metaphorically speaking, we get jetpacks.

So advertising will have responded to a new technological and media reality, sure, but in 2020 what do we expect advertising really to be like? Not in format, but in meaning?

Certainly, a rash of new challenges and opportunities will have emerged, raising new questions. Ranging from the profound to the opportunistic, these new questions will be the things advertisers should pay particular attention to, certainly more than the infinite, shiny new platforms and ad formats that undoubtedly will be available. We know the best advertising does so much more than mirror the surface of contemporary culture: it finds new ways to slice straight through to the truth of what’s troubling or inspiring us, revealing a brand’s purpose along the way. It’s this that earns attention and loyalty. We doubt that will change.

Beneath the smooth, data-driven, automated level, a churning layer will continue to exist where reputations are debated and forged. Our industry tends to focus on how technological innovation drives relentlessly towards simplicity, but I would argue technology is starting to enable something a lot more interesting than that; as Matt Heiman puts it (Founder, Diagonal View):

“The thicker the pipe, the more emotion gets in.”

In short, humanity will have kicked back in. And with that – assuming we continue on the technological trajectory we’re on – the opportunity to create truly memorable and powerful experiences only will have grown.

One thing to do now: foster Renaissance (wo)men

Naturally the human condition dictates we’re distracted, magpie-like, by the transient, the shiny and the brand new (it’s not hard to imagine future brands and agencies experimenting with the 2020 equivalent of hologram-based pop stars and the latest gadgetry, and using them to tell stories). And of course we find it just as hard to escape our own filter bubbles, serving up the same stuff day in, day out. It takes a conscious effort to broaden our horizons at a more profound level.

To get beyond all of this, our industry needs to find and foster Renaissance men and women. People with a built-in, burning desire to learn continuously, to create, to collaborate and experiment, to see the infinite possibilities in the world around them. The trick is to keep stepping outside the borders of our own geographic cultureskeep thinking broader, keep pushing for something different, keep pushing for something better.


With grateful thanks for their input to: Tom Uglow (Google), David Kenny (Weather Channel), Greg Andersen and Jim Carroll, Saneel Radia, Matthew Kershaw, Agathe Guerrier, Jeremy Ettinghausen, Helen Lawrence (at BBH & BBH Labs).

Many thanks also to Sid Russell in BBH Design for the title design.

Part 1:

#1 Marketing as Profit Centre, Not Cost

Part 2

#2 Everything is Connected: The Rise of the Networked Brand
#3 Mobile Ubiquity

Part 3

#4 Everyone’s a Producer
#5 Content Marketing: brands as content owners & partners
#6 Win-win-win Platforms

Part 4

#7 Big Data, Big Patterns
#8 Expect a Creative Renaissance