CES is always a great catalyst for marketers to reassess what matters most in the year ahead. Many of us spent much of the prior few weeks immersed in decidedly non-marketing and non-technology conversations with family and close friends. Personally, I also kept paddling through William Finnegan’s dreamy Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life and entertained some airplane-seat neighbors by snort-laughing my way through Jeff Tweedy’s awkwardly perfect audiobook recording of his new biography. A reminder: In addition to being marketers and technologists, we’re people too. So here I am, at CES in Las Vegas, thinking about this morning's Diversification of Technology panel at MediaLink’s Marketing Reinvented conference.

Our panel was comprised of some truly brilliant people: Tatyana Zlotsky, who steers digital marketing and partnerships for American Express. Farhad Massoudi, who is leading the creation of new models for TV and movie viewing at Tubi. Jason Wagenheim from Bustle, who deeply knows the needs of marketing and agency leaders through their growing content empire. Katie Walmsley, who leads content strategy at Brut. And the inimitable Cenk Uygur, host and founder of The Young Turks. Each one of them brought a unique perspective on data, content and how to fit the complex pieces of marketing technology and data together to move brands and businesses forward.

The discussion was fantastic. Cenk and Farhad exchanged insights about how important it's becoming for brands to truly stand for something. Playing it safe and trying to please all people exposes brands to the greatest risk of all; being ignored and forgotten. This is particularly important to connect with the youngest generations of adults, who are already setting cultural trends for older generations (for more on Gen Z, check out RPA’s new research report here).

Jason and Katie shared wonderful perspective on contextual relevance and how marketers can use data from publisher partners to develop more meaningful content that audiences really care about. Tatyana explained that at American Express, they continue to lean into two areas: purpose and personalization. And that by serving those two ends, they are converging into a third component: highly effective mid-funnel strategies that connect AMEX's purpose with the day-to-day needs of different customer types. She also perfectly framed the three priorities every marketer should consider when evolving their programmatic approach in 2019: automation (an operational priority), auction dynamics (often the trickiest aspect with the least marketer control) and strategy (which is probably the most important piece that gets too little attention).

As I sit for a moment to process our conversation, I’m reminded about how the real-life relationships that the holidays help cement each year can guide us through all the important work we’re doing: integrating data partners, activating customer-journey maps, advancing marketing automation and finding ways to increase profit margins for all our client partners. The holiday rest has been quite clarifying: It’s really all about building strong relationships between a brand and its customers.

And as I look back to the dinner parties, kids’ parties and holiday festivities, the keys to building strong relationships for brands are actually quite clear.

Sometimes you should talk about yourself. When you do, it should be meaningful, it should inspire others, it should be true and it should be relevant to whomever you’re with. Bonus points if you can make them smile.

Sometimes you should talk about your guest. It should be thoughtful and useful to what you know about them. But it’s important to tread very carefully when it comes to what you know about them personally; trust is the very foundation of a strong relationship.

Today we talked about building brands and driving business growth through purpose and personalization. We discussed how the most innovative publishers and marketers are integrating data to create more relevant and effective marketing. We talk about content and culture.

Ostensibly, this was a conversation about the diversification, re-architecting and interoperation of data and technology in a fast-evolving world of media and marketing.

But it was - and is - really a conversation about building great, valuable relationships between brands and their customers.

Here’s to an exciting and rewarding 2019!