The year ahead in digital


The year ahead in digital

Chris Clarke

Well goodbye 2016, you steaming pile of narky doo-doo; and hello, 2017. What rough beast might you be then? Can it get worse? I expect so.

With the swivel eyed loons piloting this country towards a hard Brexit and Trump unleashing his special band of idiots on US legislation, things could be a little choppy. But my job here is to forecast a little of the weather heading for those marketing and creative shops that in some significant way call themselves digital.

Digital’s been an unfashionable word of late. Many commentators have called it obsolete and many agencies have distanced themselves from their digital roots. I’d like to see it come back a bit in 2017. What was the cataclysmic fuck-fest of 2016 (celebrity deaths aside) if it wasn’t driven by digital? Cambridge Analytica, a company born of “psy-ops” in Afghanistan provided the data model behind Brexit and the Trump win. And how did they do it? By running personality tests on Facebook for years building a detailed psychological profile of different social media users, allowing campaigners to hyper-target their messages and make significant marginal gains. So the devil really is in the data.

Agencies have been pedalling data one way or another for years and, in recent times, the pedalling has been furious. 2017 is the year that some offerings will become clear and others will get found out for the smoke and mirrors they are, and then hopefully, we can get on with an emphasis on what to do with data. Real insight, powering ideas that make a difference.

If we’ve learned anything from Brexit and Trump, it’s that you have to cater to the filter bubbles your audiences are trapped in. The classic Big Idea is challenged by this. Some commentators have said that empathy is dying; we don’t understand the people outside our own closed networks. So how then can brands expect to succeed by starting with a big TV ad and working backwards. Yet many of them still do. When planning for 2017, let’s hope they remembered Trump underspent Hillary by 50% and cut through with bold messages hyper-targeted at different psychological profiles. The time to be timid with your brand content is surely over, then.

This means that the content brands make and sponsor needs, more than ever, to be authentic. Yes, I know we’ve heard it all before, but this is an accelerating trend. Agencies of all kinds are losing out to content producers who refuse to change their tone of voice to fit in with a brand. This means a bit less consistency but a lot more cut through-to specific audiences. And by the way, the customer doesn’t notice because they only see the stuff in their own bubble. Traditional agencies have a harder time leaving the “rules” of branding behind than those born in digital. I want to see the anarchic spirit of the early web come back in 2017, because brands will need it. If they don’t get it or won’t buy it from their agencies, they’ll be getting it at source with Vice, UNILAD, BuzzFeed or legion YouTubers. We’ve made real headway with our own clients in 2016, helping them embrace this uncomfortable but rewarding reality and look forward to more of it. PewDiePie’s review of the Nissan Micra was for us and our client an interesting and eye opening process! 2017 will see us and other agencies embracing the chaos a bit more.

So if authenticity continues to be the order of the day, agency authenticity will become a thing in 2017. An oxymoron you might argue - agency branding and positioning and many an agency process reek of snake oil and gobbledegook. Clients have had enough. On the more serious side in 2016 the ANA report in the US exposed some less than transparent dodgy practices. Names weren’t named, but in 2017, there will be a premium on transparency and openness. We welcome this and I’d like to see the practice of outing dishonesty extend to outing ridiculous positioning and agency over-claim.

Our collective survival rather depends on our willingness to work more transparently and collaboratively. Clients are showing a willingness to move core agency functions in-house, and smart content producers are doing more and more direct to client. The big tech players also have much to offer clients, so those agencies that lack deep engineering capability and creatives who understand tech and media will struggle to bring much at the table. The ones that do have a huge role to play, shaping the big tech and digital media partnerships that clients will be making next year.

The big consultancies are set to make waves creatively in 2017. Accenture now has Karmarama, and Deloitte Digital are skilling up creatively. So we’ll see more turf wars between the bigger digital networks like Publicis.Sapient (which includes my own agency Digitas) and the once dismissable men in suits who now “get creative”.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Possible will do in 2017, a network that’s been hiring well this year and isn’t afraid to be digital. There’re fresh new start-ups making a noise too, from Dave Bedwood and Ben Silcox’s yet-to-be-named venture and Studio of Art and Commerce, which may not be purely digital but creatively has its heart online.

It’s set to be a tough year though, so we’re likely to see some agencies battle for survival. Isobar is down but not out, and in this tough environment, pretenders Like Hey Human!, really just an SP shop, are unlikely to see billings grow from serious creative or digital pitches. As AI makes its presence felt and apps lose out to bots, the digital marketplace is no place for charlatans and chancers. The skills needed to be relevant must be deep and very smart. Very few agencies have the depth of talent to thrive in 2017. It will be a Darwinian year for sure.

Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke


As Chief Creative Officer, International at Digitas, Chris oversees the agency’s creative output internationally. He has overall responsibility for Digitas’s point of view on the world, and is the father of the famous unicorn emblem.

Known for his provocative views, Chris is a regular commentator in titles like The Guardian, Marketing and Campaign, and was amongst the first in our industry to highlight the darker side of digital disruption.


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