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Author: Isaac Simpson

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2019 in review

⚡️ The year in review
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Five takeaways from 2019

2019 was a transitional year. Old became new as we hit peak nostalgia. Friends became enemies as we began to see Big Tech in a darker light. The youngest person ever was Time’s Person of the Year, and the embodiment of the Old Master is a baby.

This year we saw our internet-connected globe a little more clearly, and analyzed it with a more skeptical eye. We took things like phone addiction and climate change more seriously. After a decade of disruption and confusion, we began to find our purpose again.

To round out 2019, here are five main takeaways from the year, followed by five major predictions for 2020 and beyond.

1. A new player has entered the game
One cause for hope has been the arrival of Gen Z. In 2019, Gen Z graduated from the nihilism of Soundcloud rap to more meaningful social commentary like “Ok Boomer” and #1 albums about depression and anxiety.

The central symbol of Gen Z’s new-formed identity is an emoji eye roll towards the fake goodness of Boomers and the Insta-narcissism of millennials. Gen Zers are simultaneously more focused on money and the environment than any generation before. They aren’t sold on the idea that an expensive education guarantees a good life. Gen Z trusts less, verifies more.

Up until 2019, no one was quite sure how to characterize Gen Z. Now that we know more about them, we can’t wait to see how they’ll express themselves in ’20.

2. Phones are the bad guy, duh
Our most engaged with email of the year covered a comprehensive study proving that phone addiction is very real. Meanwhile, backlash against the toxicity of social media has risen to an all-time high. In 2019, more people sought out digital detoxes and phone-free travel, embracing mindfulness as they left their “leashes” behind.

3. The rise of virtual people 
While some put down our phones, humanity also delved deeper into the virtual world. 2019 saw the ascent of the virtual influencer and virtual clothes for real influencers. Holograms went on tour and fictional characters set up Instagram accounts. Actors became young again and deepfakes made us question our most trusted figureheads…although Gen Z thinks “trusted figureheads” is an oxymoron.

4. Sustainability is not a trend
2019 was the year that sustainability transformed from stylish perk to permanent fixture of everyday life. The fight against Fast Fashion caused many retailers to go out of business, while others have plans to overhaul their production lines. Brands like Everlane and H&M launched transparency initiatives identifying the producing factory and material source for every item they sell. Major musicians stopped touring to reduce their carbon footprints. Fast food chains served fake meat burgers. The world’s craziest truck was unveiled in a disastrous presentation…before 250k were sold solely because it’s electric.

A lot of people are skeptical about the fuss over climate change, but with phenomena like these, it’s not just a “cause” anymore—it’s an economy all its own.

5. The streaming wars began
Two new competitors in the streaming wars launched (Disney+ & Apple+). Two more are coming early next year (HBO Max & Peacock) along with a lot of smaller projects like Quibi and Discovery/BBC. The demand for content has never been higher, and most small-and-mid-sized movies are relegated to the small screen. The content consumer saw more options in 2019 than ever, and at more affordable prices. But for Hollywood, it was a shaky year. The entertainment landscape was irrevocably altered, and many of the old entertainment elite struggled to adapt.

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Five predictions for 2020

The teens were a decade of sequels and nostalgia. To escape widespread anger and polarization, we were driven to the past, to simpler times when a trip to the mall was all we needed to be happy.

But the age of remembering is coming to a close, and all signs point to the 2020s as the decade we start living in the present. Not a sequel to the past, but something new where everything we’ve learned online is used to make not just a better world, but a more exciting one.

1. Independent curators will dictate culture 
Due to content overload, consumers will seek out relatable curators. The marketplace is responding by naturally selecting ones like email newsletters (e.g. yours truly), YouTube pundits, and Instagram meme accounts. These players are all part of Gen Z’s “push notification news cycle,” which will replace the 24-hour news cycle in the next decade. Where musicians like Kanye “curate” sounds to create modern music, so will journalists, podcasters, and comedians curate the stream of information to become the voices of the ’20s.

2. Labor rights will become the new sustainability 
With student debt and rent at an all-time high, human capital is struggling to make the economy function. As a result, unions are making major inroads in urban fields like art, media, and hospitality. Fashion labels are responding to sweatshop criticism with more transparency. Movements like #PayUpHollywood are publicly embarrassing high-profile employers with social media campaigns. Look for Gen Z’s practical view of money and education to lead to a resurgence of the blue-collar-mindset that’s been absent in American pop culture for decades, even if it’s for white-collar jobs.

3. Real-Time Marketing will dominate the creative industries
Our second-most engaged with topic of 2019 was the Peloton ad and Ryan Reynold’s clever response for Aviation Gin. Also in the top 10 was Popeye’s massive success with the chicken sandwich, largely born from a clever tweet. In response, the old, stodgy, slow-moving corporate approval process (the one that cost Disney billions in Baby Yoda merch opportunities to indie meme-to-merch-makers) will relent to quicker, more creative solutions, opening the door to more resonant ad campaigns that might actually convince Gen Z to buy things.

Get ready for every creative brief in 2020 to come with the line “can we do something like Aviation?”

4. The battle for IP will move to the physical world
In 2019, streaming wars competitors learned that building dedicated fandoms around popular IP is key to victory. Nurturing those fandoms means satisfying fans’ cravings for branded IRL experiences, the model that made Comic-Con the cultural tentpole it is today. For consumers, experiential campaigns bring us together and cut through the stream of digital content. For brands, they excite fandoms, convert sales, and create viral waves of social media sharing. In 2020, as movie theaters become mainly amusement parks for superhero blockbusters, the experiential trend will continue to dominate festival and con culture and expand to new heights.

5. We’ll finally get off social media
In 2019, we took large strides in understanding our relationship with phones and social media, which are increasingly compared to cigarettes in their addictive potential. Elite institutions are taking heed by offering phone-free digital detox options that force us off of our phones. Instagram is hiding likes and Facebook’s user numbers are plummeting, particularly among Gen Z. Brands and celebrities are using programs that allow them to text fans instead of tweeting at them. While many haven’t caught up yet, they will in 2020 because their health depends on it.


Vice cancels itself

After a series of major blows, Vice is currently on life support provided by George Soros. The supposed savior of Millennial media was once valued at $5.7 billion. How, and why, did Vice fall so far?

The long way down
The hits just keep coming.

Monday, HBO axed Vice News Tonight. It was the second Vice project HBO has cancelled. The first, the weekly show Vice, lasted 7 years.

A more recent Vice project, “Vice Live,” made it less than 2 months.

Last year, Vice laid off 15% and froze hiring. In February, it let another 10% go.

In May, Disney “wrote off” its $353 million investment in Vice. The previous fall, it “wrote down” $157 million of the same.

What write off means
“Writing down” an investment means devaluing it. “Writing off” an investment means cutting ties. Disney thinks Vice will never be worth anything.

In other words, the coup de grâce.

Bailed out by Soros
But the company is not dead yet. In a desperate move, it took on $250 million of debt from a group of investors led by George Soros.

Vice says the investment will help execute a new vision to accelerate growth. The way things are going, that would be a miracle.

So what happened?
notoriously toxic work environment and a business pitch “built on a bluff” certainly didn’t help.

But the smart money is that a flawed assumption sunk Vice. The same flawed assumption that may have led to the decline of Buzzfeed.

Vice and Buzzfeed grew because of social media. Their models were built on knowing how to use Facebook effectively. Investors assumed they would figure out how to convert their popular social media presences into ad dollars.

But that never happened. Instead, Facebook drank their milkshakes. Vice thought it was using a distribution platform. As it turned out, it was giving free content to a competitor. Vice failed because the vast majority of Vice’s engagement never happened on Vice. It happened on Facebook.

The Future. Betting on hot media companies without real revenue, or at least innovative plans for generating it, is officially a thing of past. Social media popularity means little without a path to conversion. Investors will be more cautious. And media companies will chase revenue, not engagement.



Bees are embracing plastic, and they aren’t alone.

For the first time ever, wild bees in Argentina have constructed a nest entirely out of plastic, Science Alert reports. Previously, North American bee nests were found with individual cells created from plastic, but never an entire nest.

The plastic in question is blue-ish in color and was found stuck on a nearby fence. Plastic may provide adaptive advantages, similar to birds using cigarette butts to repel parasites.

It’s also a rare positive development for beleaguered bee-human relations; pesticides are inducing bee die-offs in unprecedented numbers.

Everyone’s doing it.
Other animals are also finding creative ways to use destructive plastic waste.

Even humans are getting on board.

  • Adidas Parleys made of ocean plastic
  • G Star RAW’s similar line with Pharrell
  • Banners in Virgil Abloh’s new Chicago Nike store

None of this is to say that plastic isn’t still a massive threat to the environment, but it’s something.

The Future. Life finds a way.

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This is what made Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish is the first musician born in the 2000s to have a number one hit. Her dreamy SoundCloud sound sounds just like how Xanax feels. But it’s not the music alone that makes the woman. That’s just how it starts.

Found on SoundCloud
In March, 2016, an unknown Billie Eilish posted “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud. It was her tenth post on the platform, and only her third original song.

It exploded. The first comment ever on “Ocean Eyes” says only “gorgeous.” The third comment, however, is from a random musician named Michael Enwright.

    • Even from here I can hear the sound of A&R’s everywhere freaking out.

Enwright then presumably created this Hillydilly post, which is how she was discovered by the industry (but not by her fans). Later, in a Facebook post made after she was globally famous, Eilish thanked Enwright.

    • “Hillydilly.com started it all. Thank you for everything Michael Enwright, Chad Hillard, I love you.”

The Attention Economy
When Eilish’s obsessive Gen Z SoundCloud following devoured her Khalid collab on Spotify, she rocketed to mainstream global stardom.

    • “This is what true reactivity looks like in an attention economy,” is how Mike Biggane, head of global genre groups at Spotify, described it to Billboard. “She’s always focused on her core fan base. Credit’s due to her team for maximizing opportunity as her audience developed.”

Her natural aesthetic is almost-too-perfectly relatable for a disaffected teen in the Xanax age.

    • Her Instagram handle was “wherearetheavocados.”
    • She has a penchant for baggy streetwear outfits.
    • Her song titles are in text-speak: “ilmomilo”, “8”, “xanny.” Her album intro track is about Invisalign.

These choices feed an intense Gen Z fandom for whom music is secondary to followability.

    • Even Justin Lubliner, part of her all-star, 16-person management team, acknowledges that image is equal to the music, “not through one song, but with a body of work and a well-defined image.”

The Future. A&Rs are scouring places like SoundCloud and Hillydilly for the next Eilish at all times. But they aren’t just looking for a great songs, they’re looking great packaging. Someone who Gen Z is going to click and follow in droves. It helps to be gorgeous.

TheFutureParty student debt

Here’s how your kids will pay for college

Lots of crazy things going on in the world of higher ed. A big change is coming and it’s starting to take shape.

  • They’re not special. We learned this week that wealthy and caucasian kids are getting roughly 4x more “special time” considerations on standardized tests than everyone else.
  • Operation Varsity Blues continues to take down prominent families who paid millions to cheat their kids into college.
  • Morehouse Class of 2019 had their entire debt paid by a billionaire…
  • Prompting call outs of other celebs like Oprah for not.

It would appear the inequality machine that is the American higher-education system is beginning to break down.


Problems and Solutions

Problem: The student debt crisis is eliminating the opportunity for many Americans to enter the middle class.
Solution: Companies should create “401(k)s for student debt,” matching student loan payments as an incentive to attract talent. FidelityRandom House, and Peloton already do a variation of this.

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Problem: The average US family has 828% more student debt than in 1999.
Solution: Reduce negative stigma around trade schools. OR ban the billions colleges spent on cheesy marketing (see pic at top of the page). Either allows families to make better, more realistic decisions about their kids’ futures.

Problem: Predatory colleges take advantage of low-income students.
SolutionForce colleges to provide more detailed and transparent data to better inform the public of the true risks of paying for higher ed.


The Future. Hoping for billionaires to bail us out of student debt isn’t realistic, but with crisis reaching a fever pitch, there are huge opportunities for innovators who can reduce stigma, incentivize employers, and capture better data around higher ed.

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AriZona Tea x Adidas shoes are 99¢. Why?

The Future. Brands used to use marketing to promote new products. Now they use new products to promote the brand.

The release
In a partnership of oddly capitalized brand names, AriZona is releasing a shoe with adidas.

The shoes come out today at a pop-up store in downtown Manhattan.

The colorways will be “bright pinks, yellows, and vivid greens,” showcasing AriZona’s “iconic flower patterns.”

The answer is on the shoe itself. The tongue reads “99¢ Great Buy!” The same phrase is emblazoned on cans of AriZona sitting in the fridge at your neighborhood bodega.

From a brand perspective, the shoes are ads themselves. They tell the unique story of the product, both through its iconography and its uniquely low price.

These “ads” aren’t distributed through normal channels, but through news sites writing about them (because they’re 99¢).

Thus sneakerheads will pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars at re-sale to wear mini-billboards on their feet.

Then what will they do? Amplify those “ads” on social media.


Wizard of OZ

The Future. The federal government is full speed ahead on so-called Opportunity Zones. They will have a huge impact on artists, creators, and entrepreneurs. Expect them to spark innovation hubs in unexpected places.

What are Opportunity Zones?
OZs are a brand new tax incentive created by Trump’s 2017 tax reform bill.

They give tax benefits to investors in certain “economically distressed” areas across the country. Their purpose is to make these areas less distressed.

Roughly 12% of the neighborhoods (AKA “census areas”) of the country have been designated OZs.

These are generally low income, high minority areas.

In Los Angeles, for example, several neighborhoods in the area-formerly-known-as-South-Central are OZs. But then again, so are some areas in Culver City and Los Feliz.

In the Bay, it looks like most of the actual Bay itself is an OZ (who can explain this one?) and so is a lot of Oakland.

Parts of Alaska qualify. So does basically the entire island of Puerto Rico.

Since the 2017 announcement of OZs, their property value has risen 20%.

What can you do in them?
At first, it looked like OZs were for real estate investment only. But then the IRS expanded the definition to include virtually any business investment, so long as it meets one of three criteria.

  1. At least 50% of the hours the employees work are spent in the OZ.
  2. Half the company’s services are within the OZ.
  3. If the management is based in the OZ.

In general, the government is super committed to making the OZ program work, so they’re being quite flexible about rules and definitions.

But no weed though.

The opportunity for creation
In order to invest in an OZ, an investor must be part of a Qualified Opportunity Zone Investment Fund.

These are popping up everywhere. Just google your city and “opportunity investment fund.”

Money is going to be flooding into these areas, looking for a home.

One thing about creativity is that it’s portable. Fashion pop ups, movie productions, recording studios, media companies, tech startups—in a connected world, these can be set up anywhere.

So if you’re about to start a project, consider looking into an OZ near you (interactive map). Funding will likely be easier to come by than elsewhere.

The only thing is that the program is serious about avoiding “churn and burn.”  It’s designed to ensure money sticks around in these areas; that investors don’t just parachute in for the tax benefits then bounce. Otherwise, OZs would be a windfall for investors, but not for the communities they’re meant to improve.

So make sure your project has local legs.

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Gen Z is a doozy.

The digital natives born between 1995-2010 are an unpredictable but intriguing group. They consume new media at a terrifying rate, yet they are savvier and more realistic than Millennials. Probably their most identifiable, and admirable, characteristic is their inherent ability to detect BS.

According to Goldman Sachs, Gen Zers are more conservative and prragmatic than Millennials…

  • They are less likely to take abuse at work.

  • They are more practical about money and the value of their labor.

  • They are more likely to view the news with a skeptical eye.

They also happen to make up 32% of the world population—and will control 100% of the future—so we should probably pay close attention to them.

Their Apps

Gen Z loves apps just as much as Millennials… they just like better ones. A recent report from Zebra IQ identified Gen Z’s most used apps and channels. Besides the usual suspects—Twitch, reddit, Tik Tok, imgur—there were also a few surprises.

  • NTWRK: The sneaker drop app for the StockX generation.

  • Unfold. The ultimate aesthetic-booster for better storytelling on Instagram.

  • Brat: Apparently the new MTV?

  • Lomotif: Another Tik Tok for DIY music vids.

They’re also less narcissistic, and more about that action

While just as Instagram-obsessed as Millennials, Gen Z is less focused on self-expression and more focused on giving followers what they want.

  • “It’s not about what you like, it’s about what your audience will like,” says the report.

Perhaps as a reaction against the “famous-for-no-reason” paradigm of the Millennials, they also put a premium on action, responsibility, and DIY success.

So how do you get through to Gen Z? It’s less about aesthetics and more about finding the purpose behind the aesthetics. Take Gen Z Billie Eilish’s new CK ad as an example.

“I never want the world to know everything about me,” she says. “I mean that’s why I wear big baggy clothes: nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath, you know?”

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72andSunny partners with criminals

The Future. In a country in desperate need of prison reform, more companies will follow 72andSunny in forming partnerships that recognize the vast, underutilized talent pool of incarcerated people.

Vincent Bragg served 5 years, 1 month, and 22 days in federal prison for selling drugs. While incarcerated, he met the founder of an underwear company. They began hosting marketing “think tanks” for the brand.

The think tanks became popular amongst other inmates, who relished the opportunity to brainstorm brand ideas. Bragg realized he was on to something. When he was released he created ConCreates, a creative agency where all the creatives are current or former inmates.

But why inmates? Is there something that makes them uniquely creative?

Bragg thinks so.

“We believe that creativity without opportunity is criminality,” he told Adweek. “We look at drug dealers as entrepreneurs. We look at graffiti artists as art directors.”

Enter 72andSunny, one of the most prestigious ad agencies in the world with a client list that includes Google, Samsung, Activision, and Carl’s Jr. It rose to prominence with the Samsung campaign mocking Apple fanboys for waiting in long lines.

The agency just announced an unprecedented partnership where brainstorming will be outsourced to ConCreates. 72andSunny will tap ConCreates’ 755 criminals (436 of which are currently incarcerated) to submit pitches.

All who participate will be compensated, with bonuses for those whose ideas are used in client-facing pitches and, ultimately, live campaigns.

So get ready for the next big Super Bowl commercial to be written in jail.

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Stranger Things is peak nostalgia marketing

The Future. Millennials are defined by nostalgia. Stranger Things delivers heaping scoops of it, and not just on the show itself. Nostalgia marketing has been around for a few years, but it’s hard to believe it could ever get bigger than this.

Going HAM on nostalgia
Netflix is ramping up nostalgia marketing to never-before-seen levels to promote Stranger Things Season 3. Including:

  • A fair on Santa Monica Pier that will offer an “imagined glimpse” into 1985 Hawkins, Indiana.
  • A 1985-inspired Nike shoe release called “Hawkins.”
  • Eggo waffles social takeover featuring ads from 1985.
  • A Coca Cola throwback teaser for 1985’s “New Coke.”
  • A special-edition upside-down Polaroid camera.
  • sizzle featuring several brand partners—including Burger King and the Gap—that you might find in a 1980s mall.

Netflix partnered with 75 different brands to promote the season, many of them “heyday” brands from Millennials’ childhoods.

Old imagery, new tactics
While nostalgic brand imagery is old, engagement marketing is brand new.  Brand stunts and integrated campaigns were rare in the 1980s, and of course the internet didn’t exist at all.

Back then, a simple TV ad was more than enough to make or break a brand.

Maybe that’s the reason we gravitate towards nostalgia in the first place. It reminds us of a more straightforward time before new media, when media was comfortable being new.

After our “age of nostalgia” ends, will we be nostalgic for…nostalgia marketing?