2021 Look Ahead

Moving Forward to 2021

As we move into a new year, we can leverage the experiences and learnings from what was likely the most challenging year in our lifetime. 2020 brought lasting, transformational shifts to our industry from the way (and where) we work to the acceleration of marketplace trends like e-commerce and automation. And technology was the core enabler of this velocity of change.

Last year was an extreme test of resiliency as agencies proved that the talented professionals who are passionate about our industry will always use creativity and ingenuity to figure out even the most complex business challenges. As one agency CEO shared with me, “When the going gets tough, marketers turn to their agencies for support.” The crisis served to strengthen the dynamic client/agency relationship reinforcing how agencies enable brands to take the right risks and act decisively. And when many agencies were facing never before imagined situations across all areas of business - from people and clients to operational and financial - the team at the 4A’s did what we do every single day: support the needs and ambitions of our members to ensure they didn’t just survive, but thrive. Like you, we had to reinvent not only the way we work and connect our community, but shift our content to address the urgent needs of members across all areas, including advocacy, business intelligence and insight, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

2021 will bring reverberations from the extraordinary shifts that occurred last year. We will share the results of a research partnership with Google and Forrester exploring the path forward for how marketers and agencies can accelerate growth and future-proof their organizations. We’ll continue to see leaders reimagine how the organization works, with offices becoming more purposeful to drive collaboration, with a new hybrid approach to work - in the office and remote - providing talent greater geographic flexibility, as well as employee fulfillment. Investments in technology will further impact agencies providing an increase in workflow automation and people augmentation of capabilities. New compensation models will be explored emphasizing more project-based work and flexibility. And the new business experience is being reimagined with an even greater emphasis on substance over style.

However, the future of creativity is only possible by ensuring all voices are represented by embracing meaningful actions to ensure a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce and workplace for our industry. This requires continued self-assessment and commitment to improving BIPOC representation in agencies as well as the way we work to uncover and remove bias across all areas: research, briefs, creative, targets, media buys and measurement. It’s critical to have the unwavering commitment of every individual and organization to ensure we deliver on the 4A’s Equity & Inclusion Manifesto - created by agency leaders for the agency community - to drive significant change over the next several years.

As we look ahead, we’re energized to continue our work to ensure members have what they need to compete and explore important topics including ‘The Future of Work’ with an agency lens. You have our commitment that every member of the 4A’s team will passionately champion your needs and be your essential partner in business.

Marla Kaplowitz, President & Chief Executive Officer, 4A’s

Impact of the Election on the Advertising Industry

As the dust settled on the 2020 election, it became clear that the industry would see shifts in policy direction for 2021, from both legislative and executive branches of government.

Data Privacy


Federal And State Taxation


Agency Compensation 2021

In 2021, agencies will be looking to get back on track and return employee compensation to pre-COVID compensation levels. Many of our member agencies have had to make tough decisions to reduce headcount and compensation levels to survive sharp declines in revenues. While many agencies will exit 2020 at pre-COVID compensation levels, and while some have grown, others are still struggling to get there. With signs of an increase in pitch activity, we anticipate competition for talent to pick up, as well. This return to pre-COVID performance, undoubtedly benefits employees and places agencies in position to attract and retain the best talent in the marketplace, especially now where remote working is the norm.

“In a never before year like 2020, the 4A’s has been an invaluable partner to agencies and every stakeholder in the advertising industry alike. From providing a community of peers, to delivering guidance in unprecedented situations, to offering industry leading education, the 4A’s has never been more critical for agency leaders and the advertising community as a whole.”

Angela Steele
CEO, Carat U.S.

The Future of Work

The COVID-19 global pandemic accelerated what had already begun. The agency world has been materially and permanently changed, and 2021 will continue to present the critical need to pivot as agencies continue to face challenges. The requirements of the pandemic have proven new models, accelerated behavioral change, and presented the question of “what is the future of work for agencies?” Within this new platform, we will investigate, debate, and continue to provide guidance to our members throughout 2021 about how to thrive in the new agency environment.

4A’s Return to Office Guidance
Forrester Future Agency Workforce report

Redefining Today's Agency Office


The Role of Office In Defining Culture


New Guidance on Work From Home/Remote Work Policies


A More Flexible and Fluid Definition of “Team”


The Changing Requirements of Hiring, Training and Retaining Staff


“As agencies grapple with an increasingly uncertain future, the 4A’s has become an essential partner in supporting the ambitions of agencies– from advocacy to training to operational support to talent and diversity. 2020 exemplifies the 4A’s new, nimble role in pivoting quickly in a crisis and providing invaluable support during what was arguably the single most difficult year in the history of the agency business.”

Barry Wacksman
Chairman/Co-Founder/Chief Revenue Officer, Proto

Proactive and Progressive Business Development

At the onset of the pandemic, new business activity slowed dramatically, as expected. As agencies and marketers both learned to navigate working and pitching remotely, there was an increase in pitch activity beginning mid-summer, which continued into the fall. Virtual meetings quickly became the norm, and while technology mishaps were often overlooked and forgiven early on, the expectation now is that agencies should know the technology platforms cold. And because it is indeed harder to build chemistry with prospects over video conferences, thorough planning, comprehensive rehearsals, and being able to demonstrate the friendship and camaraderie that exists among agency colleagues is more important than ever.

As agencies navigate the changing new business world, they should continue to make existing clients a focus--constantly bringing new ideas and never taking them for granted. Agencies should continue to hone their positioning to be sure it is relevant and distinctive, and review all new business materials with a critical eye towards the notion of “what’s in it for me [the prospect].”

As we move into the new year, barring any unforeseen external force, we believe the pace of new business activity will increase. As marketers come to terms with what is likely to be a permanently changed world, they will be looking for even greater speed and agility in their agency partners, in addition to creativity and innovative business-building solutions. The 4A’s anticipates that some of the pitch practices seen during the year - shorter timelines and greater focus on ideas and solutions - are new ways of working that are here to stay.

The Future of CX

“From my perspective, the value of the 4A’s sits at the intersection of community, collaboration, and contribution. In my role with the CX Council and with the 4A’s Board, I’m part of an amazing community of talented people bound by a shared love for this industry. And in this community, I have the opportunity to collaborate with some the best and brightest minds; stretching my perspective and slaking my never ending thirst for new knowledge and ideas. And finally, contribution; the 4A’s provides a platform to “give back” some of what I’ve been lucky enough to learn to professionals both inside VMLY&R and also in the industry at large.”

Jason Gaikowski
Exec Director, Customer Experience Global Lead, Human Centered Design, VMLY&R

Accelerating into 2021: Media, Tech & Data

The coming year will continue to present both challenges and opportunities. The value and importance of first-party data assets will increase dramatically as advertisers and publishers decrease reliance on third-party cookies and support for mobile identifiers/IDFA is deprecated. Identity resolution and relevant, timely one-to-one communication will become both more crucial and more difficult as consumer privacy legislation and enforcement take hold. The pursuit of brand safety and suitability - and the interconnected outcomes of protecting brand equity while supporting a free and unfettered press - will continue to occupy the industry through the post-election season and beyond. Additionally, brands and agencies will continue to prioritize diversity and equitable allocation of media dollars to BIPOC-owned and targeted media. In 2021, the 4A’s Media, Tech and Data team will continue to address industry-leading guidance and initiatives to support and drive value for members and move the industry forward:

Brand Safety & Suitability


An Equitable Media Ecosystem


Measurement and Identification


“4A’s is always an important and valuable resource for agencies and our industry, but its necessity is never more obvious than during times of upheaval and change. This past year, the 4As has been invaluable for helping us navigate change—in how we work, how we get work made, how we navigate an increasingly volatile regulatory environment, and how we deliver for clients. Despite the trials of the past 12 months, however, the greatest test for agencies lies ahead—how do we adapt and change with more velocity than previously imagined. We need the leadership and support of the 4A’s and the community it fosters to do so, and that requires our full engagement and support. We’re proud to be members.”

Abbey Klaassen
President, 360i New York

Talent 2021 and Beyond

In 2020, the 4A’s Foundation successfully launched its new initiative, the VANGUARD program. Designed to amplify and catalyze the actions and achievements of Black employees and to help shape the future of the industry's leadership, the twelve month VANGUARD program will continue throughout 2021 and is represented by 35 agencies and organizations with 65 Fellows taking part.

In 2021, the Equity & Inclusion Congress will build upon the work done in 2020, measuring actions from the Manifesto and developing further actions to drive a more diverse and inclusive industry. Together with members, the 4A’s will provide mentorship best practices, offer coaching solutions, and provide support and guidance on retention-based initiatives. The 4A’s will work with the Diversity Steering Committee (DSC) to establish a “Multicultural Advisory Council.” This council will provide advice and review leadership communications for member agencies who require assistance when making public DE&I statements and commitments. As the centralized datapoint for the advertising industry, the board will continue to issue benchmarks in diversity data through the Diversity Survey.

The 4A’s Foundation will deliver MAIP for its 48th year virtually in 2021, ensuring we continue to be the largest pipeline of diverse talent into the industry, drawing fellows from a record number of HBCU’s and colleges. We will take steps to draw on the nearly 4,000 strong MAIP Alumni to get the pulse of the industry across all functions and levels. Through our online career fair portal, the 4A’s Foundation will deliver customized career fairs for agencies to connect with diverse candidates in real-time.

Future of Learning & Development

The future is still uncertain as we head into 2021 and beyond. As the country is in the grips of the second wave of COVID-19, many agencies are faced with making more tough decisions. Further guidance around remote work and the return to the office is being contemplated across the country. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will be the focus for all HR and Talent teams, from acquisition and representation to retention and leadership. The focus will shift from one-time learning and development tools to more sustainable culture-driven initiatives which will address fundamental organizational systemic racism. The Workplace Enlightenment Certification (WEC) program will evolve into phase two which will develop what WEC+ can deliver to agencies who have completed the workshops and digital training.

With DE&I in mind, the Professional & Organizational Development (POD) team is working to deliver a more refined virtual learning experience, ranging from an accelerator program for employees with 1-2 years experience, through mid-level manager guidance, to executive level programs. With these programs, leaders will be able to support a changing agency environment by being able to build a psychologically safe and anti-racist organization.

2021 may still seem uncertain, but the future looks bright for the industry. ‘Transparency’ is the new action, and now that the doors have been opened it will be hard to shut them again. This will allow agencies to bring more people to the table to understand the issues and opportunities so that they may build a stronger, more inclusive organization and industry.

“The 4A’s has truly transformed over the recent months to meet the challenge not only of COVID but of racial justice. In an industry that is undergoing rapid revolution, the 4A’s has stepped up to unite, educate and support in a way that would have previously been unimaginable. What started out as the obstacle of remote working has in fact turned into the opportunity for the 4A’s to deliver value on a whole new level. I'm proud to be a member and so happy that our industry has a resource like this.”

Sarah Watson
Chairman, Global and NY Chief Strategy Officer, BBH

Future Outlook - 4A’s Benefits

4A’s Benefits continued to move forward in 2020 on program development and due diligence for members by launching a Captive Medical Program, benchmarking our Group Insurance Trust in the marketplace, enhancing participant tools in our Retirement Trust, and ramping up a Production Wrap-up Insurance Program.

While focusing on coming out of the initial COVID-19 year, we kept in mind that agencies are looking for cost reductions in the benefit arena, while still maintaining the highest quality benefits available in the marketplace in order to attract and retain top talent.

Medical Programs


Group Dental/Vision, Life/Disability


Retirement Program


Production Wrap-Up Insurance


Business Benchmarks and Surveys: Building the Agency of the Future

With all of the turmoil of 2020, 4A’s benchmarking surveys helped our members navigate through unchartered territory--from Return To Office, Work From Home, and Diversity to our Agency Growth Survey. Agencies received guidance on and what their duty of care was for the thousands of employees working remotely, while in compliance with OSHA and EEOC standards.

As we look forward to 2021, the 4A’s is planning to provide additional guidance regarding Agency Organizational Design which will provide much needed insights into skill-set demands, as well as the structure of the agency's workforce--full time vs. independent contractor, internal capability vs. outsource, project based vs. retainer. We also anticipate diving more deeply into agency costs as the landscape changes to a more remote workforce as well as identifying the changes in the technology stack requirements of our agencies in 2021.

“The 4A’s continues to modernize and evolve to meet the needs of our business. I have been especially impressed with the organization's strong leadership on DEI issues this year, and we are currently benefiting from the Workplace Enlightenment Certification and the Vanguard Program. We see great value in our partnership.”

Jeff King
CEO, Barkley

“I’ve appreciated the 4A’s over the last years as a resource for convening industry leaders to share best practices, lessons learned and perspectives of managing through a global pandemic! Only an organization with the reach and scale of the 4A’s could have moved as quickly to assemble such diverse communications industry leaders.”

Chris Foster
President NA, BCW


The pandemic reinforced that it’s not about returning to normal; it’s about returning to better. Let’s embrace the learning from the challenges of 2020 to propel us forward to strengthen the agency community. Here’s to a resurgent 2021, and our commitment to continue to evolve our capabilities and areas of focus to deliver maximum value for our members as we work together to move the industry forward through meaningful actions. After all, words only move so much but actions go the distance. You can count on us to be there with you every step of the way on this dynamic journey and to enthusiastically champion and advocate on your behalf.

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