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Making predictions at any time shows a faith of conviction that is hard to muster. Writing them at the start of a decade is even more ambitious.

This isn’t that kind of post. Instead, it shares trends and themes that excite and inspire my thinking for strategy and communications going into 2020. I hope it helps you in your own thinking and work.

The end of the beginning

The premise of the “End of the Beginning”, a talk by Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans from November 2018, is not new: the hockey stick growth of the web over the past 25 years has plateaued. The new frontier on the Internet is more of everything, accelerated by automation, machine learning, and AI.

What’s notable about this talk is that it breaks down what IoT really means for things that impact us all every day: grocery, commerce, cars, TV, money, health. What’s breathtaking about it is how far-reaching these changes are, that we are well into these adoptions, and how little of the population might be ready for disruptions to come. If you think Facebook and social media has been the apex of the web, buckle up—we’re barely getting started.

Fast forward 14 months later to another Andreesen Horowitz presentation, this time by Frank Chen in the last days of the twenty-teens. He walks through a day in the life of a knowledge worker in the 2030s, from morning routines to dream recording once back to bed in the evening.

The granularity of this talk is striking, but so is the hubristic confidence it projects: we will all be better off. If that’s true, I want my smart coach tomorrow, and I will be disdainful of my dumb toilet from here on out. As exciting as this story is, for some it will echo uncomfortably to the early days of social, when connecting everyone in the world was a heroic calling, not yet tainted by election interference, misinformation, and screen addiction. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the web is great, but not benign.

Both of the stories told in these pieces might seem farther into the future than 2020, but their seeds are planted now and growing quickly, and will affect how and what we encounter as strategists and communicators in the years ahead. More disruption, more generational gaps, more new technology, touching every sector and many aspects of our lives.

What’s happening to our brains?

Research would tell us that our attention spans continue to shrink, in some cases going so far as to say our perception of time has changed, burdening all of us with an inflated sense of constant urgency and busyness. As the authors of Immunity to Change argued 10 years ago, the complexity of our world has surpassed the complexity of our brains due to inundation, lack of shutting off, slowing down our ability to take in information and adapt. Our newest generations continue to embrace a rapid-fire, meme-based media diet and culture, often absent depth and truth. It all seems dire.

Yet, even with these brain drain signals, long-form content continues to perform better than short-form by many important measures, and gets rewarded by the search engine dark lords. People are more likely to share meaningful long content that moves them, and they are willing to be moved.

This personally gives me hope, and reminds not to wallow in the dire. While this might seem relevant mostly to content creators, “storytellers” and SEO practitioners, it also matters broadly to anyone seeking to persuade and spur advocacy, and remains a strategically important consideration for any brand or organization. Sometimes things take depth and exposition, and that’s ok.

A data reckoning

The communications/advertising/PR/marketing industries lost their minds over data-driven decision-making in the last 10 years, and for good reason. This is understandable and I was a part of it. But as we put more and more of ourselves online in ways that can be tracked, targeted, and understood, regulation and literacy have not kept up, and our understanding of what this means for society and people is only just awakening. Now that we are catching up (see: GDPR), more change will come. As author and Harvard professor Soshana Zuboff puts it:

“…all of the data that people celebrate as big data is threaded with stolen assets. As law comes on stream, these assets are going to be reinterpreted as toxic assets… I believe that day is coming. […] I think that’s the trajectory that we’re on.”

This doesn’t mean that we will suddenly turn away from big data and mining the Internet for insights and patterns that inform communications and strategy. Stories will continue to abound with more reinvention and sophisticated use of data, “moving closer to one-to-one precision through data, analytics, and digital technology”. Likewise, the bar is rising on truly creative campaigns that were impossible before the data revolution. It has still never been a better time to be a data miner, and it will only get better—provided you can get the data and you know how to interpret it.

It does mean that the singular and consuming big data fixation will recede and change as privacy comes more to the foreground. It also means that shiny data objects will dull as analytics overload continues to bloom, veering more towards analysis, insight, and answering “so what”. “Don’t Let Metrics Undermine Your Business,” cautioned Harvard Business Review in October for these very reasons. “We will turn our analytical minds towards more important questions,” echoes The Next Web. Governments will continue to leverage and grapple with this, as will carriers and corporations lured by data treasure.

And as data and privacy literacy rise into the 2020s, so will options to control and protect our data, and our expectations of companies holding our data. We will move to more evidence-driven insights than pure data-driven, a greater focus on substance than style, a higher bar for finding “so what” and revealing clarity in the complex. Cue ethnographies, jobs-to-be-done inquiry, and more qualitative research.

Swinging back to brand and story

“You're beautiful, but you're empty...One couldn't die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she's the one I've watered. Since she's the one I put under glass, since she's the one I sheltered behind the screen…Since she's my rose.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943

We could do with more Saint-Exupéry in our data-driven world. Consider Orlando Wood’s fascinating work near the end of 2019 — “Lemon: How the Advertising Brain Turned Sour”. Wood contends that society swings from left brain to right brain tendencies every few years, and that we are firmly in the grip of a left-brain mindset now. We are narrower in our thinking, not abstract, data-driven, seeking repeatability, safety, and we wake up looking for proof over art. As a result, Wood laments, there is a creativity crisis in advertising, which lost its power to produce interesting creative communications work that moves us.

Why have we veered so left brain and pedantic, and what is the result? Left brain comes from more data than we know what to do with, micro-targeting winning over experience, intuition, or art. Wood claims that brands using left-brain framing are less effective and meaningful than right-brain brands. Most roses look the same in a left-brain world, and we have lost touch with the emotion and loyalty to our one, special rose(s), that inspires trust, loyalty, endorsement and advocacy. The pendulum has swung too far.

So what of the 2020s? Brand authenticity, sincerity, and standing for something—while these have never gone away and always punctuate the best in communications, the pendulum will swing closer to right, closer to emotion and humanity, closer to story. We will all be better for it.

The thrill of advocacy, the agony of defeat

Overconsumption, waste, climate change. Acting unsustainably. #MeToo. Race relations. Abusing personal data. Secrecy. Staying silent. The behaviour of brands, public figures, and organizations will continue to bear greater and greater scrutiny, with no shortage of poignant issues where one can show leadership or show failure.

Showing that you stand for something—whatever the orientation—can quickly spark advocates and potentially ignite a broad movement of support. Whether it be for sneakers, toothpaste, beer, or anything else on your shopping list. Over half of consumers three years ago said they actively consider values before making a purchase, and the number has grown.

Equally, taking a risk and doing it badly has consequences, even if short lived. Consider the go-to examples at the end of the twenty-teens: Peloton’s December fall, the now mythical Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, and the Gillette “Best a Man Can Get” controversy.

Strategists and leaders must all keep in mind that our fuse for tolerating irresponsibility, unfairness, heads-in-the-sand and bad behaviour has gotten shorter. Our expectations for brands and organizations to live and act by values that help the public good (or our own interpretation of them) have gotten higher. These trends will only continue and harden.

Long live nostalgia

I’ll end with joining this bandwagon: the later twenty-teens were a crescendo back to 1980s aesthetics and style, peaking (and I think staying) into the early 2020s. Oddly, a decade famous for overconsumption and excess will creatively inspire our new decade of restraint and responsibility.

Nostalgia marketers rejoice, but don’t call it a comeback. Bask in The Weeknd’s latest single, top sales for Air Jordans, or flip through your streaming service of choice. Great taste or continued Gen X buying power? Who knows.

Additional readings and viewings to dig deeper