Industries can transform a lot in a decade, and advertising and PR are no exception. I’d never say that’s what I do anymore, for starters. One constant is that agencies love four-letter words. They fly in meetings and I can attest that they’re on some kind of signage in at least two of our Gatesman office locations. OK, it was me who put the f-bomb on the wall in Chicago. But, no one took it down.

Nevertheless, we’ve replaced reprehension for traditional profanity with our own list of unmentionable, offensive or hurtful language shaped by visceral industry disruption. Here are my top five “four-letter words” in agency and marketing life that have emerged this decade and will continue to influence us into the next.


You’d never speak to your mother that way. Few things make me sadder than being accused of being the “v-word.” Clients view vendors as relegated to purchasing, commoditized, order-taking. It puts office supplies and professional services on the same plane, when they don’t always belong there. Partners add tremendous value through service, strategy, quality and results.

What this means for agencies: Find and declare irreplaceable value, then lead from the front to consistently deliver on it.

What it means for brands: Demand more from your external partners. Then, trust those you've chosen and treat them as true partners to get the most out of your engagements.


Look, people who are specialists will always have a place in the industry. They fuel the engine and keep it going. But by definition, specialists do not focus on the whole picture. In a connected landscape where consumers move fluidly from interaction to interaction, planning and executing from a specialist lens is myopic. It’s incumbent on brands to address consumers’ growing expectations of relevance and personalization in every interaction.

What this means for agencies: See the forest and the trees. Be the cartographer.

What it means for brands: Find rock-solid, cross-functional internal strategists/planners. Or, get agency partners who can help plan and orchestrate this complex landscape. Sometimes those partners can also help lead those other poor vendors who are in place. But let’s not rehash #1.


Please mute the conference call and think about what you’ve just said. There are boundless streams of data out there that don’t require the time and cost of the full research studies of old. Scrape Simmons/MRI for some quick analysis of existing consumer indices. Conduct some social listening. Google it (seriously). Then use what you know to define in-market test-and-learn agendas, so you can build business and learnings at the same time. Where there is a will there is a way, and there is way too much data to claim you have to go into anything blind.

What this means for agencies: Challenge your teams to think creatively about harnessing the many available data sources.

What it means for brands: Don't settle for work or POVs with no root in any data. And don't be stingy in sharing your business and operational data with your trusted partners through compliant channels. You'd be surprised at what we can find in data you think we may not need.


If you have to say this, you’ve already lost. Do your teams a favor and launch everyone out of 2012 and into 2020, scaling up to consumer-first. Digital-first is usually followed by traditional is dead. But is that true? Or is connected TV just the next evolution of network TV? And can we acknowledge out-of-home may still have a place? Most importantly, can we acknowledge that no consumer thinks of their daily life in those silos? If you focus on the consumer, you will of course land in a heavily digital, connected landscape, and you will have much smarter strategies and messages to show for it.

What this means for agencies: Transition from digital-first to consumer-first. And really mean it­ – embolden your teams to break the silos and, you know, talk to each other.

What it means for brands: Don’t put out an RFP or initiate a project this year (or decade) for a digital advertising campaign. Define your objective and target and let trusted partners take it from there.


During the second half of whatever-you-call-the-decade-we-just-closed, brands fearlessly let data squander strategy and emotion. So emboldened by the numbers, the chase to the next successful test left marketing splintered and empty. Finally, we see major players returning to the human emotional appeals that always lead to the most relevant and lasting connections with consumers. Nike, Marriott and P&G are just a few examples changing their tune in 2019. Let 2020 be the year we see clearly (See what I did there, copywriters? Am I hired?) that data need not sanitize but can empower and amplify our stories.

What this means for agencies: Challenge yourselves to humanize the data in your briefs. If you don't get the feels, ask yourself if you need to go back to the idea well.

What it means for brands: Resist the urge to mandate messages based on data. Instead, align to a data-based brief that leaves room for creativity and human connection.

Looking hopefully onto 2020, who can know exactly what will transpire? I’m not sure, but my money is on topics around privacy and VR/AR for starters. But here’s a bonus happy word to start us off on the right foot:

Successful 2020s, in a word: INTEGRATION

True partnership and collaboration that knocks down silos combined with data creativity will enable a consumer-first approach that will carry agencies and brands successfully into the years ahead. I’m fortunate to be a part of a trend-setting team who knows that, while we love our clients, the end client is really the consumer. And we allow ourselves to remove all the walls and rally around the best solutions to meet that consumer need.

What are you doing to set your marketing communications up for success in the new year and decade? We’d love to hear from you!