AI and machine learning have many wondering about marketers’ future role. GroupM’s Rob Norman says ‘fear not’

Rob Norman served as GroupM North America’s CEO, and more recently as the company’s global chief digital officer. He retired this year and shares why marketers shouldn’t fear for their survival as marketing moves toward automation and assistance.

After serving more than 30 years in the agency world, I’m retiring at a time when many aren’t clear what their careers might look like, even five years from now.

With marketing moving toward automation, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, and I’m often asked by peers about what’s next for marketers professionally. My advice: Fear not. The move toward automation will only create more need for the work marketers do to build relevant, assistive brands.

We’ve been here before

When I look back on my decades in the ad industry, I can think of several periods of similar uncertainty. And each one was brought on by a new innovation in tools and evolving technology.

There’s no need to fear. … The work marketers do is becoming more important, not less.

The two most pivotal innovations of my career have been the Facebook News Feed and Google AdWords. The Facebook News Feed was created in 2006 and completely redefined how humans consume and share content, and the immediacy with which they can do both—albeit with some unintended consequences. But even earlier came Google AdWords.

AdWords changed the dynamics of advertising forever by introducing a new market defined by auction-based pricing. It moved power from those brands with the most money—and might—to those with the most insight and the greatest relevance. It brought more accountability to marketing with payment reliant upon user action. And it leveled the competitive field by removing barriers to entry (like upfront payment), so even the smallest business could market its wares to anyone.

But as Google AdWords and the keyword bidding process became more and more automated, people in our industry got worried about their job security, just as they are now. But all the worry was for naught. The need for good people actually grew during that period of automation—specifically for people who understood the math behind the AdWords auction, the components of the quality score, and, more broadly, the role of search and discovery in a modern marketing mix.

After all, evolution is insurance against obsolescence. With new tools and technology, we evolved our skills and adapted, and now we have the opportunity to do so again, as machine learning innovations launch us into the next battleground for consumer attention: assistance.

When it’s the norm for devices to assist, the work of agencies and brand marketers is more important than ever

Today consumers live in a mobile, always-on, instant-gratification world. There’s nothing consumers can’t do, know, or get immediately. And each new wave of innovation in assistive technology seems to strip away yet another layer of friction for people. For example, voice assistance has been available for search for a while, but Google Home and Amazon Echo are now taking it beyond, giving you the ability to also control your smart home and even do your shopping. Every day in the age of assistance, life gets better and better for consumers.

In this new age of assistance, l believe we’re called to be imagination workers.

But for all the benefits AI-powered experiences offer consumers, for agencies and brand marketers, it brings just as much uncertainty. In this uncertainty, I don’t see reason to fear—I see opportunity. Because as machines do more work for consumers, the need to invest in brand relevance, equity, and familiarity only increases. In other words, the work marketers do is becoming more important, not less.

Why? Because it’s never been more critical to make sure consumers ask for products by brand name than it will be in an AI-powered world. Only this time they won’t be asking the counter clerk, but an assistant on a smartphone, smart speaker, smart car, or even a smart washing machine (right at the top of my list of things I can live without).

The future of brand marketing is about what it’s always been about—cementing what your brand stands for in the hearts and minds of consumers—but now with renewed focus. The most successful brands will be the ones associated with an emotion, belief, or value that resonates with audiences on a personal level, like Patagonia is doing with adventure, and Airbnb is doing with acceptance, belonging, and safety. The most successful brands will be those adept at both creating new demand with attention-worthy storytelling, and creatively capturing latent demand with relentless relevance to the person, the context, and the moment.

Evolving our work from information to intelligence to imagination

To my peers and friends who are still worried that their jobs may be replaced by machines, I’d offer this: 30 years ago we were information workers, then machines beat us at processing. So, for the last decade, we’ve adapted to become intelligence workers. Now it’s time to adapt again. And in this new age of assistance, I believe we’re called to be imagination workers.

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At the heart of succeeding as an imagination worker today is cultivating a deep desire to help people navigate their daily lives and tasks. So my advice is focus on bringing a new level of imagination and creativity to how you serve. Stay focused on the consumer, and ride this wave of the unknown. Take risks. Challenge the status quo. And you’ll not only evolve with the new world—you’ll thrive in it.

Consumers in the Age of Assistance