Predictions2021: PR agencies, by Cicero & Bernay’s Ahmad Itani

2021 is set to be a year of constant change, writes Ahmad Itani of C&B and PRCA MENA.

Ahmad Itani is founder and CEO of Cicero & Bernay Public Relations and chairman of PRCA MENA.

In December of 2019, as we all looked forward to the new year and had begun anticipating upcoming trends that would change or affect 2020, a news story that was getting increased visibility originated around 5,000 km to the east in China.

On January 30, 2020, Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic and, as of March of the same year, the world would undergo a lockdown that would change the way we live and experience life for the foreseeable future.

At the outset of every year, we reflect upon the previous 12 months to envision a path forward for the coming 12. In the closing of 2019, I foresaw the growing influence of and dependence on data as a means of bringing back the emphasis on people, not products and services. Little did I or anyone know that though our projections were true, they would not be validated the way we expected them to be.

2020 was explicitly about human experiences, challenges, and alternative journeys in the wake of Covid-19. Though we collectively, in the industry and across sectors, were forced to adjust to new machinations and evolve overnight, what rang loudest across the year was the power of hope in unison and the intrinsic adaptability of the human spirit.

One of the major adaptations that was noted this year in PR, and communications as a whole, was an increased focus on brand value and social responsibility. Much, if not all, brand-focused PR tactics that put the brand above all were rendered redundant by the pandemic. As 2020 progressed, stakeholders were stepping away from product placements and promotions, turning their attention towards user-generated content that was being embraced and encouraged by brands, irrespective of their product or service. In effect, the brands that reaped the most positive results in 2020 were those that read the room and allowed things to roll out autonomously. Customers acknowledged the nod and were more likely to support brands that put their offerings on the backburner to make way for human stories and experiences that the world was very much interested in finding out about.

Moving ahead in 2021, advertisements and brand communication will continue to have a major focus on the value of user-generated content, turning seemingly independent content creators into brand ambassadors. This is a trend that may not have been a novel concept in 2020, but it took centre stage and will continue to do so, actively altering the playing field for promotions and marketing machinations. The pandemic certainly changed some perceptions, but people are veering, now more than ever, towards content that is aimed at the greater good or that highlights brands’ corporate social responsibility more than their products and services.

On the other hand, the pandemic-accelerated digital changes will remain the way of working for most industries throughout 2021. With the pandemic still largely a concern, the remote-work model will maintain its validity for marketing, brand and corporate communications, and PR firms. Hyper-personalisation will become even more of a norm, especially with the increasing influence and impact of predictive analysis and data science that businesses will be adapting to and adopting even when things go back to the pre-pandemic normal.

In fact, of the disruptions that shook the industry over the past few years, innovations in programmatic machinations are now front and centre, defining the path forward for communication ecosystems and becoming a fast-adopted and deployed concept that is changing the way we share content. However, though a number of prominent conglomerates are reconsidering their explicit reliance on programmatic technology in search of even more streamlined marketing tactics, it is still the most precise method to target audiences of interest by way of machine learning and artificial intelligence optimisation, ensuring that published content explicitly reaches desired demographics.

Another trend that will find even healthier regional footing will be a strengthening of the podcast culture, as creating in-depth listener identities and defining target customers more precisely will remain one of the focuses to come. Influencers will also still dominate the marketing spectrum, but with a twist: More marketers and communication practitioners will be seeking to associate with key opinion leaders. Influence and visibility will still play prominent roles, but experience and subject relevance will take precedence as brands pursue authenticity and integrity in gaining their desired traction to set new records for 2021 and beyond.

One of the questions I’ve been getting quite often now is if 2021 will see a return to a normal state of marketing. The answer is a bit more nuanced than a quick yes or no. Yes, because we do expect things to normalise, and no because we are adapting to utilising new tools that surpass what we depended on over the past couple of years. This means that while the DNA of marketing might not change, its attitude and overall aims for brands will. The need has been slowly shifting from self-promotion to communicating personalised messages to target audiences, from selling more products to connecting people to a brand story, and from ‘we, the brand’ to ‘we, the community’.