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Disruption in adland

How everything has already changed, how advertising needs to adapt, and three life lessons for our children to survive the future.

Words by Sam Orrin, senior partnerships manager at NABS

On the hottest February night on record, NABS pulled in 20 of the most reputable names in adland to inspire a packed room of rising stars for the latest in our series of NABS Talks. The aim? To help us all get our heads around what the Shape of 2019 really might look like.

This time we tried something new, splitting our panellists into four interactive panels covering Wellbeing, Diversity & Inclusivity, Disruption & Reasons to be Cheerful. Each of the expert panels gave their views, with their audiences then following up with agreements, disagreements and views of their own.

For anyone who’s ever been to Advertising Week, Festival of Marketing or other big industry events – think that – but the audience are one metre away from the stars on stage and can butt in whenever they wanted to say anything. It was pretty cool.

Having worked for a tech company that disrupted the way the majority of London’s ad agencies work prior to joining NABS, I chose to join the Disruption panel. What actually is disruption? Are agencies safe? Are our jobs safe? How will technology change the consumer landscape, and the human race?! All in a Tuesday night’s work for the panel and their keen audiences.

NABS Talks: The Shape of 2019 coming, 26Feb2019, Posterscope, London. ©BronacMcNeill
The Disruption panel, featuring (left to right) Glen Wilson (managing director at Posterscope UK), Ed Couchman (UK general manager, Snap Inc.), Helen McRae (UK CEO at Mindshare), and Leigh Thomas (director global client partnerships EMEA at Facebook) and their mini audience of rising stars.

Sorry, what exactly is disruption? 

Disruption has previously been smaller companies creating new ways of working and thinking, taking on an incumbent. David versus Goliath. Think Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, Monzo; versus shops, hotels, taxis and banks, respectively. Now the majority of these “small” and “new” companies are anything from 5-20 years old, as well as tech giants Facebook and Google, which have both ultimately disrupted the way we live our lives. The advertising industry now needs to move forward and look at the positive uses and outcomes of everyone being on these platforms, in this new digital and social world. Traditional advertising and ways of thinking aren’t going to quite cut it, I’m afraid.

Look East

Start with some perspective, because you ain’t seen nothing yet. Before we worry too much about how technology is disrupting us in UK adland, we need to get out of our London bubble and take on ideas from the East. China and East Asia are already developing and scaling digital products and changing the consumer landscape far faster than the West, and are years ahead already. Examples mentioned included Alibaba, WeChat, Tik Tok, all of which are totally changing customer experience and the way consumers purchase and view brands. In fact it’s not just Asia, look to any region that isn’t overly protective of data privacy, both legally and from a consumer point of view. Africa, Middle East and India are huge growth markets for brands as consumers happy to share data for new innovations.

Social + Commerce = The Future  

Commerce is becoming or has already become very much digital in the West, but again look to how Asia’s companies have really integrated technology into the way humans interact, come together and how brands and e-commerce effortlessly become part of the conversation. Buying has never been easier, whereas the West are still looking at advertising as content and display. Even Amazon just isn’t where the big Chinese e-commerce platforms are today.

Marketeers have to keep an eye on the trend towards encrypted messaging platforms, as consumers become wary of the data they give to search and social platforms. What this could mean for advertising could be absolutely vital.


Because you can’t talk about disruption and technology without mentioning blockchain, can you? Note: Blockchain does not mean cryptocurrency. Blockchain can and will change processes, cut out the middleman and drastically increase efficiencies, productivity and data trails; adding big value to supply chains and the transfer of information. For the communications industry, this means more data on our customers’ journeys and more opportunities to really understand our customers. However, with all of this data, we need to be responsible for privacy or we’ll experience tighter government regulation.

Panel discussion

The scariest disruption of all?

China’s new “Social Credit” rating, which is based on lifestyle, habits and consumer decisions is perhaps the scariest way technology will maybe disrupt our lives, not just the advertising industry. Actually it’s genuinely horrifying. Read over this piece in Wired. It’s Black Mirror, but actually happening right now. IRL.

Internet speed will change everything

Next up is 5G. If you think back to the release of 4G a few years ago, it didn’t really change a huge amount for marketeers and consumers. However 5G will dramatically transform the way information will be transferred. Video and visual data will be transmitted faster than ever, totally changing the communications landscape. The way we all interact is about to be sped up immeasurably. And this will happen this year.

Will communication channels change? 

Yes, inevitably. They already have. However, they will evolve into a far more interactive and social platform as hardware evolves. Visual search will be a gamechanger. Also it’s worth reading over the IPA Touchpoints to see how TV is still stable, streaming is soaring, and radio is absolutely still a relevant and growing channel. As with technology as a wider discussion, don’t just look at London, or even the UK, look at the global picture.

The robots are coming

Like blockchain, you can’t not mention Artificial Intelligence (AI). Yep, like you, it made the group feel deeply uncomfortable, especially when considering that it might be used in decisions on the provision of healthcare and legal sentencing, for example. The agreed consensus was that it shouldn’t make decisions on behalf of humans. It’s humans AND machines, not humans OR machines.

Will we even have jobs in 5 years?

In industries such as manufacturing, maybe not. In the advertising industry, yes. Technology cannot replace empathy. Machines do not create. AI and machine learning will hopefully take over the monotonous, laborious ‘data input’ and ‘copy and paste’ jobs we do today. Good news, your plethora of Excel sheets will (hopefully) be a thing of the past in the near future. Brains will once again be used for ideas and creativity, and not administration. As consumers, humans are also serendipitous creatures, they have the creativity not just to come up with new ideas, but also to change the way they act. For years we can buy the same thing, but one day we might just make a different decision. AI can’t predict that.

Some essential advice for your children

Teach your kids these 3 key lessons, safeguard them against the tide of machines that are coming, and they’ll be absolutely fine:

  1. Moral judgement. Be able to be empathetic towards humans, listen and talk openly and honestly, understanding bias and social nuances.
  2. Be able to define princes and paupers, which will mean you will be able to communicate with anyone – not just ‘your own’.
  3. Creativity wins. It’s what makes us human; have new ideas, have an opinion, be emotional.

Should we learn to code?

Kids in schools are learning Python, a skill deemed so important in the digital world of the future. However, perhaps you shouldn’t bother – it’s likely to be a skill that machines will be able to do for us!

How about hiring more “disruptors” at your company?

Disruptive innovators are often encouraged, but regularly viewed as these crazy new people looking to shake things up internally. This isn’t what the industry needs. The best disruptors are people who see a problem and find a solution. These people are goal oriented, and seriously focussed on solving problems.

Are ad agencies fundamentally doomed?

Will they survive? Yes. Even with in-housing being undertaken by both media owners and brands, no organisation can be truly impartial and willing to test new ideas quite like agencies. The ability to be agile, change plan, test, try new methods, and to call upon a vast pool of creative and ideas-led human beings is absolutely crucial. The biggest thing clients want from agencies now is impartiality and agility.

NABS Talks: The Shape of 2019 Panellists

NABS Talks: The Shape of 2019 Panellists

*My highlights are the views discussed amongst the panellists and audience. They are not necessarily the views of the individual panellists.


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