Whether we like it or not, the machines are coming to marketing. Programmatic media is growing at 50% per year. Marketing automation systems like Unica, Eloqua and Campaign Manager are now mainstream among leading clients. Intelligent agents such as Watson, Siri and Alexa are rapidly gaining traction, and "programmatic creative" is under active discussion by blue-chip clients everywhere.
So whether your marketing career still has five, 10, 20 or even 30 years left, you need to seriously think about how to survive and thrive in the machine world.
Here's my best advice on how to future-proof your career for the long haul:
1. Excel at things that machines find hard to do
I drew up the chart below last year after I spent a day at the IBM Watson Research Lab learning about the future of cognitive computing and artificial intelligence. The chart describes a new relationship between humans and machines, and I believe it has profound implications for careers, including those in marketing.
In simple terms, we can divide all activities in the world into things that are "repeatable" and those that are "creative." By repeatable, I mean things like mass production, performing calculations, and other mechanical tasks. In this domain, the machines dominate. They are faster, more accurate, more reliable, and more efficient. In the creative domain, humans still dominate. We are good at things like inventing new ideas, dealing with ambiguity, and building human trust.
The implications are clear for careers in marketing. If all you know how to do is calculate and execute, your career will be at high risk of being taken over by a machine. So the first thing you need to do is to build a skill set that is abundant in the ability to invent, judge, and build human trust. Do everything possible to master these profoundly human skills. Work in a deeply creative environment -- even if you are not in the "creative department." Gain exposure to a rich diversity of experiences -- through travel, study, discovery, and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Raise your game by surrounding yourself with true experts in the human arts of risk-taking and trust-building.
2. Work with machines, not against them
It is not strictly a case of human versus machines. What is interesting is how humans and machines need to interact. Even in repeatable tasks, there is a critical role for human skills -- in teaching the machine, inspecting the output to make sure it is right, and in testing new hypotheses. This is why the demand for people who can derive insights from data will be robust for decades to come. If you are mathematically inclined, don't just be a spreadsheet jockey -- learn to mine the data for new test hypotheses.
In the "creative" world, there is a growing opportunity to use a machine to inspire and enable the creative process. Composers use software to write down the notes and transpose keys -- so that the artist can focus on the invention part rather than the laborious mechanics. The oncologist can deploy IBM Watson to help digest millions of data points to help her narrow down the possible treatment options in a complex cancer diagnosis. The humans still apply their creativity and judgment, but the machines help make it happen better and faster.
3. Don't wait for a machine to eat your lunch
I encourage people to look up and down the curve and find their home. There are many great roles in the human domain for big ideas people, entrepreneurs and trust-builders. There are superb new opportunities emerging in the "corners" working closely alongside machines -- like the data scientist who is a great storyteller or the master of execution who is great at building client trust. But do take action. By mastering skills now you can differentiate yourself both from the machines and from your human competition.
Take the long view and future-proof your career, starting now.