The next big thing for 2021: Senior industry experts give their predictions

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

It's been a long and complicated year, one which has left a lasting mark on the creative and digital sectors. But what will 2021 bring?

We've turned to a wide selection of industry names to provide their insights into what they're predicting will happen in their sector in 2021, ranging from general trends to specific innovations. Thank you to those who took the time to supply their predictions.

Let's see what they had to say...

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke, Marketing Director UK at Dept

The COVID-19 pandemic caused turmoil across all sectors. However, rather than halting progress, the crisis has in many ways expedited it, especially in regards to digital transformation. The silver lining has been the provision of a unique opportunity for businesses to think transformatively.

With the pressure on to streamline operations, reduce costs and maximise revenue, digital investment has become an imperative. With 2021 signalling a new start and hopefully a period of business recovery, the focus will be on implementing the technical solutions to enable flexibility and scalability. Headless solutions will replace monolithic systems, with microservices and the API economy enabling organisations to increase agility and reduce time-to-market. 

The solutions quickly spun up this year to open new revenue streams - such as a rapid eCommerce site for a new D2C offering or an AI-powered chatbot to aid the buying journey - will be more firmly cemented into both business models and technical architecture, as businesses look to maximise long term improvements and growth potential.

Tom Renn, Managing Director, Bruntwood SciTech - Manchester

2020 will stand out in history for many things, with Covid-19 the most disruptive of course, but with that has led to a significant inflexion point, in both the rapid advancements in the UK and global science and technology sector, and digital adoption and transformation at a consumer and business level. Platforms like MedRxIv have provided the foundations for collaboration on the fight against the pandemic and we’ve seen this translate into exponential growth in healthtech and telemedicine as new remote patient-doctor relationships evolved and offered patients new opportunities which will continue into 2021.

Fitnesstech has been on the rise for a number of years, with Peleton being the first real disruptor in this space with 6x growth in share value achieved this year and a market cap of £39bn. As more people adopt wearable tech, do virtual classes and purchase increasing amounts of at-home gym equipment, this is an area we expect to continue to grow, particularly as consumers look to more sustainable offerings such as Energym’s energy capture workout equipment that offers gyms an innovative solution to reduce their carbon footprint.

The other big trends we’re predicting to see grow in 2021 is the ongoing growth of Esports and gaming, which as a market place now eclipses the total value of movie and music industries combined, and growth in cashless payments. Driven by Covid transmission concerns, mass ecommerce adoption, and developments in fintech, more consumers are adopting digital payment options such as Google Pay, Apple Pay and Venmo and choosing to go cashless. The collaboration between Shopify and Stripe launched this year which also signaled a step change for the sector.

Safa Alkateb, CEO of Autocab

Safa Alakateb

We can expect concerns over the safety of transport to continue into at least the first quarter of 2021. However, we’re likely to see the transport sector pick up later in the year and this should happen first with taxis and private hire vehicles - where there is typically one driver and one passenger per vehicle, and less exposure to risk. 

In the longer term, we should also expect those business partnerships between local businesses and taxi operators that developed during the pandemic to continue to grow stronger. These relationships helped companies efficiently reach customers during lockdown, but don’t expect them to disappear when the virus does.

Rob Greenwood, CTO of Steamhaus

The pandemic has accelerated remote working and cloud adoption and migration, and we’ll see this trend continue in 2021. This opens up opportunities for the tech community - I think we’ll see a number of SaaS offerings popping up focused on remote working, employee wellbeing and engagement, for example.

The other big change to come out of the pandemic will be the speed of retail digital transformation. Although people have talked about it for years, this could finally be the time to harmonise the in-store and digital experience. 

We’re already seeing retailers increase their ability to fulfil online orders by shipping directly from stores - just one of many ways in which the two worlds can be brought together. There’s no doubt that the pandemic has caused many retailers to completely rethink their offering in order to survive. The technology is out there to help them capitalise on the opportunities that digital transformation can bring.

Chris Norton, Founder of Prohibition PR

For 2021, there is going to be a huge emphasis placed on social commerce as all of the channels look to increase their revenue streams. Facebook is facing a difficult challenge to get the balance right of an excellent mobile shopping experience and maintaining a user experience that isn’t too cluttered with too many features. TikTok will also be chasing revenue streams to help pay its best creators. 

This will be coupled with a huge growth in AI and ML usage from everything like analytics and content marketing right through to paid social. 

One trend I’ve seen developing is socially conscious brands and companies trying to be more human and helpful. 2020 has shone a light on brand actions and consumers will continue to expect brands to act responsibly towards the environment, social issues and their employees.

Martin SFP Bryant, Founder of Big Revolution

2021 will be the year when subscription fatigue really starts to kick in. A struggling economy coupled with an increasing bill of small monthly amounts for entertainment, media, and software services will see some consumers cut back. This will lead to early signs of increased bundling and re-consolidation among subscription offerings, even while more of these offerings come to market.

2020 saw some journalists at big name publications break away from their employers to go solo with their own paid subscription newsletters. I expect this to continue into 2021, especially as Substack bolsters its offering to journalists thinking of going it alone. However, we'll start to see just how hard it is to make this work. 

Those who have a strong brand and who know how to serve a very specific niche will survive and thrive. Those who do good work but neglect to service the marketing side of their nascent newsletter business may well quickly find themselves returning to a job in a publisher's newsroom sooner than they'd like.

Simon Bollon, Founder & Director of Boutique

2021 will see a greater number of new businesses across every sector in the UK, including in the agency space. With that, I expect to see more clients move towards smaller, more agile agencies from whom they will pick and choose services. More talent will fill the removal vans and move up North in the first half of the year as WFH becomes the norm and, hopefully, London-centric clients will look outside London with confidence.

AI, 5G and machine learning will grow. Loads who flog this will claim it’s going to change the world. But the speed of change and impact on a wider level is slow and minimal for most… and we’ll still list that as a prediction in 2031!

Finally, TV really does remain the most impactful marketing channel and I expect to see an ever growing number of new entrants to ‘broadcast’ and video. If any idiot predicts the demise of TV (for the 15th year running), punch them in the face.

Dan Peden, Strategy Director at Journey Further

Machine Learning has been around for a while, but more and more people are waking up to its power. The trick and the focus for 2021 is to feed it the right data. Brands really need to think about exactly what they want and feed that data to the machines.

As footfall stays low, certain above the line media has become less appealing and we’ve seen a huge shift to online video (among other channels) over the course of 2020. As digital media channels become more crowded with advertisers, the need to stand out is more important than ever, so clients are starting to put a much bigger focus on creative performance, and this trend will grow even more in 2021. 

Finally, one of the big winners from lockdown culture with more people working from home was programmatic audio. As more ad spend goes into this area, it’ll be interesting to see how the likes of Global, Spotify and YouTube Music start to shape and report on the performance. Audio could also be a great entry point for brands without the large budgets needed for VOD or TV.

Rob Shaw, CEO of CreativeRace

As people live more day-to-day, there’s a role for data and performance marketing to be in the right place at the right time. As uncertainty continues, people will need reassurance - for some brands this will mean building an emotional connection for providing certainty in an uncertain world, while for others it could be delivering a real dose of optimism in days of continuing concern.

People are more likely to try new things through big moments of change. Now is the time to be brave and win new customers - but as recession bites, the question will be “how can you add genuine value?” People have been savvier for a long time, so if you’re not solving real problems people will not spend their disposable income on you.

We’ll still be staying at home more at the beginning of the year, and how businesses help people make more of their ‘at-home lifestyle’ will be key.

As we return to more normal lives, shopping habits and work habits will have changed dramatically. Rush hour may not disappear but it’s doubtful we’ll accept paying more to endure long commutes just to get to work at an arbitrary time. Getting to grips with the new flow of daily life, in terms of your media targeting, will help you steal a march on your competitors.

Jon Corner, Chief Digital Officer of City of Salford

2021 will see enhanced roll-out of both fibre and 5G alongside continued streamlining and barrier-busting to reduce friction in infrastructure build. 5G in particular will become more pervasive, mainly on macro-sites as an extension of 4G LTE. However, we will see small cell deployment in high-density areas.

It will see greater opportunities for smaller players to bring connected application solutions to market, and an appetite for co-creation with large corporates and local authorities. This will gravitate around Smart/Connected Places/Cities and will unlock solutions in distributed health, AI and machine learning, mobility as a service, content distribution, and clean energy.

2021 will see Greater Manchester mature as a national and international centre for cybersecurity. This will be an exciting time for the region and for the North, and I predict a magnet effect of companies wanting to develop and deploy their innovation tech here.

John Jackson, Founder of Chalkboard

The move to shop local gained momentum during the pandemic and is set to really accelerate next year, as local businesses remain high in the public consciousness. This is good news for the high streets of the North. 

Major businesses like Shopify, Facebook and Google are all investing in ‘local’, and other tech providers are also stepping up to support this vital part of the economy at last.  This will benefit the Manchester tech and startup scene, which will continue to go from strength to strength.

Sarah Wareham, Insight & Strategy Director at HOME Agency 

Next year will be about doing more with less, particularly as we see brands hit the reset button and look to agencies to provide smarter solutions to evolving business challenges.

It's exciting! A great deal will come down to how we reframe these challenges and solutions. I believe that we’re going to see a boom in purposeful innovation and product development as consumers become less likely to buy brands and products ‘just because’ and look for things that genuinely solve their problems.

To make sure that we’re doing right by our clients, more with less should come from collaboration - between clients and agencies as well as between a client’s agencies. In our experience, a team’s size is irrelevant - together we can create powerful ideas and solutions.

The principle of more with less requires everyone to look inwards. As priorities change, it’s essential that further cuts to training and development do not lead to a profound skills gap further down the line. Thinking creatively to engineer unique opportunities for learning and development - despite budget constraints - will futureproof our credibility and capability.

Sean Whitty, Head of Solutions at Mobica

As we move into 2021, we can expect an increased focus on the creation of technology that bends to the needs of people, rather than the other way around. We’ll see various emerging technologies - AR, VR, IoT, 5G, cloud computing - being brought together to enhance customer, employee and user experiences.

We’re also likely to see more resources made available to capture, store, search and analyse Big Data. This in turn will help fuel the development of AI and lead to more optimisation and automation, or ‘hyperautomation’, of business processes and workflows.  

We are likely to see automobile manufacturers concentrate their efforts on developing fully connected vehicles, that resemble something more like smartphones on wheels - marking a shift in focus away from the development of fully autonomous vehicles.

Dan Sodergren, marketing and tech expert and Co-founder of tech startup Your FLOCK

The key thing for 2021 is cultural change. And the speed of that change. In 2020, if your company hasn't worked out it's ‘why’, then it won't exist by the end of 2021. That's how quick the pace of change will be.

We are already seeing it across all sectors. We see it with the people YourFLOCK works with now. This pace of change is accelerated by remote working. In 2021, people will be able to assess whether or not they want to go back to the office, go remote, or have a hybrid approach. 

Times will not go back to normal. The normal was broken already. Many companies like Your FLOCK and thousands of other startups and businesses were already remote working. Now the rest of the tech, creative and digital industries will join.

2021 will be not about why organisations exist. 2021 is going to be about the ‘who’. Who we work with, who we work for, who you see and don’t. The strangest thing will be the fact that it’s not really up to the companies to choose. Employees will ultimately make the decision. The best employees have more options now than ever before.

2021 will bring in a new age of concern for some but freedom for many. It will be up to savvy business owners to realise that organisations which share values are around 21% more productive.

David Gore, Head of Industries at BJSS

2021 will be the year of 5G, as it’ll spread far and wide due to the demands of consumers. Quicker speeds means more higher-quality content will be available, as the larger file sizes will pose no barrier to streaming.

Expect 4K films and TV shows to soon be the norm through online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It will also make it easier for VR and AR programmes to run without a Wi-Fi connection. So expect to see more games like Pokemon Go that blend virtual graphics with real-world environments.

Of course, the quicker speeds will allow them to become much more complex, with more advanced graphics and functionality, so I expect to a rise in the number of location-based apps and personalised offerings throughout the year as they become more accurate.

Georgia Halston, Director, Halston Marketing

In the coming year we expect to see the continued growth of a trend that’s working wonders for B2B clients. For lack of a better term, we’re calling it community marketing.

In sectors such as tech, which are becoming increasingly more saturated, you have to be more innovative when it comes to having your voice heard over the crowd. Among others, the No Code Lab is an amazing example of how the creation of a community not only adds volume to your brand voice, it allows you to own the conversation entirely.

Elevating a brand leader beyond the level of ‘contributor’ to the position of facilitator of a conversation brings a new level to thought leadership, one seldom reached through traditional research and PR tactics and one whose gravitas is becoming a major springboard for our clients.

Paul Wood, VP of Sales at ResponseTap

From making on and offline experiences as frictionless as possible, to sympathetically speaking to customers who may be going through financial hardships, how businesses treat their customers in what will be a challenging period will determine much of their success in 2021.

Another big trend we’ll see next year is businesses making better use of customer data to understand their behaviour. This will go beyond understanding what customers do, but why they do it which will result in companies being able to accurately predict and anticipate customer actions.

Nathan Broadbent, Head of Creative Technology at Trunk

AR will become more accessible and widely adopted, as Apple release their own headset in 2021. The fact they’re great at product development and have the reach, means it’ll be something people will seriously consider using on a larger scale.

The lessons learned from building their App Store, such as attractive commercials and promoting quality apps will help onboard good developers and result in great content and experiences. Once traction starts to gain momentum, other hardware manufacturers will follow and try to build their own ‘iPhone killers’, opening up the market even further. 

Pricing for VR hardware will continue to drop, making it somewhat more accessible, but the clunky kit is still a big barrier to entry and lack of daily tools or usage will continue to limit the uptake to enterprise and gaming use cases.

Dan Appleby, Managing Director of Drummond Central

After the shitshow of 2020, making predictions for 2021 feels like a mug’s game. But I’ll give it a go.

Let’s start with cautious optimism about budgets showing signs of recovery and clients growing in confidence in their planning. The IPA and Advertising Association are all optimistic that budgets and spend will start to recover and rebound. Marketers will be under pressure to continue to be careful with how those budgets are put to use. We’ll see clients focusing more on effectiveness and a desire to demonstrate that those precious budgets have been used wisely.

But we'll be able to think and plan ahead more than just reacting week to week - the brands that don't think too short-term will be the ones who recover and grow fastest.

I hope that agencies embrace that drive for effectiveness and that it inspires a creative renaissance. Agencies and brands have shown incredible creativity and resourcefulness in the last nine months. When you look at the quality of some of the work that has been created, it is frankly astonishing. The value and appreciation for creativity and the role of agencies as strategic business partners are high right now. That’s something we need to capitalise on as an industry. This is when skilled agencies and ambitious clients should be doing their best work and I hope we'll see some even better in 2021.   

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