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The digital advertising industry is cautiously optimistic about its future, according to a panel of UK experts from across the ecosystem, despite – and in some cases because of – the global coronavirus pandemic.

They believe that although 2020 has been “discombobulated” and some mistakes made in the switch to new ways of working, there is a huge opportunity to build for the better.

TSB CMO Pete Markey, IAB COO Jane McNeill, Teads UK managing director Justin Taylor and PHD UK head of response and board director Lauren Ogúndèkó took part in a virtual conference discussing the findings of the first Digital Advertising Sentiment Tracker report.

Their views broadly mirrored a report, produced by Bluestripe Group and New Digital Age, which found that the industry was overall optimistic and expected a hybrid office/working from home environment, though they were less settled on whether the pandemic would make greater diversity harder to achieve.

Said Ogúndèkó: “We went through a really bumpy curve. When we started to see clients’ spend decline it got really worrying. You started to worry about your colleagues, teams and just the mental health aspect of things.”

Uncertainty ahead – but opportunity abounds

“It’s improving, but it’s about holding on to our seats and hoping for the best because another wave has started. If consumer spending starts to decline you will start to see that uncertainty and worry creep back in.”

However, for the longer term outlook the future was bright, said Taylor with “so much opportunity still out there, that it is the right time for us to be positive”.

He cited changing consumer considerations as an opportunity for marketers and their partners to build a different sort of communication opportunity. For instance, people were thinking both more digitally and locally.

“As individuals we’re focusing much more on our local surroundings, and not just because we’re not working in cities or other environments that we’re commuting to. We’re more aware of what’s around us, and the news is happening around us.”

He pointed to Reach PLC’s strong Q3 recovery, driven by the demand for digital and local news. The group is currently rolling out more local versions of its ‘Live’ digital platforms.

Ogúndèkó said her agency had benefited from new, often more consultative, opportunities, such as FMCGs responding to increased internet demand and how they could benefit from offering direct-to-consumer services.

Disparate and diverging spending habits

For Markey consumer demand never went away. “Certainly as we were all emerging from lockdown, it felt like there was more of a rhythm of trading coming back. Definitely within financial services, there’s demand for products.

“The opportunity, and the challenge is just watching for and acting on the emerging consumer trends because as we’re all finding through the COVID situation, people’s finances have been impacted in lots of different ways. They are going to be quite disparate and different.”

There were those for whom finances were stretched and challenged because of furlough or redundancy, whilst others – because of lockdown and being home – had more money in their account. “People have been using some of the disposable income in different ways, so I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.

“I feel discombobulated,” said McNeill. “I feel very positive for the digital advertising industry as a whole, which will continue to thrive, but I have concerns for some of the smaller players in the market who might not survive, and I don’t feel incredibly positive for the people who have just come into the industry.”

The diversity debate

She was also worried about the effect that the pandemic would have on diversity, in line with the report’s more pessimistic findings. “Yes, people are talking a lot more about diversity, but we’ve got less churn in the industry than we’ve ever had and people are scared,” said McNeill.

“They’re not leaving comfortable jobs. They’re not moving on. And by default, our industry, particularly at the top, is not diverse. And if people don’t move on, then there’s no room to bring new people into the industry. Fear will stop people leaving jobs. And if people don’t leave jobs, there aren’t going to be opportunities for others to come in.”

Markey, too, was worried, insisting that everyone had to ensure that the industry was “truly inclusive and reflective of the UK we serve”… “I’m very involved in working hard on that within my organisation, not just marketing.”

The other panellists were more upbeat, with Ogúndèkó suggesting that the pandemic had been a great leveller. “We have now come to a pivotal point in the industry following BLM where there’s a lot more awareness, accountability and demand for change. At an Omnicom level, there’s been a 360 in terms of the efforts that have been put behind D&I.”

New, improved ways of working

She continued: “COVID-19 has been a bit of a leveller because we can’t go to the pub and meet each other and say, right, okay, I’m going to get you a job. It’s all become probably a bit more professional than we anticipated. And it’s all become a bit more transparent as well.”

Although all agreed that face-to-face relationships with colleagues and clients was important, particularly when forging new connections, the industry had learned better ways of working having had to move to remote working.

“This world of video calling has forced change and a sort of breaking down of barriers. In meetings I’ve had some of my most junior people speak up, which has opened up a whole new sort of opportunity,” said Taylor.

“So it’s these types of learnings I want to bring in. How can we package these up with how we used to work and create this new way of working and create an exciting way of doing things?”

Markey said that without the opportunity to get everyone together physically it was harder to know how to find a way to involve new starters and make them feel part of something without the “normal rules” being in place.

“We deliberately did everything we could to look after [all our] people and make sure our conversations in lockdown weren’t just transactional, because it’s one of the things I really miss, about being an office is the banter and you bump into someone when you make a coffee, and you have a chat.

“Trying to find a way through this period ahead we have a hybrid thing emerging, it’s constantly fluid and moving, and as tough as it has been it’s not forgetting the brilliance of what we’ve learned.”