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`We have an unbridled sense of optimism. We're in the opening days of a new golden age shining with possibility."

When I spoke these words at a Business Marketing Association conference at the end of the last decade, new companies were emerging at an historic pace. Barriers to entry in all manner of markets were falling. Equity capital was spilling into seemingly every proposed innovation. Brands were back. New business was easy to come by, and marketing programs easy to champion.

Were we exuberant? Undoubtedly. Were we irrational? Probably, but time will tell.

Often, I've thought of the college graduating class of 2000. What an idyllic world they thought they were entering. The little seed they planted in online trading grew to touch the clouds. Classmates were endowed with millions in venture capital for dot-com brainstorms. The whole world seemed to be embra-cing the American ideal of democratic capitalism.

The bubble burst. The free market performed its curative task. Lunacy and chicanery were exposed. The business cycle reasserted itself. The American economy dipped into the deepest recession in 20 years.

And then terrorists attacked America. We were suddenly in a conflict that now seemingly will continue until a biblical end of days.

Still, our optimism is unbridled.

In the last five years, we have seen a new generation of marketing management. It's been in the last half-decade that the role of the chief marketing officer has emerged. No longer is marketing turned back by tides of engineering, operations and finance. Tested during a cycle of lean years, marketing has become more professional since 2000 than during the charge up Dot-com Hill.

At the turn of the century, our company bet on the Internet as a media channel to business decision-makers. While the market correction swept away a lot of fraud and frivolity, the Internet's role as a b-to-b medium is now indisputable.

Marketing has also become the next frontier of enterprise automation. As programs work across matrices of geography, business units, channels, alliance partners and an increasing number of media forms, there is practically no way for marketing managers to work without information applications. Technology is driving greater precision in effort, agility in execution and performance in results.

Women are ascendant in marketing leadership. They bring a more participatory and consultative style that's respectful of consensus. It's a style well suited to the marketing function, historically inattentive to these values when customer-facing. The marketing programs of the next five years will substantially outperform those of the prior five, and C suites will be occupied by a larger number of women.

Two trends trouble me.

The half-life of marketing leadership is shrinking. The CEO life span is about seven years; CMOs survive about three. Great brands require years of consistent cultivation. That's becoming more difficult. As an agency executive, I wonder whether we'll ever again perform brand building entirely on one tour of duty, or whether we'll do one phase for one client and other phases for the next.

I'm also concerned that risk is in danger of being neutered. Post-Enron regulation, most notably the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, has arguably criminalized risk in our largest corporations. A market corrupted by a few mountebanks required a medicinal drink of water; instead the politicians reacted with a fire hose.

Weathering the storms of the last five years has required courage. Fueling the next boom will likewise require courage. We dare not permit an over-reliance on data-driven decision-making and timidity in the face of strenuous regulation to deter us from swinging for the fences when our guts tell us to do so.

If the last five years have taught us anything, it is that data and trend lines can be deceiving. There's still abundant mystery in the marketplace, and just as many upsides are born of faith as are born of reason.

Rick Segal is CEO of HSR Business to Business. He can be reached at [email protected]

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