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How should marketers adjust their skills in the age of AI, automation and beyond?

One of the most interesting things I have read over the last couple of years is the 2018 report by the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs. It is an in-depth look at how the nature of work is shifting and changing. It concludes that by 2022 — just around the corner — the accelerating impact of technology and globalization will require 54 percent of workers to either reskill or upskill. That is to say, in very short order, workers will have to learn new or upgraded skills.

Looking out to the 2030s, an Institute for the Future report mentioned an expert workshop it had sponsored in which the consensus estimated that 85 percent of the jobs that people will be doing don’t exist yet. Over that same time horizon, a PwC analysis calculated that 38 percent of jobs people do in the U.S. today will be automated.

In contrast, marketing and sales jobs are at less risk of automation and are predicted to be more in demand in the future. So as a profession, marketing is safe for now. But marketing is not immune. Over the past decade, marketing, too, has been affected by technology. Digital has swept marketing up into the race of technology and data. More and more, marketers are A/B-testing their way into decisions — not the least of which was the famous Google experiment that tested over 40 shades of blue to pick the one ultimately used for ads in Gmail. The latest global digital trends report from Adobe reports a 50 percent year-over-year increase in the use of AI by large companies, particularly for data analysis.

So imagine a world of marketing after another ten years on this same trajectory. Much of the routine work will be automated. AI will be just another part of the everyday. Large companies will have automated systems of predictive models that can answer almost any customer or service question using natural language queries. Data analytics will be a commodity available to every company.

In this world, ten years from now, competitive advantage will accrue to companies able to build upon automation by applying unique human insights and thinking to marketing. Winning companies will be those that guide algorithms most creatively, that use data to develop meaningfully different value propositions, and that channel the power of social co-creation to solve problems. In short, successful companies will be those best able to combine human skills with automated analytics to deliver better solutions.

In this regard, one thing in particular stands out. The landmark study of marketing campaigns by Binet & Field found that marketing designed to create fame for brands far outperformed every other sort of campaign across all business metrics. Kantar research finds as well that both consumers and employees now demand that brands have a point-of-view and purpose. This is the kind of vision and inventiveness that only people can bring to the equation.
It is unlikely — dare I say, impossible — that an algorithm could have come up with the idea of using Colin Kaepernick as a brand spokesperson (Nike) or featuring athletes with disabilities as super heroes for the 2016 Rio Paralympics (Channel 4) or making a status symbol out of a shoe brand through a buy-one-give-one business model that helps children in Third World countries (TOMS).

Certainly, this is not to say that automation and AI are unimportant. Indeed, they are critical. Data and analytics are essential to narrow down possibilities, and automation is the only way to do that at scale. Netflix is a good illustration. By micro-analyzing data from tens of millions of viewer choices, Netflix can understand tastes and viewing habits to the point that they can reliably make big bets on content, even finetune and personalize marketing execution. Such analysis assists but does not replace the creative process or the very human art of storytelling.

It is automation and data combined with creativity and lateral thinking that turns products and services into experiences with magnetism and drawing power. There are three key things that marketers must do.

    1. Stay on top of algorithms. This is table stakes. It is vital to be ahead of the curve in data analytics, to apply cutting edge AI to decision-making, and to be thoroughly automated at routine marketing and sales operations. Building data science capabilities in teams and in infrastructure will be an important job. Marketers must act now and not get behind — the window to stay even is closing fast. But this is just the beginning. Leading companies will ensure a talent base that can develop and advance algorithms and machine learning for the creative process.
    2. Increase the cultural status of soft skills and creativity. Creative teams have always been the most important assets of the advertising and communications industry. But in business, the fact that human skills such as flexibility, creativity and social relationships are called soft skills actually says it all. Building a way to codify and reward human skills will be essential. The ‘why’ behind the numbers is the kind of complex thinking, cultural insights, and human talent that bring real value to automation and data.
    3. Build lateral thinking. Routine jobs will be automated, so lateral thinking is the only way to guard against being replaced. Neuroscience has showed us that our brains are like a muscle. The more we practice, the stronger our brainpower. In the end, it may well be only this that protects marketers from being replaced by automation and AI. It is also the thing that will be needed most in the job market of the future.

The Organizational Practice of Kantar works regularly with clients to build capabilities in both the art and the science of marketing. If you want to learn how to be more human-centered, how to get real insights, how to lean into creativity, or how to build your lateral thinking muscles, please give us a call.

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