Believe it or not – and given all the bad news around marketing in the last few months, many people do not – I believe today is the best time ever to work in marketing. It is time to rethink the idea that the Mad Men era or the 1980s were the golden age. Bleak assessments around the state of marketing are simply wrong.
I recently had to present to a group of master’s degree students – the exact master’s I had done all those years ago, so I had to think through my career, and give them some useful career advice that they could act on. In the end, the summary of why now is the best time ever in marketing boil down to one word: opportunity.
The quantity and quality of opportunities in marketing is so far ahead of what was available when I graduated, both from my undergraduate and when I completed my MBA. So different are these opportunities that we might as well be talking about a different epoch, not just a different era. For example, the concept of joining a startup was simply not thought about. Why? Because the notion of a startup was not something you could comprehend.
Even 10 years ago, when I finished my MBA, a junior marketer entering the industry would still be choosing media from radio, TV, print and outdoor for the majority of what you would do day to day. I was one of the few people I knew spending heavily on Google AdWords. Concepts such as content marketing and Facebook advertising simply did not exist.
When I managed my first website in 1999, I needed many hours to get the website to do something simple, like ask for an email address and or create an email list. Today, automated tools and content management systems such as a WordPress allow anyone to build a beautiful integrated website from a template with advanced database and automation functions, for next to nothing. I can create an ecommerce shop using BigCommerce and Shopify in less than half an hour; or use Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) to warehouse my products – and pick, pack, ship, and provide customer service for these products.
In the past, the biggest obstacles were physical things: people, time, or maybe investment. If you wanted to publish a book, you needed to find and convince a publisher to work with you so that they could print your book and get it stocked in physical bookstores. Now, anyone can publish a book quickly and easily, and offer it directly or through Amazon. There is no printing or shipping cost for an eBook.
As author Seth Godin says, “anyone with access to the internet owns their own factory and their own printing press”. That phrase encapsulates the very essence of opportunity facing us all – not just marketers.
The Economist called it correctly a few years ago when it applied the metaphor of the ‘Cambrian explosion’ – when life forms on planet earth began to multiply 500 million years ago – to the “cheap and ubiquitous building blocks for digital products and services that have caused an explosion in startups”. This new Cambrian explosion is the entrepreneurial explosion creating opportunity in “an astonishing variety of products that are reshaping entire industries and even changing the very notion of the firm”.
The quality and quantity of opportunity becoming available is unprecedented, and is only going to increase.
An explanation for the Cambrian explosion of 500 million years ago is that the basic building blocks of life had reached the point where more complex organisms could be created rapidly. Likewise, today the building blocks for digital are so highly developed, cheap and ubiquitous that they can be easily combined and recombined. The web is not just giving us Trumps tweets, fake news and cat videos, it is also combining to create so many options for marketers and each of these new options represents a new form of opportunity.
We have more opportunities for food to eat, coffee to drink, places to travel, entertainment to watch, ideas to learn, experiences to have and diversity of people to meet from different places. Think how easy it is to get a great marketing education. Take, for example, the Mini-MBA in Marketing with Professor Mark Ritson – sure beats the £30,000+ I spent on my MBA, and the hours in the university library trying to find marketing textbooks and case studies that weren’t over 10-years-old.
Reality is changing faster than we have the ability to predict, in ways that most of us don’t have the ability to model. But marketers have an advantage: most of us should not have been surprised to hear what Cambridge Analytica was doing – as it echoes many aspects of a marketer’s armoury – even if it was used for nefarious purposes. But for many people, it was the first time they could actually see it was visible. We know that this was the product of the convergence of technological advances, hardware, software, big data tools, artificial intelligence, user interface design and modelling. But few others did. Marketing is now part of what is happening in real-time.
Whatever you’re doing, no matter how “tried and true” and “not broken” it is, you’re going to see it changing faster and faster, right before your eyes. Even the concept of change is changing too. We aren’t surprised when we hear that machines are replacing factory equipment. But it gets our attention when we read about a machine understanding spoken English better than us, or beating grandmasters at chess. If you don’t believe me, have a look at an iPhone 4 and compare it to an iPhone X: what was incredible just five years ago now looks slow and clunky. Your smartphone has put more power into your hands than we’ve ever had before – the kind of power that used to only exist for the few.
The definition of opportunity
Let’s get back to the word that summarises why it’s the greatest time to be in marketing: opportunity. What is the definition of opportunity? The Oxford Dictionary defines opportunity as “a time or set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something”. It also provides synonyms of opportunity: chance, lucky chance, good time, golden opportunity, time. The synonyms convey the importance of seizing an opportunity created by favourable circumstances.
This means that having an abundance of opportunity implies something else: opportunity seems like something that is ‘out there’, but the real opportunity is in your mind – having the right mindset. This is why what is called ‘opportunity literacy’ will become important: knowing an opportunity when you see it, and having both the tools and the mindset to grab the opportunity.
How did I leave it with the aforementioned master’s students? I told them that the problem in the near future for marketers won’t be about finding opportunity, but trying to figure out how to deal with the abundance of it.
The quality and quantity of opportunity becoming available is unprecedented, and is only going to increase. Therefore, understanding opportunity will be a key to success in marketing. With the opportunity mindset, they should look for opportunity by finding out what customers really want, they should look for opportunity by hiring the best team possible, they should look for opportunity by studying the latest knowledge and expertise.
And, finally, they should understand this: what we see now is nothing compared to what’s coming. Truly, today is the best time ever to be in marketing.
Colin Lewis is CMO at OpenJaw Technologies