What Will Advertising Look Like in 2020?

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( Jerry Wind from Wharton asked me to answer this question. Here’s what I came up with. I’d love to hear how you’d answer the question. Thanks.)

I believe that capitalism runs on the inefficiencies in any given market. These inefficiencies force evolution. They force change and innovation. Often rendering old business models irrelevant.

I’ve seen this over decades. Looking back, the change that’s happened, and the pace at which its taken place, is hard to fathom.

I was born into media. Ink in my veins. Four generations of newspaper owners. I’m not talking about Hearst kind of newspaper owners. I’m talking about newspaper owners from the other side of the tracks. The kind of newspapers like the Canton Daily Ledger or the Oqwauka Current. Local, family-style affairs. (I just checked Facebook; The Current now has 33 followers.)

At my dad’s paper (and, my grandfather’s before him) everyone was involved. The same people wrote the stories, typeset the paper, and ran the presses. Back then, it took 35 people to put out The Canton Daily Ledger.

When I was a kid, before I became a paperboy, I’d go down and hang out with the typesetters. These guys were all about the craft, all about the process. They’d melt the lead, pour it into the Linotype machine  – a big, frightening contraption, like something out of a Steampunk nightmare. Then they’d pull the letters from the Linotype and organize them upside down and backwards on a special rolling brass table. A few quick moves of their hands and presto, the page was laid out. They were fast. They were passionate. They were craftsman.

By the time I joined the paper – not counting my time as a paperboy – I was in high school. The linotypes were pretty much gone. And with them legions of craftsman. Folks who’d worked for decades to create the perfect layout. It took more time to put a paper together the old way, but that time allowed some space to be creative. Creativity would often emerge from the negative space, the steps in the process. The time spent waiting for the Linotype to print a few more letters. And, of course, from between the letters themselves.

By the time I got to college, the computer revolution was on. Now stat cameras took pictures, and huge type-setting machines cranked out type. Sure, you still had to run the long galleys of type through a wax machine and use your penknife to make layouts, but it was a radical innovation.

Each summer I would work all the jobs at the paper so that people could take their vacations. I’d write the obits for a week. Run the press for a couple. And, of course, sell a few ads.

We’d take the layouts to the local Ludlum’s Grocery store every afternoon, and discuss the price of the meat for the next day’s ads. If you didn’t get enough wax on the back of the 3,9 and 8 you could find yourself advertising a pound of meat for $.89 versus $3.98. Making a very unhappy – and non-paying – customer of Ludlum’s Grocery

The job I liked the best on my summer rotation was running the press. Pushing these huge, 900-pound rolls of paper around, loading them into the presses, and then watching the paper come out, finished.

I started my first company in 1986. I bought a magazine, Rocky Mountain Running News, and used it as the foundation to start a larger magazine, Rocky Mountain Sports. It was a purchase made possible by another radical shift in technology. Instead of paying $35,000 annually for typesetting, I was able to buy a Mac Plus, a 20MB hard drive and a laser writer for $23,000. I also got my hands on a beta version of Quark, which was, at the time, basically a type-setting program for Macs.

So, there I was, a complete amateur, trying to figure out how to typeset my magazine. While I didn’t need a typesetting house for body copy, I’d still use them occasionally for ads.

You should have heard them when they saw those first few issues. They just laughed. Gave me all kinds of grief about how awful the kerning and leading was. How the choice of type was horrible. Every time we talked they’d say, “This desktop publishing thing will never work. You’ll be back.”

Well, we all know how that story ended.

We’re in the midst of another such revolution. And it’s having a direct and profound effect on the advertising business. How it’s created, how it’s consumed. And this revolution is all about connectivity. Now, people can participate in culture, and by association, in the process of creation, advertising or otherwise – by connecting digitally. They don’t have to move to the right city, or work for the right company, to be involved.

It doesn’t matter whether they’re amateurs or professionals. They now have the ability to work where they want, with whom they want and how they want. We’re evolving, as Eric Raymond so aptly put it, into a world ruled by the creative bazaar, and away from the cathedrals of advertising that agencies have created.

You can call it crowdsourcing, co-creation or open source innovation. The point is, the reality is, advertising will continue to be democratized.

With this radical democratization, the structures of advertising organizations are being transformed. Radically. Now one person with a wireless connection can be an agency, a media company, or even a manufacturer with the help of a 3D printer.

The other cultural shift that will only accelerate this change, is that advertising is becoming more tactical. Especially in the mobile world. Platforms like Google will make their money not from interruptive display advertising, but from things like monetizing the call button that comes up when you search for your local pizza shop.

There will be room for agencies. They’re not going away. But they will be, they must be, radically smaller. Cultural curators, tapping into talent from everywhere.

What will advertising be in 2020? It’s anybody’s guess. But in the same way that the linotype machine gave way to the mac, whatever it is will be radically different than it is today.

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