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Media Media Planning and Buying Best of 2021

TV’s reinvention, virtual worlds and counting carbon: the biggest media stories of 2021


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

December 24, 2021 | 9 min read

As part of our Best of 2021 series, our journalists have been looking back at some of the biggest stories of the past 12 months. After a full year of weekly Future of Media columns, media editor John McCarthy recaps the biggest trends marketers should be across in 2022.


In 2021, digital made up 70p of every £1 spent on ad channels (AA/Warc UK). It was the fastest UK ad spend growth ever recorded (started in 1982) and included the 2008 recession. Next year, £30bn will be spent on ads in the UK.

On a global level, media owner ad revenue growth “surprised” GroupM’s Brian Wieser, especially with the economy being the worst since the Great Depression. The good news is the pie is growing. The bad news is that the usual suspects will suck it up.

The triopoly grows

Amazon’s share of the digital ad market is creeping up, thus forming a triopoly.

Media owners that are not Amazon, Google or Facebook fought over a 36% share of total digital ad spend in the US. The share will continue to decrease, even if the value of that share increases. It’s largely the same the world over – minus China, which plays by its own rules.

Retail media comes into its own

If Google won search and Facebook won social, then shoppable media appears to be the next growth zone – one that Amazon will be fighting traditional retailers for. VCCP’s head of retail Rob Sellers explained what this battleground will look like.

It’s clear that publishers and retailers alike will be looking to unlock the maximum value from their first-party data.

Understanding the metaverse virtual worlds

The ad world has just realized that millions of people game and visit virtual worlds – places they can be served ads and experiences and interact with things and probably buy them.

Many try to layer virtual headsets and NFTs into the metaverse vision. But let’s be real – we’ve spent a decade learning how to work a QR code and grandpa still can’t use the TV remote he’s owned for 20 years. The point is, everyone’s trying to put a stamp on the metaverse, but if the concept has friction, it’s dead.

What we currently call the metaverse isn’t that. But I’m enthused by the value marketers can create and the experiences they can provide in virtual worlds. I’ll point to John Lewis’s early experiments with ITV in Fortnite. We’ve a metaverse Deep Dive coming up in January.

Out-of-home is the canvas of creativity

When the luckiest of us were hiding at home in pajamas taking Zoom calls, desolate out-of-home sites the world over upgraded inventory. Smart digital screens can now serve reactive media in almost real-time.

Static media served as a fine canvas for tight copy and memorable ideas – but will marketers make the most of the vast possibilities of 3D virtual screens, full street takeovers or the ability to integrate with real worlds using AR and more?

The most exciting are the 3D billboard ads. People will go out of their way to see and share the best ones. Ads people want to see. Weird that!

We’ll be counting the carbon cost of media

Oh, you’re ‘sustainable’ are you? How much carbon did your media plan put into the atmosphere?

It’s the question some clients are now asking and it’s something the world of media is trying to measure. Digital ads, delivered via targeting wizardry, are very energy-intensive, all just to be in with a shout of sending the right creative to the right audiences in the right way at the lowest prices. Until now, marketers have done so with little care or thought for how much of your phone’s battery gets slurped up. One study claims that advertising added an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK in 2019. That sucks.

This year, I’ve tracked how these measurement efforts are going and wonder whether they’ll be broadly implemented in time to make any difference whatsoever. I don’t think they will – even if smart, passionate people are on the case. More here.

TV’s reinvention finally makes sense

‘Oh I don’t watch TV…’ claims the person who, under duress, admits... ‘Just when I visit my mum’s three times a week, or on my phone when I am in the bath, or on my Xbox on-demand at night. Sometimes I’ll watch YouTube on the bus. Oh, and when I’m working I’ll watch an hour of TikToks.’

The viewing is fragmented, but it’s clear the majority of us are watching more video than ever before.

We need to get better at understanding TV, be it linear, VOD, simulcast, social or, increasingly, gaming. It’s a good thing for broadcasters that people can watch anywhere. The challenge remains the same – create the good stuff and generate a buzz around it.

The conundrum for advertisers is that linear shares are falling. People aren’t watching around schedules. In exchange, through the right platforms marketers can now buy the exact audiences they are searching for in digital through TV.

Not just that, but with the rise of CTV these ads are increasingly shoppable. Boots used shoppable TV with QR codes this Christmas, for example.

Amazon Advertising’s head of measurement success, Maggie Zhang, explained how the e-commerce giant is getting a foot in the door at the infancy of shoppable TV ads – and she details that here.

Meanwhile, the measurement tools are getting into the shape we need them. Barb (the UK TV ratings firm) now lets advertisers see the total viewing time spent on each of the major video services as well as TV. Buyers trying to evidence the effectiveness of digital TV advertising versus linear have their eyes open. Right now, addressable TV is an add-on to linear buys. One day, that could flip. Make up your own mind here.

Also, I shot a buyers guide to CTV earlier this year.

Maybe data will finally be useful...

I used to play Pokemon. You’d be encouraged to ‘catch ‘em all’. Most of your wondrous beasts would gather dust in a virtual world while you had the same old six scrap it out in the real world. My point is, everyone’s been gathering warehouses of data, but keep leaning on the same six KPIs. Data is a raw resource – who is actually processing it into insight?

The top networks claim to be taking unique approaches to their data businesses. Earlier this year, our Sam Bradley looked to unravel the USPs. They’re all here.

Whoever gains a lead in chugging through huge data fields to unearth actionable insights will allegedly have a distinct competitive advantage. But how many of the best ideas are born from a spreadsheet? Sit tight, we’ll find out.

The third-party cookie will be kaput soon. Last-click attribution too. Countless identity solutions have cropped up promising to do just what the cookie did minus the privacy intrusions, brands are chasing first-party data without a complete idea of how it’ll work for them, and everyone’s standing firm for a regulatory definition of privacy while Google tries to get bird-themed tools off the ground.

The final exciting space is gaming, but I believe that deserves its own column inches next week.

Subscribe to The Drum’s weekly Future of Media round-up here.

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