Let us start with the bombshell. There isn’t anything new on the digital marketing horizon for 2015 that excites me much in isolation. 

In previous years entire new disciplines emerged. Last year was big for content marketing, data, native advertising, programmatic.

Before that we had marketing automation, inbound marketing and going back further still social, mobile, video and so on. “Search engine marketing” was coined as a discipline back in 2001. 

Arguably some of these are just buzzwords for things that already existed. But most did feel like shifts, or changes in focus, that were new in digital marketing.

I have not yet come across anything quite the same for 2015.

Sure, we will have more personalisation, more omnichannel, more data and automation; we’ll continue to see exciting tech developments around the internet of things, 3D printing, cognitive computing, augmented reality, wearables (nearables, hearables etc.), drones, robots, iBeacons, artificial intelligence and emerging payment platforms.

But these are all either not new for 2015 or will not have a significant impact on digital marketing this year.

But there is good news. I remain very excited about digital marketing and ecommerce for 2015. Not because of all the more specific innovations and changes but because of three bigger overarching trends I predict for this year.

The first is the return of creativity and design. The second I call ‘marketing as a service’. The third I call ‘connecting the dots’.

1. The return of creativity and design

Of course creativity and design never went away. But I believe it will dawn upon marketers and business people more generally what a premium creativity and design should command and their value will come again to the fore. Why? And why now for 2015?

For at least the last decade the excitement has largely been driven by rapid technological innovation and the huge shifts in consumer behaviour brought about largely by the internet and mobile.

More recently data and automation opportunities have continued to excite. All understandably and rightly so.

But Apple’s CEO Tim Cook recently challenged us all to ask ourselves as businesses, “What comes after the internet?” My wife, right up there with Tim Cook in defining the future, recently observed “science fiction has caught up with itself”.

Of course technology will continue to evolve rapidly and no doubt there will be another internet-like breakthrough at some point.

But for where we are right now we have plenty enough tech to do amazing things. What we are lacking is good ideas and the interactive design craft needed to apply what is already possible to create transformational value.

You probably know that you can use data feeds, from the weather to share prices to trending music sales to stock availability and more, in order to real-time optimise advertising creative?

You probably know you can tap into your CRM data in real time via APIs to create custom audiences that you can lifecycle retarget with digital marketing from social to content to email to ads?

All powerful stuff. But what is the idea? What are the behavioural triggers you will use? What is the customer journey flow across channels and what are the creative and design treatments for those hundreds of dynamically served and personalised experiences?

How does this all support the brand promise? Who is responsible for the cohesive vision that is not only technically enlightened but actually engages creatively, emotionally and commercially?

The engineers have been the rock stars of digital for a long time. They deserve to be and will remain critical.

But for 2015 the real gold dust in terms of people and capabilities will be those customer experience architects, product managers and creative technologist types who have ideas, who can inspire with a vision, who can lead teams to design and deliver undeniably better customer experiences.

The fact that they understand the technology, the data, the multichannel customer experience and the commercial objectives is a given.

We need inspired hypotheses. We need good ideas and brilliant design execution.

Of course marketing ‘optimisation’ in its many performance-driven forms has a long way to run yet and is never finished. But, to paraphrase Tim Cook, ‘what comes after optimization?’

You have made your site responsive, you have copied Amazon’s checkout process, your PPC is running efficiently, you are pumping out persona-driven content mapped to the customer journey, you are actually quite good at social, and you are omnifying your channels.

But when will this run out of steam? Will it deliver a step change or only incremental improvements that barely keep up with your customers’ expectations?

Creative thinking is needed to make bigger leaps. Which is why big companies are so unsettled by the likes of AirBnB and Uber.

They are looking for their own equivalents. Incrementalism may not be enough; disruptive, creative thinking is at a premium not just in digital marketing but in the boardroom.

2. Marketing as a Service

I posited this last year as an emerging trend in marketing, particularly digital. It is starting to happen but I expect to see more over 2015 and beyond.

It’s not just technology that is moving towards thinking about platforms and services.

Marketing and entire business processes and models are moving that way. Away from the static and the linear and the planned; towards the fluid, ongoing and agile.

Take IBM’s Bluemix – a cloud-based platform for building, managing, and running apps of all types.

Take Google’s Material design – a codified visual language and set of design and interaction patterns. Efforts are being made across technology and design to enable efficiencies, scale, consistency and replicability without compromising creativity and freedom of expression.

The same is happening in marketing. For example, if we can create shared content, marketing or data assets, and define unifying taxonomies and data architectures, then we can get much smarter, and more efficient, when delivering personalisation at scale. We can begin to segment and target in creative ways.

We can more rapidly deploy our marketing in reactive ways. Nike+ creating over 100,000 personalised videos based on runners’ data is a good example.

If you consider many of the tech developments – programmatic, automation, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, self-learning systems – they feed off, and are driven by data.

But most still need human expertise to be trained and tuned to work really well. Increasingly our role as marketers will be to train these systems, to infuse them and instruct them with our brand’s DNA, to help architect the data to be particularly relevant for our customers, to orchestrate the rules and triggers driving the system, to choreograph the frequency and nature of interactions with our customers and prospects.

Once we have our marketing platform our job will be more about marketing service design than doing campaigns and collateral.

3. Connecting the dots

There has been a lot of investment in digital over the last decade and it continues to grow. There has also been a realisation that customer-centricity really is a source of sustainable competitive advantage and organisations are starting to walk the talk.

Witness the rise of board-level roles with the word ‘customer’ in them.

But we are a long way yet from the seamless, omnichannel, personalised customer experiences we all talk about. To deliver on that promise we need to connect a lot of dots.

Only then will the digital and marketing engine start to purr efficiently rather than stutter as it does currently.

We have a lot of dots to connect. We need to join up data, we need to integrate technology systems, we need online and offline to become joined up.

But it goes well beyond that. We need to connect dots in our processes and operational practices to enable, for example, agile ways of working. We need to connect dots in our organisational structures to enable multi-disciplinary teams and multichannel thinking.

We need to connect dots in the skills, knowledge and capabilities of our people. We need to think of marketing as an ecosystem that is nonlinear and always on, that is more modular.

Truly delivering on customer-centricity requires us to join lots of dots. This may not be sexy but it is important and most of us will spend 2015 trying to connect more dots.

So we have a lot to do. And whilst there may not be any single trend or discipline in digital that excites me for 2015 it feels like we are at a tipping point where all the component parts are now available, as well as the will, to apply all that digital can offer in creative, engaging, even disruptive, ways to transform customer experiences and, indeed, entire business models.