Top 10 Hot (Media) Messes of 2020

By But Wait, That's Not All... Archives
Cover image for  article: Top 10 Hot (Media) Messes of 2020

2020 threw the whole world into turmoil. Our little portion of that world -- advertising, media and marketing -- has been faring better than many other industries and, for that, we are grateful. However, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have our fair share of challenges, missteps and just plain old hot messes. Here is my admittedly subjective list. Have others? Feel free to email them to me at

10. Sony’s release of CyberPunk 2077. If you’re not a gamer, you just won’t get this one. If you are, you are infuriated about the ineptitude of botching the release of one of the most anticipated games of 2020. In a year when gaming experienced a huge renaissance due to the trifecta of more time at home thanks to the pandemic, excitement around the release of two new consoles (Xbox Series X, PS5), and a burgeoning eSports ecosystem, it seemed like the buzz around Sony Interactive Entertainment’s game featuring Keanu Reeves was a surefire hit. Of course, a hit has to work on all the major platforms, and despite it seeming to work relatively well on PCs, it has been crashing all over the place on Xbox and PS4. Sony even went so far as to pull the game off of the PlayStation Store and offer buyers refunds. Microsoft is offering refunds as well. This was a Marketing 101 mistake of letting end-of-year profit come before the readiness of the product. In the end consumers suffered and the brand, especially of developer CD Projekt RED, has taken a huge hit.

9. The HBO Max roll-out and direct-to-OTT decision. I love the content on HBO Max. I am a huge fan of the classics available on TCM and incredibly happy with the new Looney Toons cartoons. In fact, an HBO Max Original, Valley of Tears, an Israel series about the Yom Kippur War, ranks as one of my top ten shows of 2020. However, the initial launch of the service lacked two of the largest OTT distributors, Amazon Fire TV and Roku, meaning in this most important launch for AT&T only a handful of people had the opportunity to actually see the content on their televisions. Perhaps they viewed that as a way to beta the service, but it still left millions of consumers who pay for HBO and were entitled to get HBO Max as part of that without access to the service on a TV screen, unless you had a way to cast it to your TV from your computer. Over the past month that’s been fixed, but it should never have been an issue to begin with. Of course, AT&T and WarnerMedia have made up for that with the decision to break the release window wall and have every major Warner Bros. movie available on HBO Max the same day that it is in theaters throughout 2021 starting with Wonder Woman:1984, which released on Christmas Day. That leads to the second part of the hot mess for Warner Bros. I am a fan of the decision by HBO Max to release the long-delayed Wonder Woman sequel in theaters and to HBO Max subscribers at no charge as a marketing move to boost the OTT service. However, their decision that all films slated for release in 2021 will follow that model has alienated a large segment of the Hollywood community, including Judd Apatow, Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve. The obvious compromise is to make the tentpole films a pay-per-view model on HBO Max, similar to what Disney did with Mulan. Yes, I am aware that Warner Bros has said that it is a one-year-only model to get through the pandemic, but it will be hard to put that genie back into the bottle.

8. TikTok. Is TikTok the most successful social network phenomenon of 2020 -- one that got many families through the lockdown -- or is it an ingenious evil plot by Communist China to get an on-going data feed on the American lip-synch community and experiment in foreign social behavior manipulation? It all depends on your perspective. To consumers, TikTok has been a runaway success during the pandemic giving entertainment-starved and generally bored kids and families something to distract them with, especially during the initial lockdown. But behind-the-scenes has been anything but fun as the company faced intense pressure from the Trump Administration for its China ties and started to look for buyers only to be bounced around by the courts, which are still deciding if it can be sold and to whom. Add to that a recent mishap in which it was discovered that personal data from job candidates at TikTok was sent to China, despite assurance by TikTok earlier in the year that no data is ever sent to China.

7. Congress and Technology. One of the hottest summer/fall mini-series (sarcasm alert) on C-SPAN this year was the Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai show featuring Jeff Bezos as "the Beav" and occasional guest star Tim Cook. On July 29, the "tech giants" testified in front of the House Anti-Trust Subcommittee. On October 28, they appeared in front of the Senate Commerce Committee with a focus on Section 230, the Safe Harbor clause in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects tech platforms from legal liability on their users' posts while allowing them to moderate and remove posts that they find objectionable.

On November 17, Dorsey and Zuckerberg testified in front of a Senate Judiciary committee around the handling of the election and the question of whether or not the social media companies were unfair in their censorship and suppression of a New York Post article centered around Hunter Biden.

Whether the issue was privacy, data, anti-trust behaviors, political bias or Section 230/Safe Harbor, there was more than enough for all sides to find fault with and pick on -- in addition to an aura of arrogance and more than a few "we’ll have to get back to you on that, Congressman" answers from the tech giants. Yet, most of the tech leaders agreed that it's time for clear legislation and guidelines to be established.

The obvious hot mess in these Congressional appearances was the blatant display of political grandstanding and technological ignorance shown by our elected officials whose job it is to chart the success path of our country: for example, when Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) confused Facebook and Twitter and asked Mark Zuckerberg why they took down Donald Trump Jr.'s tweet about hydroxychloroquine. Say what you will about Zuckerberg's arrogance, but his deadpan delivery of "I believe what you are referring to happened on Twitter, so it's hard for me to speak to that," is a classic. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fl) had to have e-mail explained to him by Google’s Sundar Pichai when he complained about his campaign e-mails being filtered to spam, even to his father. I am fairly certain that more than half of Congress still has the flashing 12:00 on their VCRs.

In my opinion, the worst offender was Rep Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who never missed an opportunity to ignore committee rules, rip off his mask and accuse all the tech giants of anti-conservative bias. It was truly political theater at its worst, which undermined the real issues and challenges that need to be solved in the digital era with rational, bipartisan debate. Let's hope that's what 2021 will bring.

6. Facebook. For all the demonization of Facebook over the past year, it's important for marketers to recognize that this has not really had any impact whatsoever on the number of users or time spent using Facebook. With over 223mm U.S. users and 1.8B global users accessing Facebook daily, it is a marketing force unlike any other in media history. When you include Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus, the dominance of Facebook in the social world is astounding, which is why it is likely to be the main target of antitrust regulators in 2021. There is almost no scenario in which Facebook will continue to retain all of its assets.

In November, Facebook was forced to give millions of dollars in credits to advertisers when they discovered a glitch in their system that over-reported key metrics such as app downloads and other performance-based metrics. This is the second major incident in the past five years that directly impacted the advertising community. In May 2017, Facebook admitted that they made a mistake in counting mobile video clicks on the video carousel. Facebook announced this year’s issue wasn't a glitch in the social network’s conversion lift tool which impacted thousands of ads between August 2019 and August 2020. In addition, it was revealed that Facebook’s AI has taken down many small business ads after mistaking them for "hate speech." A chart in Bloomberg from Facebook’s Community Standards Enforcement Reports illustrates a rising trend in post restorations after they were pulled off for being thought of as hate speech. On one hand this shows that Facebook is getting better at fixing their mistakes. On the other, it also indicates more mistakes.

And the cherry on top ... the boneheaded decision that requires a Facebook account to log in to your Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. The Oculus Quest was the first successful stand-alone 6DOF (Six Degrees of Freedom) VR headset. It sold out last Christmas and was only held back this year by the closure of China’s factories in Q1. To the delight of VR enthusiasts everywhere, Oculus (Facebook) announced that there would be an Oculus Quest 2 with more powerful tech and an entry point $100 less than the original Oculus Quest. Preorders for Quest 2 outpaced the original Quest by a 5 to 1 ratio. Facebook then made the announcement that all Quest 2 owners would be required to log in to their device with a Facebook account, infuriating the VR community and adding insult to injury days after the Quest 2 release, during which some users whose accounts had been temporarily banned on Facebook were unable to log in to their new VR headsets. At this nascent point in VR adoption, alienating consumers who either don’t want to be on Facebook or don’t want to connect their VR activities to a Facebook database makes little or no sense.

5. The Kardashians. How do you have a hot mess list and not have the Kardashians on it? It seems almost sacrilegious to leave them out. This year has been tough on the family. They ended their show on E! after 14 years and 20 seasons. (Relax, there’s a Hulu show in the works.) Kanye had a very public mental breakdown in the summer. And in the middle of a pandemic that has seen almost 330,000 dead (and will likely hit over 500K), the family who put the "fun" in dysfunction headed off to a private island to celebrate Kim’s birthday and was heavily criticized for being tone-deaf.

4. Programmatic Advertising Fraud and Data Targeting. This was the year that the California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect, Apple announced that they would no longer allow pass-through of Apple Device IDs (to which Facebook declared a very public war against Apple’s decision) and Google announced that they were killing the cookie. In November, California voters once again went to the polls and voted to close the loopholes that the IAB had leaned on for third party ad targeting and made use of data, especially location-based data, much more difficult. On top of all of that, this year of tectonic shifts in consumer shopping and entertainment behavior undermined whatever long-term "understanding of the consumer" had been preached by data evangelists. 2020 proved that data is truly a look back, and to quote every stock prospectus, "past performance is no guarantee of future results."

Fraud also continued its ugly impact adding OTT inventory to the list of its targets. In January, the DiCaprio CTV  fraud was uncovered with the app Grindr being used by hackers as a Trojan Horse to spoof and insert code that made the app appear to be a Roku device, siphoning off CTV money in the programmatic space. In April, the Icebucket fraud was discovered to have generated over 1.9 billion fraudulent ad requests on programmatic platforms for CTV. September brought the MultiTerra scheme which was stealing over $1MM a day from CTV and mobile publishers by spoofing their inventory.

In December, Oracle announced that it had uncovered an ad fraud scheme which stole over $14.5 million in ad spend from advertisers and publishers in the CTV/OTT space.

A few years ago, the "Data is the New Oil" mantra completely shifted the strategic direction of the advertising industry, resulting in major investment in tools and systems to integrate signals from second- and third-party data sources that will likely not be usable or certainly as meaningful going forward. The merging of deterministic and probabilistic data will be a huge focus in 2021.

There is no doubt that the spotlight now shifts to first-party data, but at the same time the advertising world may be forced to sober up its audience or people-based focus and go retro into deeper and more meaningful direct negotiations with publishers.

3. The first Trump-Biden debate. As a father of two daughters, one who just turned old enough to vote and another who shows a little interest in things political, the night of the first Presidential debate should have been a night to demonstrate what sets our form of government and election process apart from many others in the world. Civil, intelligent discourse, with varying viewpoints that can be debated, maybe even heatedly, but with respect. Instead, it was a childish debacle that set a tone for the rest of the race for its divisiveness and lack of focus on campaigning on issues vs. cult of personality. If you looked up "hot mess" in the dictionary in 2020, this debate would have been thumbnail image.

2. Quibi. Remember that nightmare you had in high school when you threw a party (remember when we actually had those?) and worried that no one would show up? You can now call that a Quibi. A combination of inflated egos, terrible branding, bad timing and a lack of basic research identifying the need for a product like Quibi doomed this star-studded attempt at creating a new type of storytelling. Add to that a monthly fee with ads and ultimately those few consumers that even tried it found Quibi unnecessary, especially in a year of OTT launches that had large libraries and told better stories. Quibi was able to sell $100MM worth of ads prior to launch with some major brands including AB InBev, PepsiCo, Walmart, Progressive and Google. While Quibi was an example of the downside of Madison and Vine, you have to give credit to the fact that top media execs were willing to take a risk and hope that Quibi’s failure does not discourage others to take educated risks

1. The Richards Group. I grew up in Dallas. Even before I knew that I wanted a career in advertising, I had heard of The Richards Group. Founded by Stan Richards in 1976, the full service agency, true to the Texas ethos, stayed independent while other agency owners rushed to join the holding company model. In a world of pitchapalooza, The Richards Group had a more than admirable track record of client loyalty. Motel 6 became a client in 1986 and remained one until a week this past October which earned this multi-award winning agency the title of Hottest Mess of 2020. That week, Stan Richards was providing feedback on an internal Zoom call about a Motel 6 campaign that celebrated Black artists. His feedback was that the idea was “too Black” and might "alienate" the client’s "significant white supremacist constituents." The irony was almost Shakespearean. The founder of a company that has produced brilliant copy for his clients was brought down by a few sentences out of his own mouth. Stan Richards left the company he founded along with several of The Richards Group clients.

But Wait, That’s Not All

It would be easy and accurate to say that most of 2020, whether due to COVID-19, lockdowns, politics, systemic racism, job loss, financial hardship, untimely deaths of sports and entertainment stars, social influencers and, of course, the terrible grief of those who have suffered loss of loved ones or caught COVID-19 themselves, has been, in totality, a hot mess.

Yet, within this darkness rays of humanity and goodness have burned incredibly bright. From rallying around frontline workers to the donations of food by restaurants which themselves were teetering on the edge to the "pay it forward" movement of consumers paying for the food in the car behind them at drive-through pick-ups, examples of kindness and selflessness have abounded. In many cases, we have strengthened friendships in our immediate vicinity, in part because we are home in time to take a walk around the block. We have learned to appreciate being able to spend quality time with our spouses/significant others and children, in particular those who were on the edge of leaving the nest. That time was priceless.

We are more aware of systemic racism, ageism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and the shocking rising tide of anti-Semitism. That awareness is turning into real activism, not just lip service. Real change is occurring and will continue to occur. The good thing about 2020 being a low point is the commitment to elevate the quality of life for all moving forward.

For our industry, the flexibility, understanding and kindness that sellers and buyers showed each other; the resilience and success of the NBA’s bubble end-season, and the challenging, but ultimately successful NFL and NCAA College Football seasons showed that we can quickly adapt. These past nine months have proven that we are capable of agility. The adage of publicly traded companies as big oil tankers that take years to make significant progress and change was finally shown to be the crutch of legacy systems and management; a myth in which we can never afford to believe again.

There has been a lot of pain the industry, and yes, the layoffs and change on all sides -- creative, media buyer, seller, writer, talent -- has been real. But in this time, we have proven that we can and will find ways to adapt and survive, and with the vaccine at hand, in 2021 may we all once again thrive -- without forgetting the humanity and work-life balance that 2020 brought back into our lives.

Click the social buttons to share this story with colleagues and friends.
The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of


Copyright ©2022 MediaVillage, Inc. All rights reserved. By using this site you agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.