Decoding visions of 2020

Karen Howe weighs in with predictions for the year ahead and what they mean for agencies and the state of creativity.

Shapeshifting defines the decade

The quiet but persistent chant of “the model is broken” leads me to expect ongoing turmoil as ad agencies and PR companies continue morphing. PR firms are turning into ad agencies by expanding their creative services, while agencies are recasting themselves as consultancies. Accenture buying Droga 5 – one of the hottest agencies on the planet – provided an unlikely spot of hope: it’s an acknowledgement that data alone is not the answer, as creative is the lifeblood required to give it shape, relevance and meaning. And as AI creep continues, we maintain uneasy co-existence. We love it but we hate it. The flurry of AI “creative directors” has been laughable up to this point; in fact, Burger King mocked it openly. But still the quest continues to make creative more science than art.

Fewer cage matches

I’d like to see more clients migrate back to a one-agency commitment model as they remember the remarkable power of a business partner who speaks their brand shorthand. I think smart clients will figure out that placing multiple agencies in cage match on a project-by-project basis is the direct path to inferior creative, crushed morale and diminished motivation.

The fallacy of privacy

Pressure is mounting for greater transparency and personal control over how advertisers use data – witness the spate of how-to articles helping people limit outside access to intel provided by their smartphone. The ascendency of sound-activated search comes with its own Achilles heel. The New York Times offered its own take on Amazon Echo: “The 2010s proved it’s easy to convince people to bug their own homes if you also give them the ability to listen to Maroon 5 on demand.”

This may be the decade we stop clinging to any nostalgic notion of privacy, as security cameras and our own phones surveil every moment of our lives. The horse has left the barn.

We are in era of mistrust

Here is an unnerving stat: 89% don’t trust advertisers. We score lower than politicians. Ouch. As well, the trust Canadians have in major institutions, organizations and leaders has been badly eroded.

Truth is under siege. We have work to do as an industry and as a community. This is the time to clean up our act, and leverage the power of creativity to help right the ship.

A category grows into its own

It has been fascinating to see the cannabis category invent itself. It is the quintessential case of building the airplane while in mid-air. As the world looks on, Canada is scrambling to figure out the bust-and-boom world of weed. It is as highly regulated as it is volatile: look no further than share prices of key cannabis brands or producers beginning to sell off some of their assets. Beyond the focus shift to edibles, safe storage and concerns about vaping, we will see the expansive allusions to CBD being a cure-all for everything from dandruff to kidney disease coming under far greater scrutiny.


Millennials seek brands that align with their personal values, and they are not alone. As more companies grasp the importance of purpose versus just profit, we’ll have a burgeoning of clients with conscience. The caveat is the trap of the empty gesture. People are deeply wary of purpose-washing, so a brand’s commitment to purpose must be long-term, legit, internal and external or it will feel the backlash, fast and furious. Brands that get it right include Tom’s Shoes, Patagonia, Warby Parker and Italy’s Leroy Merlin.

Sustainability is hip

The 60s are back, and it’s a good thing. Millennials are today’s hippies. Namaste to that. They are our climate champions, preachers of sustainability and acolytes of reuse and recycle, and causes and brands that flank those beliefs will flourish. Our millennials are the antidote to all things Gordon Gecko. They give me hope. Greta Thunberg is the gamechanger, watch us vector towards meaningful action with regards to climate change.

Digital detox

Will this be the year we end the bashing of social and trashing of Twitter? The bigger issue is the people, not the platform. We need an etiquette update and it goes like this; when you are with people, be present. Listen, and engage. According to studies by psychologist Dr. Mary Donahue, we swipe our phones an average of 2,562 times a day. Will we see a shift to mindful untethering (thank you Gwyneth Paltow) and take part in a little digital detox now and then?

Oh Canada

A tip of the hat to our own wonderful and humble country. Beyond our national treasure (of course I speak of Ryan Reynolds), we have become a mighty force creatively. Almost 100 countries submitted work into Cannes Lions in 2019, and Canada quietly claimed 8th place for most awards won. We have global traction. You will continue to see Canadian creative flourish, and be recognized on podiums worldwide.

Karen Howe is founder of creative consultancy The Township and member of the Cannes Lions Advisory Board.