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No Going ‘Back’


Doug Weaver headshotData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Doug Weaver, founder and CEO at Upstream Group.

Throughout this pandemic many of us have managed our vision of the future by making it about the past.

We talk about going back to the cities, back to the office, back to “normal” meetings and sales calls and back to the industry conferences that provided access to hard-to-reach clients.

But reverse is not a gear you can drive in for very long. Based on hard evidence and the weight of history, we’re not going “back” to anything.

Across my 37 years in advertising, media and marketing, I’ve lived through a half-dozen major social and economic disruptions: Black Monday (1987); the invasion of Kuwait and corresponding recession (1991); the implosion of the dot-com bubble closely followed by 9/11 (1999-2001); the subprime mortgage meltdown (2008-09); and the Trump Election (2016).

Each of these disruptions created an environment that allowed for a massive realignment in marketing, advertising, communications and digital media. They include the rise of the 24-hour cable news cycle; the dawn of web-based advertising and community; the advent and acceleration of ad technology and automated buying; the era of data- and location-driven marketing; and the privacy and data security backlash of the past three years. Yet we always seem to think that the morning after will be much like the day before.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through one of the biggest, deepest, simultaneous behavioral changes in history.

No, we are not going back. We are going forward, into a new era of business and watershed change in our industry.

How all business changes

There will still be business hubs and offices, but we’ll never rely on them in the same ways again. Office presence will be staggered, intentional and highly scheduled. Screen-sharing platforms will be the primary way we interact and collaborate with our teams. As a result, the geographic talent pool expands: the tyranny of place and the limitations of the city, suburbs and exurbs gives way to a truly distributed workforce.


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As for our customers, nobody is having outside vendors or nonessential service providers visit anymore. You may go back to your own office, but you’re not coming to mine. So, screen-sharing will also be the primary way we interact with and present to customers for the next decade. As a result, video conferencing becomes an art form and a creative and technology playground.

The business of IRL conferences sheds its old form, atomizes, and becomes a part of every business day. Micro business gatherings become normal and highly valued. Business models and economics will lag, but they’ll eventually catch up.

How our industry changes

We will place much greater value on what is real: real data, connections, delivery of media and creation of marketing value. Point of origin will matter. The corrupt data and impression supply chain that has dominated digital marketing for a decade will finally wither and die.

Expertise in the business of advertising will lose value, while expertise in vertical industries and markets will gain value. This will be a renaissance for those who align their services with real business and marketing problems.

The social, ecological and political values of both brands and media providers will become their calling cards. There will be no more neutral. We will take positions and we will have to live up to them in every aspect of our businesses.

The creaky, anachronistic rituals of the advertising business – upfronts, budgeting cycles, RFP submissions – will fade into the past. A much leaner, more intentional business will take its place.

My advice

Yesterday’s best practices are today’s survival skills. Getting to the point, making it about the customer, leading with their needs, making it easy for them and not wasting their time are even more vital behaviors in a world of limited attention and physical presence.

Align yourselves and your narratives with bigger business and marketing goals. Get out of the business of advertising and join the business of business.

Be humble about what you’ve accomplished and unsentimental about the strategies and process that got you here. In our business, experience doesn’t age like wine – it ages like fish.

Don’t hem and haw and read the tea leaves for too long. Change fast. As William Gibson famously wrote, “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

Follow Upstream Group (@UpstreamGroup) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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