WARC’s annual Marketer’s Toolkit looking at the year ahead is being released this week. Head of Content David Tiltman looks back at a tumultuous 2020.

At the end of each year WARC releases the Marketer’s Toolkit: a run-through of key trends for the year ahead and our advice – based on the evidence and examples on WARC – on how to respond. Watch out for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 (the tenth in the series) later this week, based on 23 interviews with senior marketers and a survey of more than 1,000 practitioners worldwide.

For the past few years, I’ve also taken the opportunity to go back a year and see how we did. This time round, that’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted – a global pandemic, enforced lockdowns and the deepest recession in living memory were not exactly high on the marketing world’s agenda when we published the Marketer’s Toolkit 2020.

In fact, a good deal of the forecasts we made have been borne out. And there’s good reason for that. The pandemic, it is often said, has accelerated certain trends in the market, and exposed weakness in those unable to keep up; several of the trends we highlighted last year are in this list.

So, with the necessary COVID-19 caveat, here we go…

1. The Greta effect

What we said

“The rise of conscious consumerism, accelerated by high-profile campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, will also be a widespread theme for 2020… Packaging, particularly use of plastic, is a 2020 focus for nearly half of respondents to the Marketer’s Toolkit survey, as brands look for ways to act on environmental concern.”

What’s happened

It’s fair to say conscious consumerism has been less influential this year than we anticipated, for obvious reasons. Those stockpiling toilet paper back in March were probably not checking the eco-credentials of the rolls they found left in the shops! Data from Ipsos confirmed that price remains a more important driver of purchase than sustainability – significant, given the economic outlook.

There is some evidence for this in our new report – there is a year-on-year drop in the percentage of marketers citing ‘conscious consumerism and sustainability’ as a significant influence on 2021 plans versus last year’s survey.

But there are also signs that the drive for sustainability will come back to the fore as the pandemic recedes. Disruption to supply chains, according to some experts, gives businesses the chance to ‘build back better’ with sustainability baked in.

The growth of e-commerce has been one of the lasting business impacts of lockdowns – and e-commerce has significant environmental implications in the form of packaging and delivery. There’s a growing trend for brands trying to resolve overpackaging in e-commerce, and encourage reuse – see the Tide packaging developed by Procter & Gamble and Amazon. This combination of online retail and sustainability is one to watch.

2. Context and connected TV: reinventing programmatic

What we said

“The limits of audience-based buying are clear in concerns around context and brand safety. There is widespread agreement that these factors are now more important than cost when planning media, and context is set to be a key debate for 2020… Programmatic media stands at the cusp of its next phase – one which will see the automation of traditional media channels through connected TV, online audio streaming services and digital out of home.”

What’s happened

Connected TV remains a growth area – and a major hope for broadcasters looking to respond to the accelerating adspend shift to digital platforms – though shortage of quality inventory, restrictions on data usage and measurement hurdles remain barriers to adoption. And the shift toward buying against context – the environment in which an ad appears – continues apace: this has only grown in importance as brands have realised the cookie’s days are numbered.

Research carried out by Xandr and IAB Europe revealed that a dearth of connected TV supply is seen as the top barrier to entry (57%) as well as a lack of understanding in an ecosystem awash with acronyms (41%).

Major brands are certainly interested. One of the big media stories of the year was the streaming wars, and the lockdowns in many markets drove sharp increases in use of all forms of connected TV – including those supported by advertising.

L’Oréal has been working with connected TV in the US as a way to keep its audience “whole”. But as Shenan Reed, SVP Media at the company, admitted, there is still a long way to go before connected TV can be bought at scale and truly joined up with other digital platforms. “As advertisers, we are craving for the industry to get there faster,” she said recently.

3. The pivot back to brand

What we said

“Brands are re-assessing how they balance their spending plans for 2020, as more marketers look to respond to a crisis of short-termism, and an over-investment in performance marketing.

This is set to be a major trend for 2020, though there are significant hurdles to increased brand-building investment.”

What’s happened

COVID-19 happened. As lockdown shuttered swathes of the economy and the outlook darkened, most brands moved to defensive mode, and diverted marketing budget to sales-driving activity as they looked to generate cash.

We’ve seen this in several surveys. In our annual Future of Strategy report, 72% of the world’s strategists reported a shift to short-termism by their clients. The data we release next week indicates this prioritisation of performance marketing will continue into 2021, and that where cuts are being made they will fall on brand campaigns and agency fees. Meanwhile, shoppable ads are up and the likes of Amazon are seeing ad sales surge.

All of that said, there have been plenty of voices making the case for messaging that helps to build brands through recession. Those companies still in a position of strength seem to be heeding that advice – Unilever is a good example. “There was a little bit less spending in the beginning of Q2, but I think quite quickly we’ve come to the conclusion that if we are going to enter a recession then normally the brands that continue to spend come out much stronger,” Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, recently told WARC.

And digital-native brands continue to discover that, as they look to scale, building brands becomes as important as squeezing cost-per-acquisition. Here’s a telling quote from Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia Group: “As we wade back into the marketplace, [we need] to be much more disciplined to only chase real growth – real, valuable growth, healthy growth – and not be stuck chasing performance marketing and entering into dis-economic auctions.”

4. Building brands in the walled gardens

What we said

“The digital platforms are winning. Amazon is chipping away at Google’s supremacy of the search ad market and is projected to earn $13.9bn from advertising in 2019... These ‘walled gardens’ increasingly combine paid advertising with payment options and e-commerce fulfilment. The promise to marketers is a more visible link between marketing investment and sales performance.”

What’s happened

This one was spot on – and has if anything been accelerated by the events of the last 12 months. In terms of adspend, Amazon has been the big winner among the western platforms, but Facebook and Google have held their own. And with the rise of e-commerce and the death of the cookie on the horizon, data-rich ‘walled gardens’ will be the focus for companies advertising and selling online – much like the situation in China.

The major challenge for brands is navigating a world where a small number of giant ecosystems account for a significant proportion of their advertising budgets. I’ve even heard anecdotally of some brands reviewing their platform dependence in case they need to reduce it.

The challenge for publishers outside these platforms is to build enough first-party data for them to offer advertisers premium inventory and a high level of targeting. Companies like Dow Jones are focusing on subscriptions and direct reader relationships to achieve exactly that.

5. Privacy-first marketing

What we said

“Regulatory pressure, plus growing consumer concern about how their data is used, means privacy will be a key theme for brands in 2020… Though marketers have much work to do around data protection, they feel work is also needed from the digital platforms and big tech firms. Less than half of marketers feel that the issue of brand safety is being taken seriously by marketers, and almost all would like there to be greater regulation of big tech firms.”

What’s happened

On the one hand, talking about privacy in a world of ‘track-and-trace’ seems a little quaint. On the other hand, brands still face steadily mounting pressure from regulators in many markets to get a grip on privacy (for example, CCPA morphing into CPRA), while planning for a post-cookie future.

For this reason, the focus is now on first-party data, and how that might intersect with projects such as the Google Privacy Sandbox. As Jake Shearring of LEAD Digital Consulting noted: “Exactly how first-party data will be activated within the framework of the Privacy Sandbox is not yet completely defined, but solutions like Facebook Custom Audiences and Google Customer Match (where advertisers can leverage their first-party data by securely matching and targeting using the vendor’s first-party data) are likely to become more prevalent in future digital advertising strategies.”

Then there is growing scrutiny of the tech platforms and their use of data – the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is an example of how data concerns are becoming mainstream. Data from Asia shows how misuse of personal data is the number one cause of consumer distrust of big tech.

Pandemic or no pandemic, that will remain a major theme for 2021.