In late 2018, we wrote about what would happen in the next twelve months. WARC’s Head of Content, David Tiltman, looks at how we did ahead of our predictions for 2020.

Next week WARC launches its annual Marketer’s Toolkit report. This is where we look at some of the big themes and challenges for next year, and use WARC’s research, best practice and case studies to show how marketers can be prepared.

To do this we’ve run a survey of nearly 800 client and agency-side executives around the world, and sense-checked the findings in 10 CMO interviews – it’s a big piece of work, but fantastically useful as we take the temperature of the industry as a whole.

So it’s only fair to go back to last year’s report to see whether this year turned out the way we thought it would.

Here’s a few of the things we said – and what’s happened since…


What we said in 2018:

“One of the big stories from 2018 that will continue to dominate the industry in 2019 is the rise of digital native direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands.”

What happened:

DTC brands have remained a growing challenge to established brands. But something significant has happened this year. The old narrative was that DTC was a new data- and experience-driven model that big brands should emulate. That’s still true in many ways. But what we’ve seen this year is a growing number of DTC brands emulate their bigger rivals – particularly when it comes to media investment.

Faced with growing customer acquisition costs online, and with a need to build mainstream awareness of their businesses to maintain growth, DTC brands have been switching to TV. According to one study by the Video Advertising Bureau, TV spend by a group of 125 DTC brands grew by 60% in 2018. And headlines from digital brands like eBay and Thirdlove this year seem to confirm this trend.

Customer experience

What we said in 2018:

“Marketers see improved customer experience – both online and offline – as key to kick-starting growth and restoring trust in brands. This agenda means tech investment is focused on data – and in particular how data and machine learning can be used to drive relevance and personalisation in communications.”

What’s happened:

Experience has been one of the buzzwords of 2019. In November we ran an Admap report on the topic which brought together some new evidence on the role of experience in driving growth – and early signs are, in some digitally focused categories at least, that ‘share of experience’ is indeed an indicator of share growth.

One thing that has changed this year, arguably, is the growing combination of brand and customer experience. If everyone is using the same clutch of martech systems to deliver CX, so the argument goes, how do you deliver a distinctive experience? To do that you need a strong, well defined brand. Accenture Interactive’s purchase of Droga5 is testament to the growing need of the tech experts for creativity and brand-building in the world of experience.

As David Droga commented in June: “I remember thinking ‘holy shit – I’m still obsessed with one vertical of the industry; they’re doing at scale this experience side, the back-end, the digital.’ They need to work together… This is the way to save creativity. To make sure it can be effective all the way through.”


What we said in 2018:

“We are seeing more interest among marketers in voice – principally, voice search – and also more interest in payment technology as brands look to expand in e-commerce. There is less interest in areas such as augmented and virtual reality, where arguably there is still need for a ‘killer’ marketing application.”

What’s happened:

It’s all gone a bit quiet on the voice front.

Sure, smart speaker ownership keeps going up – the UK overtook the US in terms of penetration earlier this year. There’s the odd case study – the AI predictive commentator for Fox Cricket is a particular favourite. But there’s not yet a compelling body of evidence for how marketers can use voice.

The 2020 data we release next week confirms we’re seeing slow take-up of voice specifically. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that audio more generally is having a moment. Sonic branding is in, and podcast advertising is set to double by 2022.

And there are signs consumers are starting to use their speakers for more than just music and weather forecasts. At Alibaba’s Singles Day extravaganza this month, more than one million orders were placed and paid through voice command. So it may be that consumers need a bit more time with the technology before the marketing applications finally become apparent.

When it comes to AR and VR, as we suggested last year the use cases remain limited, though there’s a great case from IKEA in India that shows how the technology can be used in retail. The 2020 data confirms it will remain a niche pursuit – though in the medium term it’s possible 5G may change this. Our report next week shows a degree of excitement about the possibilities of faster internet connection, but also a ‘wait and see’ approach to it.

Media investment

What we said in 2018:

“Video, search and mobile are set to see continued growth in marketing investment. Instagram and YouTube are set to benefit from the shift to video (though marketers appear to be cooling on Snapchat). Marketers also appear to welcome the emergence of Amazon as a search platform, with a majority planning to increase spend on the e-commerce site.”

What’s happened:

Mostly that. It’s been a bumper year for search (Google’s YOY growth has accelerated again after cooling for several quarters), and online video now accounts for one-third of online display adspend this year, up from 14% in 2014.

Snapchat has defied expectations. It saw a plateau in usage across 2018, but has since returned to growth, driving 49% higher ad revenues in Q3 2019 versus the same period in 2018.

As for Amazon, its growth as an ad platform has been a major story of 2019 and will probably be an even bigger story for 2020 as rival retailers seek to follow its lead.

Brand safety

What we said in 2018:

“The growing interest in brand safety means brands are prioritising ‘safe’ media environments. The trade-off has always been cost; brands do now accept that ‘safe’ environments are worth paying more for.”

What’s happened:

Brand safety has clearly remained a key topic, with variable attempts by the big tech companies to improve their record on unsafe content.

Perhaps more interesting is a related development in 2019: the growing interest in context or site quality as a factor in online media effectiveness.

Both Kantar and the IAB UK have released research linking better quality sites to better ad outcomes. And this week saw the launch of the Attention Council, a collection of experts from all parts of the marketing ecosystem – from technology vendors, to ad experts, to academics – to analyse the quality of advertising placements through what the group calls “the lens of attention.”

Read the 2020 Marketer's Toolkit here.