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The biggest media trends of 2015

This year saw unprecedented change in media and advertising, with a surge in media pitches, revamped social media platforms, and a rise in programmatic trading. Since ad blocking has taken the world by storm, brands and advertisers have ramped up their game to develop more engaging ads to halt its mass adoption.

Marketers from the likes of Unilever, Coca-Cola and Adidas talked up the need to think and treat media more like a publisher and act less like traditional advertising merely churning out messages. Consequently, the focus is (slowly but surely) moving away from display ads and on to native advertising.

This has compounded the battle for content budgets. Instead of spending money on traditional ads, brands are increasingly dealing directly with specialists like publishers and production agencies when previously agencies acted as the middle man for such relationships. Agencies haven't been best pleased with the change and many set up content divisions of their own in order to show they're capable of producing more than just ads.

As the year progressed, publishing companies used native advertising in a much more sophisticated way. From the Guardian to Vice, publishers worked with advertisers more closely than before to create excellent articles, videos and posts in their own right. An example is when Netflix collaborated with the New York Times in ‘Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work’ to market their series ‘Orange is the New Black’ through an exposé on the challenges women and their families face in prison. The piece is authentic; the collaboration with a brand is clear, so readers do not feel duped, but the promotion also compliments the feature rather than disrupting it.

2015 also saw the rise of social media companies hosting content over traditional publishers, with the inception of Apple News, Facebook instant articles, Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages, and most recently Twitter Moments. The problem with these companies being at the forefront of new media is that more content is housed within their own walled gardens, which leaves publishers with a conundrum; do they sacrifice traffic to these social networks in order to further the reach of their own content or do they rely on their own commmercial models to help recaliberate to the ubiquty of mobile consumption. It's a problem media owners need to handle with caution, considering 63 per cent of all Facebook and Twitter users get their news from within those platforms - a number which is substantially increasing year on year.

For social networks, better content gives users more reason to stay within them longer and that's good news for its ad business. The use of advertising within social networks has grown exponentially over the year, with platforms such as Snapchat, Pinterest and Instagram jumping on the content advertising bandwagon.

Instagram is a huge mobile ad platform with more than 400 million monthly users, while Snapchat and Pinterest both have more than 100 million monthly users as of November 2015.

The growing pressure on these platforms to make a profit was brought into sharp focus when Instagram opened its doors to all advertisers. Previously, the photo-editing app had imposed strict measures on what brands could use its ad tools but now that arsenal is available globally for all businesses, big and small.

Elsewhere, Pinterest launched ‘Promoted Pins’ allowing businesses to finely tune their targeting and ensure ads appeared in the most relevant places, while Snapchat created vertical video ads, which they claim has nine times higher completion rate for users compared to horizontal mobile video. On the social platforms businesses are able to promote their content to a highly engaged audience in a creative, immersive and personal environment, making it easier to drive action with their ads.

Moving further away from traditional advertising, 2015 also marked the continued rise of programmatic trading to compete with the rest of the media mix. UK programmatic ad spend is set to surpass £2bn in the UK in 2016, according to eMarketer numbers. To capitalise on this surge both Google and Facebook bolstered their Doubleclick and Atlas tech stacks.

This year also saw the ongoing rise of independent ad tech offerings like WPP's Xaxis, plus AppNexus, the latter of which claims it is a more transparent alternative to both Google and Facebook.

This raises the most pertinent point with programmatic media trading; transparency. Businesses do not necessarily know where their ads are being displayed, since the trading is automated rather than manually placed by media buyers. The market is geared around economies of scale rather than relevancy to the brand.

The rise of programmatic also saw the emergence of publisher cooperatives, or alliances, as one of the key trends in the UK digital media scene this year. UK-based publisher collective Pangaea - formed by The Guardian, FT, CNN International, The Economist and Reuters - was soon followed by the announcement of the AOP-led equivalent Symmachia - representing Dennis Publishing, Telegraph Media Group, plus Time Inc. The ad tech that powers the alliances; AppNexus and Rubicon Project, have heralded the alliance model as an alternative way for premium publishers to confront the threat posed by scaled global players like Facebook and Google when it comes to media spend.

The alliances mark the first time UK publishers have united their inventory to provide a scalable way of selling using ad tech, with the aim of building a premium brand building solution, rather than just a cost-effective one, as well as offering a brand-safe environment.

All media trends this year; from programmatic to content, mobile video to in-app ads tied in some way to the biggest obstacle thrown at brands, agencies and publishers this year - ad blocking. Apple lit the touchpaper on ad blocking after allowing users to install ad blocking software on their Apple devices. When users block ads, businesses can no longer make money from the ad slots they have bought online. It is bad news for brands as well, as their content is being blocked.

Ad blocking was estimated to cost publishers nearly £15 billion in 2015, with 198 million active adblock users around the world. Ad blocking grew by 41 percent in the last 12 months.

Intrusive ad formats are an influencing factor in the growing popularity of the software; one in two people are less likely to block ads if it does not interfere with the content they are trying to consume. As well as the disruptiveness of ads, a large factor that influenced the need for, and subsequent popularity in ad blocking software is the amount of data and power ads use on mobile. On average, apps with commercial videos and interstitial marketing used 79 per cent more data than those without, as well as 16 per cent more battery power. More than half of all data on news websites comes from ads.

Publishers are reacting to this threat in many ways; MailOnline admitted one of the benefits of encouraging readers to access its content from its apps is that they were out of the danger zone because (for now at least) ad blockers don't work on in-app ads. Meanwhile, City AM became the first media outlet in the UK to stop people using ad blockers from viewing content on its website.

The positive that has come from ad blocking is advertisers have been forced to consider more engaging ads that prevent the need for ad blocking in the first place.

The rise of ad blocking and programmatic becoming more integral to advertising strategies were driving factors in this year’s ‘Mediapalooza’; the unprecedented wave of media pitches that stormed 2015. This year has seen more advertisers than ever before assess their ad spending, often by offering advertising contracts out in a competitive bidding process.

Over a sixth month period this year, many of the world’s biggest spending advertisers reviewed their media agencies, triggering a chain reaction which US magazine Adweek dubbed ‘Mediapalooza 2015’. Global accounts that were pitched out included those for Unilever, P&G, J&J, General Mills, VW, L’Oreal, Sony, 21st Century Fox, VISA, Coca-Cola and Citibank. A total of $25bn in media money was up for grabs.

The media pitches were decided based on agencies' ability to provide technology, data or content, according to WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell. The advertising executive told analysts in October that senior marketers have been judging his agencies on those three key areas.

Featured by The Drum