I had the honor of writing the forward to the book “The Digital Helix” by Michael Gale and Chris Aarons coming out in October on the steps leadership must take to successfully manage large, complex organizations through the changes required by digital transformation. The following offers a perspective from book author Michael Gale on Digital Transformation and the rise of AI and automation in marketing: 

The Digital HelixPhoto courtesy of Michael Gale and Chris Aarons

The Digital Helix by Michael Gale and Chris Aarons

If you even casually read about digital technology and transformation, you will see it promises everything. From insights to cost savings to efficiency to labor reductions, digital is the future and transforming to it is a mandate for almost every organization. But, these promises of an automated digital future bring up a few questions around the human element in all of this. As many have seen, technology, unfortunately, can mean humans are not as needed for the roles they once occupied. But wait, doesn’t this bring up a number of interesting and possibly painful questions for marketers as well?

• If AI and digital technology can do almost everything we do now and more every day, why do we need marketing and human marketers?

• Could marketing be the next industry that is hit by automation like so many others?

• Do marketers start to abandon their jobs, re-skill and start thinking about a future of servicing the machines like something from the movie The Matrix?

Before we answer those hairy questions, it is important to remember and think about what the role of marketing is as well as reflect on what is truly a marketer’s job.

Those That Do Not Study The History Of Marketing Are Doomed In Its Digital Future

David Ogilvy a god in the days of Mad Men due to a singular focus: advertising creative that delighted and excited the deep-rooted desires of consumers. In this era, creative dominated marketing ideology and great advertising drove it. From the Hathaway white shirts ads to McCann’s I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing Coca-Cola ad in 1971, the ads and the consumers were inspired by this creativity. No one would argue that a robot or a computer could ever develop this level of impassioned marketing. Not with a Sperry or Burroughs computer back then or even with IBM’s Watson today. This great advertising, changed minds and drove a sense of immense emotional connection that lasted for years. In the 1980’s, Theodore Levitt’s book the Marketing Imagination put together a framework for working with customers in delightful ways around price, promotion, positioning and placement. This gave any marketer a set of formulas for success. While he and others tried to develop algorithms for behavior management, both Ogilvy and Levitt understood that delighting customer was the root of all success. Yes, there were systems behind it that sat inside of these marketing masters’ heads and was applied by an industry across the globe.

Robots Automate, Algorithms Reveal, But Marketers Need To Delight

While early marketing masters like Ogilvy and Levitt, were born from limitations of their forefathers, both also were tripped up by the evolving worlds around them. With Ogilvy, it was the exponential expansion of channels, the cost to reach people and the idea to push hard to find the creative breakthrough concept just got tougher and tougher. With Levitt, it was the progressively better knowledge and platforms available to customers so that they could play with all the variables at one time and game some of the models he had designed for brands.

Now, flash forward forty years and we have the next era and its inherent weaknesses are about to be exposed. We all talk about building our own marketing eco-systems connecting everything together because we no longer have control over the overall landscape we need to orchestrate a more controlled environment. Anyone can now leverage this power to combine complex elements of content and technologies that enable triggers for further direct communications, optimize mediums with omni-channel marketing in full digital beauty, all optimized based on customer feedback and insights. In many ways, marketers have become better at moving items around than focusing on delighting customers. With whole support industries to help us move the pieces, some would say we have become slaves to a process, rather than the master of the art like Ogilvy and Levitt envisioned. Ask yourself does running this sort of system or approach that provides 10%, 30%  or even 200% better efficiency make your marketing stand out?

What Is The Digital Future Of Marketing And What Role Do Humans Play?

So what does the future of marketing look like?  Is it all digital with robot, AI or machine learning marketing systems doing all the work? If Ogilvy created 18 concepts for the Hathaway Shirt Company, surely an AI system could develop 5,000 in an instant. If Levitt’s models could guide you to get the balance of the 4 Ps right for a product launch, AI marketing can now deliver millions of combinations in real time. Also, digital enables instant experimentation to optimize performance before truly committing to a full campaign. As a marketer, doesn’t this all sounds amazing?

Historically the power of the previous period is destroyed in the new epoch. AI, machine learning and automation could take over the “moving around era,” very, very easily. Here could be the new reality. Algorithms reveal what to do from the hundreds of thousands of potential options, robot systems can then adjust and automate the process. We can automate the way things get moved around in marketing 24 x 7 x 365 and never need to take a break for family, food, rest to browsing online. We live like Thomas Edison on the pure volume of  of experimentation and operational inefficiencies. It is an amazing world of optimization that offers so much in OPEX , CAPEX and performance changes. Why keep the humans around when algorithms reveal and robot systems automate?  This though is not enough, as the world is constantly evolving.  To avoid being a left behind in this new and inevitable world you need to ask yourself five questions every day.

The 5 Questions To Ask To Lead In The Digital Future Of Marketing

1. What can algorithms reveal and what can we learn from them? Machine learning is spectacular. Nobody will deny that. But working out how to apply those learnings is going to be complex. As humans, we need to be more strategic about how to filter and re-package unique and sometimes obvious ideas into wider strategic concepts. Success with algorithmic marketing is not just the act of running formula, but how we learn and truly apply the insight provided. Marketers in the age of AI have to get far more focused on the sorts of business analytic skills seen in management consulting to see, use and apply the insights all around us. Invest time to learn these skills and do it quickly.

2. What can I automate versus what can I focus on that is complex, but highly differentiating? Machines will learn very well what do more efficiently, but cannot replace the intricate knowledge of human and customer behavior which should be at the heart of great customer knowledge. In our book, The Digital Helix, experts on digital transformation described how they delight customers or digital citizens by seeing and using their portfolios of experiences. Marketers need to find, understand and use these portfolios, because you can’t automate what you don’t know or fully understand. They are complex and shift and therefore require human architecture.

3. What do I need to learn from customers everyday about how they feel, believe and want to be? We do not as a species comply to the ideals of game theory very well where the concepts of conflict and cooperation can be measured and used to rule how we all think. So, investing time away from running systems to understanding how real people really behave is vital. Sure, Game of Thrones does game theory well, but that is not the real world.

4. What do we need to do to delight our customers and drive their experiences with us? Suroweicki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, shows how simple the idea of crowd wisdom is at driving decision making. The key takeaway here is that marketers and leaders need to be so close to customers that we can understand where that crowd is heading. By understanding their behaviors at a root-level, you can identify the crowd shifts as they occur. Digital leaders like those at the PAC 12, MasterCard, Hallmark and others told us that they work to identify their customer’s sales moments (that series of points where customers need information or want to act before purchasing). While in a digital world, these are complex, sometimes fleeting and often changing, not understanding and leveraging them is a missed opportunity. Which points out, that a machine can’t handle new data, if the organization never tells it that it is important. This is yet another vital human part of the equation. Machines can only optimize what they know, differentiation and priority requires human thinking.

5. How do I push for exceptional in experience, success and everything? Automation will always deviate to the mean in some way or another. Exceptional does not come from the mean or average, it comes from finding outliers that could become the future. The role of marketers and leaders is to go and find those amazing outliers and work out if they are your future. Apple and many other brands found and thrive on finding and using outliers for their success. Malcolm Gladwell was right, the outliers will tell us more as a person than could ever be captured by a machine. Let the machines automate and you should be the explorer of outliers.

Automate The Mundane To Free Up Human Creativity

My life’s mission is automating the mundane to free up human creativity. I owe that clarity to reading Coach Pete Carroll’s book and working with Dr. Michael Gervais, who understands that the core of a journey to personal high performance starts with a clear personal compass. I believe that humans are incredibly creative problem solvers who need to grow by handling challenges that matter.

The AI marketing future offers those that believe in human creativity a real opportunity to shine as both people and as organizations. However, you need to ask very different questions to thrive in this digital future. We need to ask less about completion lists and eco-systems, because algorithms and automation will do those, and a lot more about meaning and the direction we are heading.

Let the machines automate and do the mundane work. Your job, today and in the future, is to become a digital explorer and look for themes and streams of information that enable your creativity to help manage customer’s portfolios and sales moments. That is the future and that is where success lies. It does not lie in focusing on getting faster or incrementally better (as digital will do this for everyone). This is likely to be scary to those who have trained and focused on each new evolution of marketing skill sets. Your future needs to be focused on solving bigger challenges that take you and your marketing further, just like Ogilvy and Levitt.

But this time you have the power, tools and insights they only dreamed about.