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Future of Media COVID-19 2020 Round-up

2020 round-up: The year in media - a news overhaul, adtech's reckoning & Disney+ explodes


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

December 17, 2020 | 11 min read

As we get ready to shake the dust off 2020, The Drum is rounding up some of the key stories, interviews and work that have shaped the year. Today, in lieu of our weekly Future of Media briefing, senior reporter John McCarthy recaps the biggest changes faced by media owners in 2020. For a regular dose of media insights and analysis, sign up to our regular newsletter here.

A year in media

This cursed year, we all consumed more media (and ads). What else was there to do?

This cursed year, we all consumed more media (and ads). What else was there to do? Many were confined to just four walls, so it was bye-bye to billboards, car radios went quiet, cinemas gathered dust and the Olympics and Euros were felled.

Instead, audiences leaned into gaming and magazine subscriptions enjoyed a surge.

News brands became invaluable and had an easier time trying to convince people to pay. Podcasts and radio provided the isolated with a connection to the outside world. Talk of Baby Yoda, Tiger King, Bake Off and Parasite offered relief from deadlines on Slack. Live video, from Twitch to Zoom, connected people.

And the best way to be social, well it was to get on social media.

The world basically shut overnight. The media we love was rocked, and the budgets funding it, locked up. Temporarily at least.

This year, The Drum probed media owners and buyers alike to contextualise these great many changes and explored whether there was any permanence to these shifts. Let's try to explain what happened in the next few hundred words.

News media

When the pandemic struck, newsrooms rediscovered their utility. One piece of advice stuck with me: 'Be helpful or prepare for the worst'. It was as true for brands as it was news brands.

BuzzFeed downsized – many in digital media did. But recovery was hinted at months later when it brought HuffPost into the fold in a deal that will also make former owned Verizon Media happy.

The BBC appointed experienced marketer Tim Davie as director-general to succeed Tony Hall. If the BBC addresses its image problem, its existential problems may well fade away.

CNN dumped branded content studio Great Big Story. The branded content sector was not spared the scythe despite it being heralded as the saviour of open journalism.

LadBible survived the period without any furloughs or redundancies and has plans to implement more e-commerce and affiliate marketing. Rivals like The Hook and suffered. And the Dodo was talking big about launching TV shows.

It's a fairly desirable space still, epitomised by Channel 4's big push into social branded content.

Dying magazines died faster, the winners swallowed up the rest. It was touch and go for a while. (While you’re here, buy The Drum magazine. It’s really good.)

Meanwhile, every social network doubled down on their courting of media budgets. Snap, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter and even Pinterest. While that was happening, many were probed on their policing of user-generated content, misinformation and hate speech isn't great when we have an unprecedented election, disease and civil unrest to navigate.

As the financial model of media strained, we saw huge surges of creatives to membership scheme Patreon. And top journalists talked a big game on Substack.

In mid-May, the chief revenue officer of the Washington Post told The Drum her “priority can’t be to sell advertising”. Judging by the analytics on that piece, this quote warned many that there were fallow months ahead. And she was right...


The fundamental flaws in adtech were exposed in 2020.

Blunt keyword blocklists, implemented in the name of brand safety demonetised coronavirus news, penalising publishers who were attracting record traffic.

The same was happening to coverage of racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Any publishers writing about the biggest issues facing us in 2020, may have found their revenue lighter than it had any right to be. Remember, experts couldn’t track where a huge chunk of adtech spend was actually going even before the pandemic.

Nonetheless, publishers as the gatekeepers of huge established audiences could still stand to profit.

Maybe. The Ozone Project, attracted the backing of the UK's top publishers for a three-fold expansion project. The industry finally appears to be addressing frequent complaints around scale and identity. It is far from alone going in this direction.


As TV ad demand sank, so did the price. Early into the pandemic was almost the perfect time to embrace the medium.

With the industry's income ravaged and production halted, broadcasters had no choice but to forge on and remove as much friction from the process as possible. Channel 4 was offering free use of in-house team 4Creative to help get production over the line.

On the + side, we saw a lot of services launch. Discovery+ was the latest to join an echelon of +s that includes Disney+, Apple TV Plus, ESPN Plus, Hulu Plus, Samsung TV Plus, BET Plus, Paramount Plus, and technically, I suppose, Sky+.

Disney+, in particular, is doing remarkably well, but if content is king, and Disney owns all the content then, it couldn’t fail right?

A moment of silence for Quibi, a dream that didn’t work, from the man behind Dreamworks.

Twitch talked a big game, gaming and livestreaming was up. And with Zoom, everyone was basically a streamer.

Out of Home

Oh. How we all longed to get out of home. The OOH industry faced an existential crisis and longed for us too.

America didn’t slow down as much as the rest of us said Posterscope’s boss… but there’s pain ahead there. Public transport inventory suffered, but roadside generally rose. The car’s back in fashion for now.

Global Media, Europe’s largest radio company, took the time to upskill and retrain its sales team to build campaigns across soon-to-burgeon digital out of home and digital audio categories (yes that includes podcasts).

Meanwhile, its rivals at Bauer Radio dubbed it the year of the ‘digital petri dish’, an expression so good I made it the headline.

Out of home bosses were frank about the dark period. Many just got their heads down and cooked up new digital buying platforms and cool executions for freshly-installed digital screens. We covered some of our favourite new executions just recently, if you’re curious.

Media agencies

The top media agencies had to be agile (same old story). Marketers weren’t actually sure where they should spend, this column should convey the shifting sands if nothing else.

Havas Media UK’s Patrick Affleck said this period may have jolted marketers awake from a “dumb period”.

The Economist’s Rebecca McKinlay, urged agencies to lean into a specialism and be the best. It’s going to be tough for the generalists.

In fact, it might be tough for everyone. GroupM gave us a sniff at what we can expect ad budgets to look like in 2021. It’s not as much as we’d like, but it’s enough to work with.

In the interest of brevity (too late), let's leave it there. But if this isn’t comprehensive enough, have a scroll back through our Future of Media reports to see the year in a snapshot.

Future of Media COVID-19 2020 Round-up

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