If there’s one thing January is going to bring, other than short-lived resolutions and questionable weather, it’s predictions about the year ahead.
The year of Amazon, of the influencer, of customers taking back control, of ‘human data strategy’… in the last few weeks, at The Drum we have heard it all. Which is why we sat down with some industry experts for our annual Predictions Breakfast, held at Ogilvy, to peer into our crystal ball and discuss some of the bigger issues and opportunities facing agencies and brands in 2019.
Associate editor Sonoo Singh led the debate alongside James Sharman, VP of sales at influencer specialist Buzzoole; Blockchain expert and Fenestra managing director Marco Ricci; Epiphany’s director of SEO Meghan Burton and Ben McInerney, acting head of innovation at media agency Wavemaker. Here’s what’s keeping them up at night.
Just three days after Google was slapped with a £44m fine by the French data regulator CNIL for ‘lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding ads personalisation’, McInerney suggested that brands are finally understanding that they can’t sit in a ‘grey area’ when it comes to protecting their customer data.
“Last year we had a lot of clients get in touch who weren't sure on the laws. When GDPR itself came into effect, there was a lot of grey area. I think now, with Google getting such a massive fine, people are less likely to sit in that area. More brands are abiding by the regulations.”
“It's time to seriously wake up,” says Sharman. “Regardless of the industry, businesses need to value the importance of protecting data.”
How much of a ripple effect will the Google fine have? With more brands taking work in-house to address issues of privacy and transparency, will agencies feel the brunt?
According to Ricci, the impact will certainly be felt. “This [Google fine] is happening at the same time as the FBI investigations in the US - subpoenas and potential jail terms for people involved in dodgy dealings. That won't just impact the holding groups that are under investigation, it will affect entire industries. If an advertiser scale is looking at advertising and thinking 'I can't trust this' - it will affect entire sectors.”
“Going after Google is so visible and so obvious,” added Burton. “You need to know what you are doing with your data. If you don't, the backlash could, and will, be immense for agencies and brands.”
It’s impossible to talk about transparency, and particularly transparency in influencer marketing, without referencing Fyre Festival. Recently the subject of documentaries on Netflix and Hulu, Fyre Festival showed the true extent of the ‘insta-sham’ model.
A learning from the Fyre disaster is that influencers shouldn't be representing brands just for the money. “They should actively be using those brands or enjoy those experiences,” says Sharman. “It’s OK if influencers work with multiple brands because people in the real world like multiple brands.It's how people buy and shop. Use technology to see real influence, detect any suspicious behaviour like fake followers and fraudulent engagements and make an informed selection.”
For Ricci, blockchain technology can help provide a solution to a lack of transparency across the industry. According to him it’s desperately needed, stating that ‘within three years, ad fraud will overtake the drug trade as the most lucrative crime in the world’.
“Ad fraud is a real problem. At DEMEXCO last year, not one supplier booth or stand had the word 'trust' written on it. That is a sign of the times. If the trust keeps dying, auditors will become the agency killer by telling clients they can't trust their agency.
“Blockchain helps bring everything into the light, to achieve a singular voice of truth, an ID that runs from the advertiser right through to the end publisher and everything in between. Everyone is recording the same impression count, the same cost. Without it, everyone is blind and that's the real problem.”
“If you want to follow the money, blockchain can provide a solution for that.”
Despite predictions that Voice is set to take over, only 4% of retail purchases are made through voice devices. The majority of questions are either about the weather, to play music, or by kids asking for jokes and funny noises.
“People aren't familiar with repetitive use of voice,” says McInerney. “Before people feel comfortable purchasing products, they need to feel comfortable with the platform itself.”
Getting into the habit of using voice technology isn’t easy when the device is often restricted to just one or two rooms in the house (83% of voice devices living in the living room or the kitchen). However, both Google and Amazon are investing in this area significantly; Amazon have commissioned deals with car manufacturers to build Alexa into the car software, and with Sony to build it into TVs. CES also recently showcased ‘Smart Mirrors’, where you could re-order products like make-up and toothpaste, while in the bathroom.
But according to Burton, we’re still a way off from truly integrating Voice into people’s lives. “It's like in the beginning with apps - people were asking what's the difference between an app and a website I can just go to on my phone? We have obviously figured out what we can do that's different with apps. We haven't got to that stage with Voice yet.”
“It’s more than a shiny fad – but it's not making people's lives easier to its full extent yet,” agreed McInerney. “If I can ask the question 'is my train on time?' - that's only helpful if the voice device knows that I've asked the question, and not my fiancé, because we take different trains to work, and we leave at different times. As you get better personalisation and devices knowing our preferences, they will get smarter with their answers, and genuinely make our lives easier. It won’t just be a novelty effect.”
When talking about technology it can be easy to lose sight of the one essential element that enables it to go from ‘shiny fad’ to engrained behaviour. People.
“We need some form of human touch to things,” says Ricci. “If we make everything automated, too much control is taken away from the consumer. We need to be a little careful of human vs machine.”
An example of this is the ongoing debate around the future of the high street, and eCommerce going up against bricks and mortar stores. One isn’t there to ‘kill off’ the other – people in reality, want both at different times and for different things.
As a consumer I think a lot about where I go and what I use physical retail and eCommerce for,” says Sharman. “There is a huge difference. The world of physical retail, the future of that is very much with experiences. If you are buying a razor you've been using it for the last 20 years, you probably don’t need an experience to buy it. It comes down to the sector. Not everyone needs to be trying to do the same thing. People want choice.”
For Burton, user experience should be the priority over technology for the sake of it. “The main goal is to make it as easy as possible for customers to choose you. If you don’t – why should they bother? We have a wealth of choice at the moment, and people are easily frustrated. Focus on user experience and that will guide what technology to invest in. Think about how people move through your website, how people move through your store. Focus on the people that buy from you, talk about you, come back to you. That’s the best way to make the most of the spend you have.”
Get it together, or risk losing it all
If the panellists agreed on one thing for 2019, it’s that we are on a ‘train to transparency land’.
Demand for transparency and openness is only going to increase. “It's a bit like saying 'it's the year of mobile' saying it's the year of transparency” says Ricci.
“2019 will be the year of regulation and I don't just mean from a GDPR / Google point of view - everyone is going to get their shit in order, otherwise they will lose their jobs. Which isn’t a bad thing – we need to have a little more trust flying around the industry.”
In Sharman’s words – 2019 might just be the year for ‘actions, not words’. He called it the “year of growing up.”