2021: A Messy But Necessary Grind

December 22, 2020

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, all of us at Ciceron wish you and your loved ones a warm and embracing holiday season. Even if one year moving to another is really just symbolic in the actual movement of time, we hope you can use these days to hit a mental and emotional refresh. You’ve earned it. You made it to the finish line.

In a year full of the unpredictable, one may consider this to be a fool’s journey to attempt to make prognostications for 2021. But we are gluttons for punishment, and, if I don’t say so myself, our predictions for 2020 were pretty close to reality

Beginning in 2019, I began to think about what might happen if the economy collapsed in 2020, based primarily upon some looming trade war sabre-rattlin’ and an overpriced stock market. A global pandemic of epic proportions was not on the list.

The one singular theme of those predictions for 2020 was that the impact on advertising during a recession would follow those of the past, where marketing leaders would shift towards more measurable media tied directly to results, and that once the recession was over, they wouldn’t shift back to their previous ways. Specifically for this recession, I predicted that streaming TV and video platforms would grow considerably. Needless to say, a global pandemic with the world largely at home brought this prediction to fruition. Streaming services are exploding and “cord cutters” follow all demographics. They’re not going back. And this is causing a massive migration of dollars out from traditional channels into these emerging markets.

Our predictions for 2021 become less macro in nature. There are numerous challenges lying in wait that are going to provide marketers with serious headaches and big-time hard work. It’s going to take stainless-steel lined stomachs for some of them because the work that needs to be done is going to fly in the face of the short-term results that companies need to continue to fight this economy. (And, please, let’s remember that the stock market isn’t the economy.)

Here are our 2021 Predictions:

The Cookieless World Will Sway Towards Short-Circuiters

As you all should know by now, the powers that be are moving us all towards a cookieless world. For decades, digital advertising has been anchored by these little snippets of code that allow for us to track individual users across the web. It was a dumb but relatively effective means towards addressing individuals rather than monolithic groups. But privacy laws are moving us away from cookies over the next year (or so). It’s a monumental task that I believe a majority of marketers are ill-prepared for. Except for you, of course. You’re awesome.

There will be a market for short-circuiters as countless marketers realize they don’t have any real plans to accommodate for this new cookieless world but have to deliver hard numbers to their boards, investors, and C-Suites nonetheless. I believe there will be a rise in tech providers offering “quasi-cookies,” some sort of anonymised cookie-like tech that seems to do everything a cookie does but isn’t an actual cookie. These tech will provide short-term relief to those who haven’t done the hard work of transitioning away from cookies but generally won’t hold up in court. 

For some holiday listening pleasure, Jeff Green, founder of the Trade Desk, has some front-lines insights into the transition to this cookieless world. In addition, Facebook is justifiably freaking out about Apple iOS 14 allowing users to opt out of Facebook tracking.

At Ciceron, we are already ahead of the curve by smashing new tech in testing, aligning new partners, and committing huge efforts into building strategies to grow our clients’ first party data. And with that…

First-Party Data May Not Scale Fast Enough For Those Who Waited

The answer, so far, to the demise of the cookie is for marketers to significantly scale their first-party data (email addresses, physical addresses and so on). Fast. But that has been the answer for the better part of the past 20 years, and for whatever reason, many marketers are still woefully behind. Most CRMs are vastly underutilized, and too few brands, especially in the mid- to small-market, have no data management platform (DMP) solution in place to house this data. On the flip side, there’s no question that brands who have specifically enabled strategies to grow custom data around their own users are at a significant advantage over those who don’t. Amazon, as the prime example, is the world’s greatest leader in how to scale first-party data. The company knows more about you than you know about you, so that says something.

But can we all be Amazon? Probably not. I worry that marketers who are largely dependent upon cookies who then need to shift away towards building first-party data are going to find themselves squeezed for time. Cookie-data scales quickly; first-party data does not. Essentially, 2021 is going to ask marketers to train for a marathon within a week before the race unless training runs and conditioning begin now

Universal ID Will Win Because It Has To

All this said, the rush towards a Universal ID that travels with you across the Internet and app world will win. I imagine some sort of cryptography per user may provide the level of privacy protections necessary to stay legally compliant, and the providers of this technology could be a part of a new Internet gold rush. Think of it as Bitcoin comprised of truly secured people. In fact, they could call it CryptoPeople, but that’d be really dumb which means it’s perfect for a crypto company. The tech is certainly an option. It’s super complicated. But something has to help scale or we’ll all be watching TV spots for Lucky Strike cigs on The Honeymooners again.

We Need Alternatives to Facebook

Facebook as a platform is a mirror of the psyche of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. And somewhere along the way, Mark quit caring about user privacy or the power the company’s algorithms have on shaping the information islands we live in. Or maybe he never cared. Or maybe it’s Wall Street pressures. Whatever the reasons, Facebook has problems, and as advertisers, we’re living right in the middle of it.

Well, I don’t think we should be their pawns. As dependent as we’ve become on the extraordinary targeting capabilities of Facebook, we do have moral obligations to ourselves and our clients to do the right thing, and until the company can correct its moral compass by installing an empathetic leader, we need to seek potential alternatives to Facebook. Currently there is no replacement for the Facebook ecosystem, and the fact remains that it performs remarkably well for our clients. Nevertheless, the way they’re running the company is bringing rightful attention to its leadership. The best thing for everyone is for Zuckerberg to leave the helm and bring in someone who has empathy at his or her core.

The good news is that, at least at Ciceron, we’re already diversifying our client media portfolios, especially when attracting younger consumers. The rise of Snapchat and Tik Tok (certainly fraught with its own challenges) certainly does give us a robust segment of the younger generations. The challenge for now is their nascent ad targeting and administration platforms. We’re in betas with them, so we’re hopeful. These other platforms are by no means perfect, but they are more than worthy challengers to Facebook’s dominance.

Finally, I do believe breaking up Facebook could be a good thing for marketers and especially for Instagram. I believe Facebook proper is in for a long, hard journey, but Instagram alone could be formidable. Facebook is trying too hard to be all things to all people. Remember, I’m old (by Internet standards). I remember when AOL was trying to be the Internet. Facebook feels like AOL circa 1992. Instagram, one other hand, seems to know what it is and what it’s trying to be. In a decoupled Facebook, I believe Instagram would benefit from this freedom, albeit with higher advertising prices since bundles with Facebook and its vast network would likely disappear.

People Move Front and Center 

Not lost in all of these technology challenges are people. In fact, people are at the center of all these technology challenges. With a keen focus on the individual as an actual person (first party data) vs. an anonymous pixel comes great responsibility to understand individual needs, motivations, and journeys towards brand affinity. “Customer journey mapping” has unfortunately become a ten-cent word in the world of marketing, but I caution against it vociferously. Doing the work of truly knowing what people need — better UX, focused and relevant messaging, emotional needs, compelling content, and truthful brand promises — and then delivering improved experiences based on those needs takes a special kind of talent(s). Technology will provide the pathways to people — empathetic consumer-focused strategies that have people at the center will move them towards brands earnestly and honestly.

One of Ciceron’s primary values is empathy – with our clients, with their customers, with each other. 2020 was a year full of opportunities to practice empathy. We will have more of these opportunities in 2021 as we are forced to become less dependent on existing technology while transitioning to new solutions. Through the required changes outlined above, brands should double-down on understanding the consumer — their needs, questions, barriers, what’s driving their decisions, what are their behaviors. For example, if you haven’t revisited your personas in 2020, you need to. Consumer behaviors took dramatic shifts during COVID and stay at home. We will likely need to rebuild these consumer profiles, lifecycles, and touchpoints to truly understand and reach them. The good news is that this fundamental work makes all of your marketing efforts smarter and stronger.  

Sayonara to 2020 

2020 was an epic shitshow across the board. So don’t let the door hit ya on the way out, broheim. I think I’m excited for 2021 simply because it’s not 2020. But 2021 is going to require incredible focus. There are too many forces at work concurrently, making the future enormously complex and convergent. To remain a leader in this market — or even a competent player — is going to require a massive reallocation of resources, time, and talent. For those of you who have been considering retirement, I highly recommend it. And for those who want to continue and crush it, congratulations, but be prepared that you’re going to be expected to be a tech leader as much as, if not more than, a marketing leader in 2021. If you want that, you’re golden. It’s going to be a grind like no other, so if you’re into that sort of thing, Godspeed.

Let’s get it.