Editor's Choice: Learnings from a tumultous year and a glimpse into 2017

No one will forget 2016 in a hurry, on so many levels. But what lessons should the communications sector take from a turbulent 12 months and how is the political and business landscape going to shake out in 2017?

It was the year we lost Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, and John Glenn.

It was the year the Cubs finally won another World Series. Rio successfully staged the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in the face of all the doubters.

And, of course, it was the year we saw Donald J. Trump elected President of the United States.

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I’ll attempt to pick out the major trends of the year and what they mean for 2017, but first let’s look back at last year’s predictions and see how they turned out, because it's a continuum not a vaccuum, after all:

Refugees – Weber Shandwick chairman Jack Leslie called for communicators to help find new understanding and advocate solutions for the refugee crisis in an environment of competing interests and points of view.

It’s fair to say any efforts to formulate a strategy were drowned out by a very different rhetoric around immigration that dominated the presidential election. That should in no way overshadow continued efforts to address this horrific problem, as continuing images of war-torn and frightened children in Aleppo attest to.

This year, Weber is leading on encouraging the PR industry to take an active role in and responsibility for promoting truth and combating the spread of fake news. It is convening a diverse group of stakeholders in the New Year from media, social media, industry associations, and education for a roundtable to promote truth and integrity and Leslie says: "We won’t intentionally do business with any business that deliberately traffics in fake news or distributes content to fake news sites."

Comet
A fake news story targeted this Washington DC pizza parlor earlier this month.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons, by sinksanctity)

I wish Weber well with this plan and hope it is something that will be worth talking about in terms of results when we revisit the topic in 12 months.

Crises – there were lots more of them, from Chipotle to Wells Fargo to Samsung and many more beyond those three high-profile examples. This trend isn’t going away and every brand or organization knows they are one tweet away from a substantial flashpoint that can ruin their reputation and slash billions of dollars off their share price.

The lessons from these crises may be more pertinent to CEOs rather than CCOs, as it is clear the advice from the communications function wasn't always listened to or acted upon. While the C-suite and the CEO functions are definitely more aware of the value of corporate reputation and the damage that can be inflicted on it in a short space of time, there is clearly a lot of work still to be done when the rubber really hits the road - especially before and during a crisis situation.

Agency consolidation – this trend continued at a fast pace, especially in the small and mid-level agency sectors.

Here are just a few of the many 2016 deals: Golin acquired London-HQed creative agency Brooklyn Brothers; sister IPG firm Weber Shandwick completed its acquisition of specialist health firm Revive in January; French firms Hopscotch and Sopexa teamed up to create a potential top 10 global agency; and Hotwire PR bought West Coast specialist Eastwick Communications.

Left to right: Jackie Stevenson, George Bryant, Guy Barnett, Paul Parton, and Matt Neale.
L-R: Brooklyn Bros' Stevenson, Bryant, Barnett, and Parton, plus Golin's Matt Neale.

Next Fifteen Communications Group bought $6.6 million creative and digital agency Twogether Creative; Allison+Partners moved into Japan via its Focused Communications acquisition and Germany through tech-focused Berlin and Munich agency Higher Ground Communications; Freuds returned to the U.S. market when it bought Brooke Hammerling’s Brew Media Relations; and Kaplow acquired creative shop Mayday.

This geographical - and discipline-specific growth will definitely continue in 2017 - there will be plenty more fees for the M&A and law firms facilitating these deals.

Diversity – need I say more…? Snafus in the advertising industry demonstrated persistent views more redolent of the dark ages, illustrated particularly by JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez, Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts, and Rapp’s global CEO Alexei Orlov.

The JWT story had a comms angle as the individual involved in a lawsuit against the WPP firm was CCO Erin Johnson. Our sister title Campaign US named Johnson its number one Essential Advertising Person of the Year for her part in raising the issue of diversity in the industry.

It led clients such as HP, Verizon, and General Mills to publicly insist on diversity among their agencies, otherwise they will not work with them. Others will follow and I hope this will finally engender some serious attitudinal change in 2017.

TV and internet advertisingCoca-Cola CMO Marcus de Quinto came out recently and rather unfashionably defended TV advertising as providing the soft drinks giant with its best return on marketing investment, producing $2.13 for every marketing dollar spent, compared to the $1.26 elicited from digital spending.

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It may be unfashionable, and certainly hipsters in places such as Brooklyn, Portland, Austin, and Seattle probably aren’t watching TV and consuming broadcast ads in the traditional way, but maybe this is one area where the rump of Middle America that voted in a new president this year is still playing catch-up with the bearded, plaid shirt-wearers that populate creative and other agencies.

De Quinto’s experience in the more traditional Spanish market likely provides a more rounded view of the media consumption habits of ordinary people - and this is a lesson from which every communications professional can learn in 2017.

Newswires – look for Cision to blaze a trail in 2017 as it gets its ducks in a row with its multiple acquisitions designed to construct a suite of services for the PR industry akin to Salesforce or Adobe Marketing Cloud in the marketing sector. New CEO Kevin Akeroyd did just this at Salesforce and Oracle, so it will be interesting to see how he tackles this challenge at Cision.

Elsewhere, Business Wire continues to innovate with products such as BizWire TV and its partnership with Agility PR Solutions, and Nasdaq continues to integrate Marketwired into its business. They all need to evolve constantly to be genuinely relevant in an era where the press release continues to wane in importance.

The rest of this year’s Editor’s Choice is highlighting the following trends I noticed in 2016 and that I believe will proliferate in the next year.

post truth icon Post-truth

I wrote about this recently in my blog and don’t have much more to add on the topic, suffice to say it is definitely going to be top of mind in 2017 and beyond and will be a big issue for communicators as well as the media.

brand films Brand films

Cinematic storytelling on behalf of brands is an integral part of many of the best modern marketing and communications ideas.

Indeed, PRWeek teamed up this year with our sister title Campaign to launch the Brand Film Festival to showcase the most creative, effective, and artistic branded content films. The first festival was a great success and the initiative is being extended in 2017 to encompass BFF London and BFF New York (you have until February 5 to submit your best work to BFF New York.)

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However, the craft of brand filmmaking is still evolving, and I suspect 2017 will bring with it intense debates about what exactly is a brand film, compared to an advert for example. PRWeek’s loose rule of thumb is that a brand film should not overtly promote the product or be solely about communicating product benefits. A brand film is certainly not an excuse for the creative community to become lazy and extend their stories unnecessarily purely because they can.

The 30-second spot rose to prominence for a reason: it’s an efficient, disciplined, and ideal format to communicate a promotional message between TV programming. Having more time on social media should not become an excuse to produce what I’m terming "lazy ads." I sense my colleagues on Campaign may disagree, but I believe a good brand film goes way beyond the limited construct of an advertisement, into the realm of a deeper and richer vein of genuine storytelling and engagement.

On the flip side, there will also be debates about what exactly the brand gets out of a principally unbranded film, especially when it’s produced by a famous film director who may end up getting all the exposure around the piece rather than the brand. Does this matter and how is effectiveness measured in the context of brand films will be top of mind for marketers, communicators and agencies of all types in 2017.

Here are some of the best examples of brand films PRWeek and Campaign identified in 2016. And look out for more content in this vein over the next few weeks, digging into the issues around cinematic storytelling in a brand context that I outlined above.

politics The new politics

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three months you’ll be well aware that America has a new President who is breaking the mold in terms of the usual political playbook.

This occurrence was certainly not predicted by senior players from both sides of the aisle in the PR and communications sector. A November poll of big industry names such as Richard Edelman, Rob Flaherty, Don Baer, Aedhmar Hynes ("Clinton will win with a sizable majority"), and more Republican-leaning folks such as Bill Dalbec and Connie Partoyan unanimously picked Clinton as the winner, most of them expecting a comfortable victory.

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This myopia appeared to be shared by a complacent Clinton campaign that took its eye off the ball, especially in the final three weeks of a tough process. When we re-polled our shocked pundits after the election there was a genuine sense of disbelief ampong them, highlighting FleishmanHillard's Kris Balderston's contention that "there is a huge disconnect between the political and media elites and the people affected by this transition."

WPP head honcho Martin Sorrell suggested it was hard to know "what sort of Donald Trump we will get," but added that "he likes to confound the cynics and may turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread... we really don't know." Sorrell did, however, suggest Trump could be good for business in the short to medium term.

Despite repeatedly claiming during the election campaign that he was going to "drain the swamp in Washington D.C." of big business and "make our government honest again," now the President-elect is populating his administration with a motley collection of multi-billionaires and hard-line generals his rhetoric is beginning to sound a little hollow.

Indeed, his co-conspirator Newt Gingrich recently stated that Trump "doesn’t like it anymore" and wants to move away from just one of a few key populist phrases that helped turn the election in his favor, although Newt is now backtracking furiously having had a smackdown from The Donald. Like I say, this isn't the usual D.C. playbook.

And at his recent victory tour rallies Trump even seemed to gently chide his own supporters for their aggressive demeanor and divisive chants about "locking her [Hillary Clinton] up," suggesting it doesn't matter anymore and that "we won" and everyone can "chill out."

It remains to be seen whether that will wash with his hardline supporters in the long run, and whether they are ready to chill out just yet. The increasing prevalence of racist incidents across the country since the election, among other things, suggests not.

There are those in the business world, especially in the financial and infrastructure sectors, who have tentatively welcomed Trump’s focus on a one-time tax cut on cash repatriated from abroad when it is brought back to the U.S., other tax cuts, and an easing of environmental and labor legislation.

He is certainly quick to take the credit for facilitating any whiff of a job staying in the U.S. or new jobs appearing here, as the recent Carrier Corporation and Sprint examples show.

But it is worth all involved noting that being in government is about much more than running a business. There is certainly no harm in having business skills within the leadership and administration, and for many in the United States the time for "business as usual" has long gone, but the future of the country has to represent more than just "all business."

rise of tech The rise of marketing spend, especially on tech

For a couple of years you couldn’t go to any marketing or communications conference without being hit with the stat that CMOs were going to outstrip CIOs in terms of tech spending by 2017. Well, now 2017 is upon us and the originator of that stat, influential research firm Gartner, has reiterated that the prediction will come true next year as marketing looks after a growing number of customer touch-points.

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Overall marketing budgets increased 1% in 2016, up to 12% of company revenue, a rise for the third consecutive year – 57% expect this percentage to increase again in 2017.

According to Gartner’s annual study of 377 marketers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., the highest percentage of marketers’ spend on tech is allocated to infrastructure, which means servers, storage, and hosted/cloud computing. This reflects a trend toward infrastructure as a service, independent of capital IT budgets.

Gartner’s data suggests marketers allocate 27% of their budgets to technology, which equates to 3.24% of total revenue, compared to CIO tech spend at 3.4% of revenue. Based on projected growth rates in the next 12 months, the Rubicon is expected to be crossed in 2017 as predicted.

The trend arose partly because marketers became frustrated at the long lead times required of traditional IT investments and took matters into their own hands due to the increased availability of infrastructure, marketing, and analytics as a service.

Just as communications and marketing functions are more likely to work together in this social media age, rather than running along parallel lines as previously, Gartner recommends brands appoint a chief marketing technologist if they haven’t already done so to oversee this important area. It also means marketing should make a big effort to collaborate with IT rather than working around it, so that tech spending is "coordinated, efficient, and harmonized."

social media Social media snafus

The death of Princess Leia actress and Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher provided another brand with an opportunity to put their foot in it, with Cinnabon considering it an appropriate time to tweet out a joke relating to buns and a dead celebrity. No matter how much you think Fisher would have appreciated the joke, and however much publicity the baked goods company gets from the incident, the default setting for brands on social media has to be erring on the side of caution.

If you have any doubt whatsoever, don’t do it. And make sure the people handling your social media channels over the holiday period are just as well-versed in your social media policies as your regular staffers, and that sufficient approval processes are in place when teams are operating with skeleton staffs.

Elsewhere, brands are being placed in some impossible social media-related situations, as illustrated by the episode involving Delta Air Lines and YouTube prankster Adam Saleh. Saleh claimed he and his friend were kicked off a Delta flight for speaking Arabic, some passengers on the flight tell a different story, claiming he was being disruptive and deliberately provoking people.

It’s impossible to tell who is telling the truth, but for Saleh it’s a case of the boy who cried wolf one too many times, and he can hardly complain at being hoisted by his own petard after some of the other airline-related stunts he has pulled. Since 9/11 air travel has been a highly sensitive and potentially volatile environment, and it is certainly not helped when people try to game the system for their own puerile reasons.

As I’ve stated before, it makes it more important than ever for flight attendants and pilots – and those in sensitive customer service roles in other industries - to be thoroughly trained in communications and crisis response. After all, they are the first line of engagement in many of these situations and they can make or break a scenario with their actions and reactions.

Bystanders also have a role to play, and those passengers sarcastically waving goodbye to Saleh as he was escorted off the airplane would do well to remember they are likely being filmed and their responses will quickly be going global on social media for the whole world to see. They might not want that to be their personal brand and legacy when they think about it in the cold light of day on the ground.

fb Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg’s iconic and hugely successful social network is a primary distribution channel for brand films, but Facebook took some well-deserved flak on multiple fronts toward the end of 2016 - and deservedly so.

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In September, it was upbraided about miscalculating key metrics and overstating the time its users were spending watching videos. In October, it discovered a bug in its Page Insights product that was causing a miscalculation of the number of unique visitors a Facebook page gets in a week or month. And, in December, a third problem was identified in its measurement and analytics, this time in mobile search and the way Facebook counts user reactions to live video.

Facebook is now playing in the big leagues in terms of media planning and buying – WPP spent $1 billion with it in 2015 and is on track to hit $1.7 billion by the end of 2016. CEO Martin Sorrell expects it to be WPP’s second-biggest media relationship by 2017, after Google at $5-5.5 million.

On the client side, Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed wants Facebook and other digital media companies to provide brands with more data on the 3Vs - viewability, verification, and value — to prove it is transparent about the success of ad campaigns on its platform.

It’s clear clients and agencies are demanding more independent data and justification for the large sums of money they are investing in Facebook and their ilk. That has to be a top priority for the social network in 2017, as does a more concerted and serious effort to combat fake news on its platform.

Facebook was lukewarm at best in its initial reactions to calls for it to address fake news, and only decided to act when it was faced with widespread opprobrium about its default response that it wasn’t its problem.

Facebook is a hugely significant channel for brands to tell their stories and media owners to distribute their content. But it has to ensure it doesn’t alienate users. A brief look at my feed today reveals a plethora of click bait, fake news, annoying content aggregators, sponsored links, and

It’s becoming harder and harder to unearth the nuggets of personal networking amid the wider dross. Many people have already become frustrated and switched off. Facebook must quickly strike a better balance if it is to retain a consumer experience that will keep its 1.7 billion user base on board and engaged.

tieProfessional services firms

Deloitte just acquired a U.K. communications agency called Regester Larkin and is keen to invest in providing crisis response services. In November, Accenture bought U.K. ad agency Karmarama, including its PR firm Kaper. It’s part of a continuing trend for the likes of Bain, McKinsey, Booz Allen, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Boston Consulting Group, and others to target the PR, marketing, and communications sector – one that ramps up every few years, presumably as these management consultants see a slowdown in other areas of their business.

Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky noted in our weekly podcast recently that one important factor that distinguishes the two sectors is creativity. The consultancies can acquire this, as Accenture just did with Karmarama, but it will be much more difficult to infuse this across the board in the overall DNA of such well-established corporate cultures.

And it's also worth remembering that these consultancies count the major marketing services holding companies among their biggest clients, so they should be a little careful in what they wish for. I can’t imagine the likes of Martin Sorrell, John Wren, and Michael Roth taking too kindly to increased competition from companies it already pays out vast amount of money in professional services fees.

content Great content

One thing to which all brands must aspire if they are to persuade consumers to interact with them is to produce outstanding content. Users have shown they are willing to engage if the content is of a level they expect from mainstream media and other outlets.

Our mission at PRWeek is also to bring you the best-possible content in the communications and marketing space, and here are some of our best efforts this year that really caught my eye:

Don’t underestimate Generation Z – check out this excellent package of content our intern Sabrina Sanchez put together for us this summer. Given the opportunities, guidance, and access, there is nothing those young people who come under the banner of Millennial or Generation Z cannot achieve.

kylie jenner
Kylie Jenner, Image via Facebook

From Russia with love – Russia has hardly been out of the headlines in the past three months, but PRWeek was ahead of the curve on this story as we got the inside scoop on how it plans to improve its image abroad and enlist a top Western PR firm to do so. Recent interviews with The New York Times in which Anna Antseliovich, acting director general of Russia’s national anti-doping agency, finally conceded there had been a significant doping program among its athletes, despite repeated denials, make one wonder if the process of attempted rapprochement hasn’t already started. This process will be tested by President Obama’s determination to impose measures to punish Russia for its interference in this year’s U.S. Presidential election.

The real story behind PTSD in veterans – I was humbled this year to speak to one of the U.S. Army vets behind this summer’s #22PushupChallenge social media phenomenon. Corporal Jacob Schick (retired) was part of 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines and sustained horrific injuries leading a patrol into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq. The tank in which he was traveling hit a land mine and Schick was blown 30 feet through the top of the vehicle. He never lost consciousness or went into shock, so remembers everything. At a time when a lot of people are feeling a sorry for themselves for various reasons, it’s worth remembering how lucky most of us are and how inspiring Schick’s example is in the face of incredible adversity.

Lessons from Cannes – there’s a lot of cynicism about Cannes, especially from those who believe it is simply an excuse for the marketing and communications industries to decamp to the South of France en masse and engage in one enormous jolly for a week. And there’s obviously more than a grain of truth in that cliché. But it is also a week when you can come away inspired, informed, and newly energized about the industry we are all a part of. And, if you aren’t lucky enough to be there in person, PRWeek is always on site to bring you the best learnings for the next 12 months.

The state of the agency nation – I’m looking forward to kicking off the whole Agency Business Report process again in early January. It’s the single most comprehensive rundown and analysis of the $10 billion PR agency sector, and this year we truly globalized the product. Here are 10 sound bites that summed up this year’s agency nation – and links to all the other content you will need to understand this part of the PR world.

Finally, don’t forget to check out PRWeek’s 11 most popular stories of 2016 in terms of traffic.

creative inspo Creative inspiration

As Weber's Andy Polansky pointed out, creativity is one of the big things that distinguishes PR and communications from management consultancies such as Deloitte, McKinsey, and Bain.

That’s a point well worth remembering when people tell you those slightly soulless companies are going to ride roughshod over a profession with nary a look in the rear view mirror… but we must all remember to emphasize our creativity and continue to produce great ideas that move our respective needles - and your clients’ needles if you are in agency-land.

This article was signifcantly updated on December 28 with more trends and content.

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