We’re In This Together: Pete Imwalle, RPA

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Which trends from 2020 will continue into the new year and which will not?

We believe that many of the trends that took shape in 2020 will continue into the future. Some will be necessities, and some will be customer/shopper/employee/user gains that people won’t want to give back.

From the customer point of view, convenience was the prevailing trend of 2020. Now that people have learned to work, shop, exercise, and consume content whenever and wherever they want, it will be very difficult to go back to former habits. Online shopping and e-commerce were the biggest winners. Even those resistant to online shopping developed the practice and muscle memory due to necessity. I think the other interesting development in commerce is how much major brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Best Buy, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Home Depot, leaned into online sales and mixed-environment shopping and sales. Customers could shop and order online and then pick up their purchases at a local store in an hour or two. Orders could be brought out to their cars or left in lockers for contactless pickup with digital keys sent to their phones.

The convenience trend extends deeply into exercise and entertainment. Warner Brothers released Wonder Woman 1984 and other major motion pictures directly to HBO Max. They have already announced that they’ll do the same for all 2021 theatrical releases. As home monitors and sound systems get better and better, moviegoers will increasingly become movie “stayers,” watching in the comfort and safety of home. Theater distribution and pricing is a business model ripe for disruption. Gyms are another potential casualty of 2020. Those who can afford them are now working out at home with Peleton, Mirror and NordicTrack equipment that is connecting trainers and users across the globe.

This convenience trend has some major momentum, and it favors larger businesses with logistics and infrastructure support. But it is also butting up against the desire people have to “buy local” and support local businesses. Is this the year that Shopify and Etsy really make a dent in Amazon, Walmart, and Target penetration?

Another trend that 2020 brought, and I don’t expect to go away, is the polarization of urban and rural areas. Urban and rural residents looked at COVID-19 and politics very differently.

In your opinion, what will 2021 look like for advertisers and agencies?

Our hope is that clients will maintain their attention to agency partners. 2020 deepened client-agency relationships, as both groups got out of the vortex of everyday projects and really worked together to understand evolving customer needs and manage messaging throughout. We hope for fewer seismic cultural events, which would allow some return to stability on messaging. Last year was frenetic due to brands shifting communications to account for the pandemic, social unrest, political divisiveness, etc., and while that ability to be nimble remains, the need will lessen.

Operationally, some of the adjustments we had to make in 2020 are sure to stay, such as working from home. Can anybody imagine the need to have all employees in the office from 9 to 5 every day? It almost seems silly how slavish we’ve been to that ritual. The flexible work environment has been a sandbox the industry has played in a bit, but few have committed to. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it also helped that the technology was finally ready for a distributed mass workforce. Our workflow and file storage has moved to the cloud. Mobile computing technology and accessible Internet bandwidth enabled a great deal of the migration from offices to homes. The real change has been the adoption of video conferencing as normal and effective when it used to be seen as a way to have meetings that didn’t merit flying across the country. It’s hard to replace the energy that comes from meeting in person, but we’re getting pretty good at it. Meetings are just meetings now. There are no more tech glitches than we had in an average corporate conference room. We’ve adapted.

Another thing that 2020 taught us is that we can do things faster and more lightly. Flexibility and agility are a really valuable skill set. For the past 20 years, as media and production dollars have migrated to digital, agencies have gotten bigger but, generally, less profitable. The labor has grown faster than the fees. Clients and agencies are both looking for ways to keep the costs from continuing to balloon. This year we discovered quite a few: smaller, more agile teams; less rent; fewer people on planes; lower entertainment and catering costs; and scaled-down production crews with more remote viewing. When it is safe to go back to the office, we’ll be more comfortable with all these “shortcuts.” The next development will be mixing in-person and teleconference environments more seamlessly. Zoom and Teams are great one-to-one-to-one. It’s a little less elegant when you have six people in a conference room, three people at home, two people in a hotel room, and eight people on a shoot. In another year, the tech and our behavior will solve for that, too.

After the last recession, cost-cutting measures were never abandoned when the economy recovered. We worked leaner and harder. The same will happen as we come of the pandemic. It will be gradual—especially since so many of our industries, like restaurants and travel, have been decimated.

What will your clients value most in the next 12 months?

I think the values we gravitated toward in 2020 will continue through 2021. Business and the economy aren’t likely to return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. There is still going to be some “we’re in this together,” especially in those relationships where the agency and client shared losses and challenges. Clients will still value integrity and trust, from partners that bring creative and media solutions that build business growth and profitability. They will always need deep and actionable customer insights, great creative, agility and speed, reporting, and analytics that demonstrate value.

What agency models and skills will emerge by 2022?

Trends will continue to favor bundled and full-service/holistic offerings. The need for creative and strategy to be intertwined with targeting and tracking is growing. Cost and speed are aided by “under-one-roof” models. This means more in-house creators for quick-turn production for social and online video needs that aren’t supported by deep and long media flights, as well as more ad hoc quick-strike customer listening and strategic evaluations. As the pandemic protocols changed this year, messaging was constantly evaluated and adjusted, a practice that will continue through most of 2021.

Finally, we can expect further adoption of marketing automation through creative management platforms as the gap between creative and data continues to narrow. The labor required to create custom messages for all the micro targets we can now easily reach is daunting. There is a huge opportunity for all forms of automation that aid in the development of media, creative and production for addressable and programmatic.

Operationally, agencies will be more flexible in allowing talent to work where they live, and during the hours they prefer. Curious Collaborators will still be the most valuable employees—those who work as a team but are never satisfied with the status quo.

As countries are entering lockdowns again and vaccines begin to roll out, how should brands look to resonate with consumers?

It really depends on the brands and categories. Those that can be a part of the solutions to the pandemic, even indirectly, can continue to lean in a little more heavily. Those that are just trying to continue doing business but aren’t directly impacted by the situation should be careful to avoid the overused messages of 2020: “We are all in this together,” “Unprecedented,” “Uncertain,” etc. Audiences notice when your spot makes it look like there is no pandemic, but they also notice when it’s all about the pandemic and your product or service doesn’t have an authentic connection with them.