Ad Week Europe—a frenzied beautiful blur of networking breakfasts, free stash, hastily-chugged flat whites and shameless self-aggrandisement from advertising’s leading players.

Of course for every genuinely interesting conversation about the future of our industry there are at least five bewildered celebrities shoe-horned into panels on topics they’ve never even heard of, let alone care about; but that doesn’t mean that the overall experience isn’t significant or valid. In fact, that’s part of what makes it so worthwhile.

Because when you sift through the farce and the pomp and the sheer racket of it all, some really important issues are given a platform for discussion and some key trends are dissected, analysed and made relevant to everyone (even the clueless celebrities). Both of which are vital for progress.

Other than a strong aversion to Bernie Ecclestone and his neolithic misogyny, here’s what I took from the week:

DIVERSITY

The importance of both gender and ethnic diversity in agencies was widely discussed, with many speakers stressing the fact that statistically, diverse companies are more likely to succeed, because ultimately diversity breeds innovation.

While the industry has openly acknowledged that it needs to diversify for some time, it was refreshing to see many speakers at Ad Week not just talking about the problem but actively suggesting an antidote to what Dr Yvonne Thompson referred to as ‘Male, Pale and Stale.’ (Bernie, I’m looking at you.)

Unconscious bias was a focus here; recognising that our ‘supply chain of talent’—  namely the system through which many of us recruit—is intrinsically biased because top grades and top universities largely churn out the same type of people, and that these people are not reflective of British consumers. A shift of mind-set was advocated. One where businesses are more open, more supportive and better at facilitating mentorship, so those from different backgrounds are able to flourish.

Similar practices were advocated when it came to addressing the lack of female leadership in advertising, particularly in the creative department. An issue that is being tackled by the Creative Equals campaign, launched at The Drum’s panel event on the Thursday.

Speakers pointed out that there’s a difference between having the right principles and acting on them. The problem is we’re all running so fast trying to keep apace with our manic schedules, we don’t have time to focus on the issue properly.

To make diversity work, leaders need to be facilitators, a skill set that ironically, is most often found in female leaders. Mentorship is fantastic in this regard, but sponsorship is even better. What’s more, these relationships don’t need to be gender to gender; sharing perspectives is a vital part of instigating change.

AI

Unsurprisingly, AI was everywhere, and not just in it’s more science fiction type forms. Google reminded us that AI is present in all of our lives every day, even though we might not be aware of it. It underpins everything from search engines to translation devices and is also ubiquitous behind the scenes: a work-flow automation happening across all media channels.

Many talked about the opportunities AI offers for innovation. It was widely suggested that Britain could and should be at the forefront of computing again, if it took the plunge and innovated in the AI space.

As a result, much was said about AI’s symbiotic relationship with…

BIG DATA

As was to be expected, big data was discussed at length; particularly in the context of bots, such as those recently launched by Facebook messenger. The general consensus was that although they have the power to make branded communications more tailored, better timed and more personal by bringing together big data and machine learning to deliver the optimum experience, many adopters aren’t quite there yet.

Speakers at the Guardian Stage’s ‘Future of Automation’ seminar therefore stressed the importance of a consumer-centric approach to cross screen data. One which focused on greater addressability, and better targeting—something which still requires a modicum of real human common sense, especially given the current issues surrounding view-ability plaguing the industry’s content creators.

Why? Because the increased use of big data has prompted a massive shift in value. It is now much easier for marketers to identify the value of their communications. Who’s seeing them, how and where they’re engaging with them and for how long.

Until we can ensure that our communications are truly relevant, and that they’re always being served to real people, we won’t be able to justify them as truly valuable.

DIGITAL NATIVES, KEEPING IT REAL

‘Digital Natives’ is a heavily-clichéd term widely used to describe the post-millennial generation—alphas, Gen Z, Gen K, whatever else you want to call them— comprised of teenagers and young adults who have grown up in the age of the internet. Given the colossal purchasing power of this generation, it’s understandable that their behaviours were a hot topic of discussion throughout the week.

Interestingly but ultimately unsurprisingly, Noreena Hertz, an Academic specialist on the matter, identified them as profoundly distrustful of traditional institutions, with research indicating that having grown-up post-recession they simply don’t trust big corporations to do the right thing. As a result, they covet ‘real’ experiences, as much as they covet ‘real’ interactions with their friends. Despite being constantly connected, they are a generation that is profoundly lonely.

Because they can easily ‘sniff out inauthenticity’, many suggested that brands looking to engage them need to focus on telling genuine stories and engaging their target audience on real terms that they understand. One way of doing this would be authentically amplifying and tapping into relevant experiences and current events.

Like the Millennial generation before them, and indeed society as a whole, Digital Natives are increasingly identifying with a societal shift from ‘having’ to ‘experiencing’ when it comes to spending their money. Experiences hold a greater social and cultural currency than objects.

CONTENT AS SOCIAL CURRENCY

There was also a lot of discussion around the ways in which digital natives use social share to define themselves. Buzzfeed argued that increasingly younger generations can be seen to define themselves through the content that they share online. This is a generation that truly sees themselves as unique, and as a result they crave content that portrays them as such.

One platform tapping into this mentality perfectly is Snapchat who pointed out that before they launched, digital platforms had always kept the online world siloed from the physical world. However, by encouraging users to create content from the world around them and share it with their friends in real-time, Snapchat seamlessly brings these spaces together allowing users to be the same person both on and offline. This might go some way to explaining it’s popularity with digital natives, desperate for authenticity.

Creating and sharing content on the platform is not only a personal experience, it’s a unique one. ‘You don’t measure the value of your content in likes or hearts like you do on other platforms’ said Nick Bell, VP of Content. It’s about making genuine connections and expressing yourself ‘in the moment.’

Brands looking to tap into this trend should ask themselves. ‘What are the tools you can give to help your audience co-create?’

VR

Facebook and Google both attested that virtual platforms will be the next big platforms to emerge, describing their respective businesses as ‘on a mission’ to make VR accessible for all.

According to the innovators of today, when it comes to connecting people, VR is the future.

So, what should brands and advertisers start to think about when it comes to VR? Many are already experimenting in the development of immersive experiences for consumers, and those that aren’t should remember that although devices aren’t ubiquitous yet, now more than ever is the time to test and learn.

‘Fail hard’ was their advice.

UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE FUTURE

This attitude formed part of a wider, pervasive feeling across the week that society as we know it is on the precipice of something big and uncertain. Evident in almost every discussion, this was coupled with a growing, in some cases overwhelming, urgency to innovate, so as not to get left behind.

Many speakers presented the future digital landscape as volatile, complex and ambiguous, suggesting that although our industry considers itself digitally progressive, in reality many businesses are struggling with the pace and extent of change.

Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn described the situation as a ‘tech revolution’ —one that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another, unlike anything we have experienced before. She acknowledged that this disruption is scary, but urged us as marketers to embrace it, be hungry to keep testing, learning new things and inventing new uses for marketing tools—otherwise we’ll inevitably get left behind.

Google’s Matt Brittin echoed this when he spoke about Western Europe and America’s dangerous tendency towards protecting the past from the future (Brexit, and the Trump Effect being key examples.) If we adopt an inward, backward attitude to society, innovation will never be able to flourish.

THE CONSUMER IS THE NEW DIRECTOR

Why is this forward-facing attitude and hunger to innovate so necessary? Because the consumer is moving faster than any of us, and increasingly businesses are the ones who need to keep up.

In the digital age, you’re either a disruptor, or you’re disrupted.

Many speakers pointed out that the modern, booming organisations of the 21st century were successful because they were entirely structured around their consumers, and that in order to succeed, legacy businesses—and by deferral their communications—need to become customer-centric.

Businesses no longer hold the power. Thanks to the internet putting the world at our fingertips, as consumers today we expect everything in the right context, at the right time, in the right place. If a business doesn’t provide that flexibility or that relevance, we simply take our custom elsewhere.

A fundamental shift in mind-set is needed: from the product and distribution models of the past, to connected ecosystems designed around consumer needs, supported by tech and driven by data. Systems that are supported by communications which recognise every touch-point as an opportunity for commercial interaction, a chance to tell a story and means of building a relationship.

Hannah Baker

About Hannah Baker

Content Manager at The Engine Group.

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