Predictions 2021 - Media agencies on the ad spend lift ahead

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 14 December 2020

2021 is being billed as a year of lift off following the pandemic, with forecasts showing a substantial rise in ad spend.

The latest media agency booking numbers confirm Australia’s advertising market emerging from the coronavirus crisis.

The market was down just 4.8% in October, a long way from the depths of the coronavirus in May when the SMI (Standard Media Index) showed a record 40.4% drop in ad spend.

And forward bookings confirm November and December ad demand is well above where it was at the same time last year.

Peter Vogel, CEO, Wavemaker, says the industry needs to be braver and more focused.

“It goes without saying that 2021 will be all about sustainable and regenerative growth,” he says.

Ben Willee, GM and media director, Spinach, says change will continue. “It will be rapid but like all things in this life,” he says. “It will come one day at a time and we will all be able to manage.”

See the full predictions below:

Katie Rigg-Smith, CEO Mindshare: I have one prediction and one wish …

Prediction: The organisation of data and technology will be key for 2021. Really understanding that intersection of adtech and martech, how advanced analytics can turn the dial and how automation, AI and e-commerce link through the customer experience.

Wish: We bring back the magic to what we do. The magic that comes from having a fresh perspective on the data and comes out in the work you wish you had done! The organisation of data and tech is a means to an end, to be able to understand people better and how better we can connect with them to deliver our clients’ objectives. I would love to see more application of consumer insights that make me sit up and take note.

Jeremy McNamara, client service director, Ikon: With our industry adapting to WFH in such quick and efficient capacity in 2020, we’ve lost so much connection with our colleagues and partners beyond the functional roles. And with so many businesses in 2021 likely to offer more flexibility than ever before, we could see some agencies rarely or even never having majority staff in the same place at one time.

This is likely to have a drastic impact on agency culture. For an industry where culture and connection is so critical (even a desired skill), what many are left with is heavily focused toward the functional aspects of an agency. Those agencies that don’t have a plan for how to build and nurture a unique culture in the face of continued remote working will likely see higher churn as employees become more focused on only comparing the nuts and bolts of their job, rather than those unique connections and rituals. Churn is the enemy of greatness, impacting performance for both clients and agencies.

Ben Willee, GM and media director, Spinach: You’ll never hear of an agency person missing the opportunity to give you their point of view. And when it comes to opinions, they’re like arseholes: we’ve all got one and most of them stink.
So predictions wise, I’m doing things a little bit differently this year. I’m going to tell you what isn’t going to change.
1. There will still be morons out there shouting at us on Linkedin to only do digital marketing.
2. There will still be morons writing opinion pieces about how Tik Tok or “insert latest social media platform” is going to fundamentally change the advertising business.
3. There will still be morons talking about Millennials and other nonsensical categorisations.
4. Smart advertisers will keep taking a long-term view, building their brands and investing in channels based on the brief.
5. Everyone in the ad industry will continue to start sentences with, "I’ll tell you what clients want…” but, as always, very few clients will do the same.
6. Digital companies will still be arguing with the government about the news media bargaining code.
7. Change will continue. It will be rapid but like all things in this life. It will come one day at a time and we will all be able to manage.

Lauren Small, managing director, Carat Sydney: 2021: the year of "Flex-agility" … There’s no doubt that next year will not be business as usual; we’ll still need to embrace the flexibility and agility that we’ve all brought to the table in 2020, especially when it comes to our media partnerships. Long gone are the days of set and forget - instead we need to embrace flex-agility, and ensure we plan for continuous change. If we are to move past the cautious optimism of the final months of 2020 , we will reassure our clients that no plan is set in stone, and there is always an option B, or indeed C, D, or E! This will require open, honest, and frequent discussions with our media partners - tackling the difficult conversations as soon as they arise and having the bravery to move beyond the boundaries that we historically operated in.

Sam Geer, managing director, Initiative: When it comes to predictions, I believe in the go hard or go home philosophy. In that spirit, I believe 2021 will mark the birth of one of the biggest challenges to face the TV market in its history; the launch of a freemium, ad-funded Netflix proposition. After the accelerated growth of the platform during COVID, and the unsustainable levels of investment in content production (estimated $17.3B in 2020), 2021 seems like the perfect time for Netflix to move into the ad space and rock the traditional TV players across the globe. A less is more approach to ad formats is to be expected, and will help provide a more enjoyable consumer experience. Solus breaks, heightened ad relevance and a choice of how you receive these messages are all suitable tactics to launch with a distinctive and market circuit-breaking approach.

Sian Whitnall, chief digital officer, OMD Australia: Coming out of 2020 my crystal ball is a little murky! If the past year is forever to be remembered as one of chaos and uncertainty, then we could expect 2021 to be a year of consolidation.

With COVID, the focus was on ecommerce, resulting in an overhauled service infrastructure and new technology being onboarded. In 2021, brands will need to shift from the mindset of on-boarding technology, to focus more on the outcomes that need to be delivered. My prediction is that we will hear less about the technology being the solution, and more about the strategies that will be required to deliver brands’ results.

Chris Hitchcock, managing director-media, AKQA: I hope for a move away from our industry-wide cognitive dissonance regarding where we invest our media dollars.

I refer to the continued over-reliance and focus that many still place in direct response (channels like paid search) while under-investing in areas that build brand. This, despite the widely accepted academic research (IPA and others) which has been re-enforced by numerous cautionary tales of (Adidas, Topshop and Old Navy).

This is not a new topic and has been zeitgeist in our circles for a couple of years now. The concern is that while progress has been made, change has been slow and now COVID is leading to a doubling down on this short-term thinking as survival instincts kick in.

The recently released WARC marketing toolkit for 2021, highlighted that short term thinking was a 'primary concern' for CMOs going into 2021 but also the most likely areas of their marketing budget to be cut in 2021 - you’ve guessed it - brand advertising.

Peter Vogel, CEO, Wavemaker: It goes without saying that 2021 will be all about sustainable and regenerative growth; for the Australian economy, for brands and for our talent and their careers. To achieve these growth ambitions and grow fearlessly, the industry needs to be braver and more focused in 2021. Businesses will need to adapt and consider new and better ways of doing things; be it the way they engage with consumers, the customer experiences they provide or by embracing new distribution channels.

Agencies will need to continue to provide clients with innovative full-funnel, consumer experience-led solutions. It will be a year of what Wavemaker call, ‘positive provocation’. Provoking growth for brands by developing new and more meaningful ways to influence consumer decisions; not simply based on traditional marketing principles, but on deep category and consumer knowledge, by leveraging advanced analytics and intent-based customer signals.

Ecommerce and direct-to-consumer will definitely continue accelerate, now that Australia’s long-awaited Ecommerce boom is here to stay and because consumers are more exposed to, and better informed on, global issues they will gravitate to brands that reflect their principles and who stand up for what they believe in.

Lou Petrolo, managing partner, Etcom: 2021 will see the multicultural media landscape in Australia continue its digital shift with more traditional channels, like ethnic print and radio having to adapt or evolve to remain relevant. The closure of the biggest and oldest Chinese newspaper in Australia in 2020, emphasised that for the largest and growing migrant groups in Australia – Chinese and Indian – diverse in-language digital and social media channels that reach different segments of these audiences is crucial for effective reach and engagement. Brands need to go beyond programmatic and Facebook targeting – think titles like WeChat, Youku, IQiyi, Saavn, Zee and YuppTV.

James Graver, managing director, Australia, at Essence, a global data and measurement-driven media agency which is part of GroupM: Marketing in 2021 will be defined by the actions brands take in response to the impact of the pandemic - what they ask of their data, technology, processes, performance and their agencies. With a culture of testing, experimenting and shared learning, agencies can help set brands up for sustainable, long-term value creation.

We will see an acceleration in the movement towards all screens being addressable at scale. Media, creative and experiences will also become one and the same, and the continued merging of commerce, content and advertising will enable agencies to partner more brands to build direct relationships with consumers.

Across all of this, more marketing will be defined by code and custom approaches. Machine learning and artificial intelligence offer opportunities for brands and agencies to codify their best practice plans into automated solutions, so their people can focus on finding new advantages for disproportionate outcomes through the creativity and magic that exist within our industry.

These developments are both exciting and critical to laying the foundations of modern marketing growth in 2021 and beyond.

Samantha Bolton, Managing Partner USA & UK, Audience Precision:  With the economic after-effects of COVID-19 and the increasing uncertainty of Australia’s trading relationship with China, it will be crucial for marketers to ensure that the audience they are communicating with have the propensity and motivation to buy.

More than ever in 2021, marketers will need to understand their brand's advocacy against their competitors. And significant time and effort is needed to understand the complete 360 degree view of target consumers, including their purchase drivers. 

Know where consumers discover new brands and which media platforms drive this, and what online resources audiences are using to research pre-purchase and know their online purchase drivers.

These audiences will NOT fall into antiquated, broad-based, demographically focussed groups. All you get with that approach is bucket loads of wastage and in 2021 clients cannot afford to waste money on people who aren’t motivated to buy.

Utilising the right media channel, where the message has the highest opportunity to motivate purchase by delivering high levels of attention, is key as all media is not the same.

Stewart Gurney, Chief Strategy Officer at Kaimera:  QR Codes won’t hang around, but they will have a lasting legacy.

Five years ago, QR codes were a hot topic for advertisers, despite the fact that 60% of people didn’t really know what they were and penetration sitting at around 13%, we started to see them everywhere. Whether it was codes on pack on actually embedded into advertising, QR codes were starting to appear in droves around us. Then they disappeared. Consumers refused to get on board, putting QR codes firmly in the too hard basket, allowing them to sit unscanned and underutilised. COVID has changed all that. Scanning a code (and being asked to join mailing list) has become commonplace for anyone wanting to get into a venue for a beer or go for dinner. 2020 was the year that millions of Australians, finally got on the QR code train, creating familiarity with the technology and more importantly- lasting behaviour. However, I predict the QR Codes moment of glory will be short lived. Disappearing in line with changing restrictions and legislation. What might not disappear however is the familiarity and the behaviours around using your phone to access greater utility and information. This is a great opportunity for things like Google Lens or augmented reality platforms, and of course brands, to tap into this behaviour, usurp the clunky QR code and continue to get consumers scanning and unlocking layers of content and information.

Overseas travel will become the ultimate social currency. If you thought your socials were spammed with holiday hashtags and perfectly filtered photos in 2019, just wait until 2021. The overseas travel ban has created a nation of pent up explorers desperate to travel and create new experiences and stories. As the vaccine slowly becomes available and countries open their borders, getting on a plane and travelling overseas will become the ultimate social brag. Those who are first to travel will be the ones who most get to bathe in the credibility and kudos, sharing and posting their travels to the envy of their followers. Overall travel will elevate in the eyes of consumers. It will become the ultimate ‘must have’, an expression of superiority and self-importance #blessed #solucky #lookatme. Brands that can help maximise, facilitate, and help consumers brag about their experiences will grow in favour and popularity.

John Vlasakakis, head of organic search, Next & Co: Digital advertising will peak and see unprecedented levels of spending. 

With COVID forcing so many legacy brands to quickly adopt a digital first approach to how they acquire and service new and existing customers I am predicting a significant increase in digital advertising spend across the board for the likes of Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Snapchat etc.

COO's and CMO's at brands with a large retail presence can do the simple maths and the return on investment on a price per sqm for a retail store vs a website (factoring in advertising costs) is up to 10 times more efficient than a physical presence.

Brands will double down and distribute funds towards digital activities which have a clear and measurable result on how advertising dollars are performing.

Tier 2 and 3 brands in Australia who were traditionally reluctant to invest marketing dollars into awareness channels like Youtube or Catch Up TV will commence doing so in 2021.

It is going to be an exciting year ahead!

Dan O’Brien, commercial irdector & head of strategy, Frontier Australia: You don’t need to look that far back, pre COVID-19 (was there such a thing?) to see an advertising industry that already needed some TLC. Looking to 2021, mental health and culture need to be at the forefront of any “bounce back” plan. Staff at all levels are exhausted, leaders are battle-scarred and clients need trusted partners more than ever. Specifically looking at media agency businesses, those that succeed in 2021 will be those that are already focussing on re-igniting the cultural flame in their business, finding clever ways to re-energise loyal teams and genuinely putting people’s wellbeing and happiness levels front and centre in any business plan. We do that properly....then we can get back to work. 

Luke Sullivan, CEO, Sandbox Media: As I look into the crystal ball at the 2021 environment (yawn, yes I know it’s boring), it’s hard to go past the government as my key prediction or topic to watch for the year. I just can’t ignore that so many policy decisions are due to be announced, implemented or potentially altered which will influence marketers, media companies, businesses and consumers. From the post JobKeeper economy, major infrastructure announcements, mental health, data privacy rules, Royal Commission findings etc. Even foreign policy and trade is a big factor for some sectors now under pressure in this COVID-19 economy. Then there are state governments with stimulus incentives and a watchful, meerkat property market. All of this impacts everyone, across everything.

Whilst consumer confidence is climbing, there is volatility and apprehension with everything from vaccines to booking interstate travel. This means marketers have to have agility in their plans and budgets and some wriggle room from boards when signing off on marketing budgets. They need to be willing to adjust creative, switch channels, recognise short term tactical market opportunities and take some calculated risks.

Jimmy Hyett,  CEO, This is Flow: In a year celebrated for virtual adoption, the power of human connection will rise above technology in 2021. COVID has forced the hand globally to digitise platforms and process and enable flexibility in and out of our offices, plus it’s opened the door to many consumers previously reluctant to accept a new virtual way of living. However, while we have seen incredible benefits, it’s also been the catalyst that’s highlighted the underlying issue of technology that’s been slowly eating away at human interaction, which we’re now craving at astonishing levels.

This renewed hunger for connection will become the cornerstone of effective media strategies, brand growth and even agency success. Technology will be utilised but not as celebrated, while consumers seek out experiences over convenience to lean into. The focus on data and tech in media pitches and recommendation will take a back seat to the creative and strategic minds that make our industry thrive. Agencies will put more resource behind "people first business practice" to ensure our own staff are supported, celebrated and inspired in 2021 and beyond.

Tobey Bower, commercial director at Alpha Digital: In 2021, we expect to see brands and agencies alike put fresh emphasis on planning resilience into their business strategies.

The unexpected slingshot of COVID-19 has thrust digital commerce to the fore and brands are having to consider the economic recovery, media regulation, and shifting consumer expectations when it comes to strategy and planning.

Customers are going to be continuing to navigate change and uncertainty, so brands who use empathy, personalisation, convenience, and connected experiences will find strong competitive advantages.

I think (and hope) we'll see a 2021 and beyond where brands and their partners take a more balanced approach to marketing, overall. Whether this is in terms of prioritisation, media mix, team composition, appropriately attributing value, or revenue streams (offline vs eCommerce), I think the events of 2020 will nudge the industry to consider a broader set of possibilities and probabilities as we map out our medium-to-long-term plans.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.