How to Future-Proof a Career in Marketing When the Old Rules No Longer Apply

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Thanks to digital transformation, there are myriad ways to reach consumers, and these new channels have revolutionized not just how advertising is conceived, executed and distributed, but who makes it. Then add to the mix shrinking ad budgets, shifting agency models and the rise of big data and analytics. Together, they are shaking up the established power players behind the ad-making game. To wit, in March, J. Walter Thompson eliminated the role of chief creative officer, saying it was “reimagining the future of the agency.”

So, how best to future-proof a career in advertising?

“You have to ask lots of questions,” says Tim Leake, the chief marketing officer and svp at RPA. “You have to wonder how does this work. Figure out what blockchain is and what it means for your business. What is VR and how do people use it? You have to be insatiably curious about what works and why. It’s all about testing and iterating. You have to set up a hypothesis, and that’s across the board whether you’re an account manager, a creative or you work in PR.”

At the same time, brands are bringing advertising in-house. Or, they are turning to the ad-consulting arms of global accounting and auditing firms like PwC, Deloitte and IBM, while Vice, The New York Times and other publishing outfits establish their own creative studios. And, all the while, individuals are sharing, tweeting, liking and forwarding content, becoming themselves ersatz ad makers and storytellers.

Today, the old rules no longer apply, and the new ones are being constantly rewritten, as the creative establishment engages in a turf war with data experts and engineers.

What makes for success in this evolving landscape? What is essential to have in advertising no matter the era? What does a fractured industry mean for agencies? What new challenges does it pose? What, if anything, remains the same as new platforms come and go at seemingly record speed?

As agency execs and marketers adjust to this unceasing disruption, Adweek spoke with a group of industry professionals to share their take on the current challenges, how talent is being redefined and what agencies and brands are looking for in this brave, new world.

Experimentation is key
“Laundry in music festivals is WTF, but mobile phones are a dime a dozen,” explains Peggy Ang, LG’s head of mobile communications marketing. She was talking about LaundROO, the company’s unlikely lounge at the four-day Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee earlier this year where revelers could get their dirty clothes washed.

As the No. 3 player in the mobile space, Ang says, the company must be wildly creative and unpredictable about reaching new, younger audiences. “I have to stay relevant to people who are all about digital, and Bonnaroo was that new endeavor,” she says.

LG also works with a VR character to get its message out, Ang says, explaining, “I need something that nobody has owned. You have to dip in the waters, you have to try. In six months, if it doesn’t, what I can be proud of is we tested something, we tried something nobody has done.”

In other words, the new world order hinges largely on experimentation.

“The nature of the creative process has changed,” says Leake. By way of explanation, he references bowling. Before the digital age, “we put all our care into this big, giant ball and to knock over as many pins as possible. Now, life is much more like pinball. The people are the ball and we don’t know where it’s going to, but we have to set up lots of targets. No journey is going to be exactly the same.”

What’s more, as Facebook and other platforms tweak how they are used, advertisers must be vigilant about learning the implications of these changes and adapting messages accordingly. “This requires a lot more man hours than we used to spend on stuff, but any one thing is less effective because it’s splintered,” Leake says. Some people may find such splintering frustrating. For others, it’s liberating—in this new uncharted world there are countless new opportunities to innovate and execute.

Curiosity is also key
Regardless of platform or medium, successful creatives must have an insatiable hunger to learn about the brand and business they’re promoting, about ever-shifting technology, about their collaborators and about the world, generally.

“Curiosity cannot be underestimated. It is the engine for questions and the fuel for creativity,” says Ang.

Amie Miller, global chief talent officer at TBWA, seconds that notion. “The very best people in this business are still the ones who have a passion and a genuine curiosity to tell brand stories and connect,” she says. “Yes, we look for skill sets that are relevant to the modern world, but I think it is a moving target more than ever. Curious people and intelligent people know how to keep up with those skills.”

According to Leake, the conventional skill set of yore included humor, strong writing, strong design, storytelling ability, strategic and conceptual thinking, and prolific great idea generation, even when they are killed.

Today’s skill set includes all of that in addition to the desire to learn about new platforms and media. Creatives must want to understand human behavior and data. They should have an “ability to think in ‘systems’ and not just linear storytelling,” Leake says, adding that they need an “understanding of how emerging technology works and how people use it, a broad understanding of user experience, an ability to collaborate across many disciplines, ability to communicate in increasingly small, short ad units, as well as in longer form.”

Christie Cordes, CEO and founder of Ad Recruiter, uses LinkedIn, Twitter and other social channels as a way to assess how engaged a person is. “We look for people that are creative all over the world, who are following the innovators … when you are following the best executives in the world, you know what’s coming down the pipeline before it’s in a magazine or in the news,” she says. That social engagement, she says, is helpful evidence of a person’s curiosity.

Why the big idea
All the nifty ways consumers “like” a brand’s story or share a brand-related GIF mean nothing without a strong idea at the heart of any campaign. That was true before the digital age. It will be true after it.

Whereas TV is one directional, Facebook and other platforms encourage consumer engagement. That means that brands must make content that people will “talk about when they meet their friends in a bar, that’ll have voltage,” says Fernando Machado, global CMO for Burger King. “That the idea will appear on BuzzFeed, HuffPo or Mashable. We are always thinking about providing some sort of value for the people who are consuming that piece of content. Doing something that’s fun. That doesn’t feel commercial.“

That doesn’t mean foregoing traditional approaches and traditional channels, Machado notes. It means complementing them. “But, we need to go beyond that,” he says. “We try to avoid getting lost in the world of fragmentation by focusing on having an amazing idea. And often we define what the idea is, then we let the idea dictate the channels.”

Another way to think about the change in advertising is that consumers are no longer passive recipients of content. They are producers now, too. They remake content, stamping it with their own imprimatur. Mindful of consumer participation in the content churn, creatives may now develop ideas that have room to be reinvented and shared.

When looking for the kinds of people who will be able to deliver on this, Leake says it helpful to note that “ideas have to be developed with the understanding that the audience might grab it, change it, comment on it, remix it or troll it. We have to think several steps ahead. There is also a big opportunity in creating stuff that engages at a higher level because people want to make it their own. We used to focus on whether it ‘communicated’ what we wanted it to. We have to consider and prepare for hundreds of possibilities today.”

“The best stuff that we’ve seen tends to have some aspect of that nugget at its core,” Leake adds. Creatives “put this idea out in the world and allow people to take it and share it or do something with it. People out there brand-jack. They attribute stuff to a brand that the brand never did.”

But absent a strong idea, none of that will ensue.

Arthritic though they may be, agencies are not obsolete
Even while instability and fragmentation are changing the ad world, many clients still prefer the services of a big agency over consultancies or in-house ad divisions.

“The creative team needs to be constantly stimulated by different brands, different categories, different people,” says Machado. Agencies, he says, foster such stimulation.

“The best creatives that I know tend to gravitate toward thinking about several things at the same time,” he says. “And I fear if I lock those creatives in a room and have them think about Burger King and Burger King only, over time this will wear out the team.”

Yet undergirding the notion that exposure to different campaigns is essential to good work is the assumption that agencies are growing smart staffs. And that assumption, in Cordes’ view, is currently mistaken.

“As tech developed, the ad agencies made a decision that they were going to follow the tech bro culture,” she says. “They put Ping-Pong tables in and followed the ‘young is better’ hiring mantra and that created a lot of distrust in that clients weren’t looking to the agencies as sources of wisdom. They were looking at them as little kid rock shops, and I think that was a huge misstep in the industry.”

In addition, Cordes says that there’s a sort of chaos now in place at agencies. She traces it in part to the financial crash of 2008. In her view, the memory of the crash and the industry-wide layoffs it caused still haunts senior advertising executives. Burdened by a constant fear of being fired, they seek to hire only those with less experience than they have—only those who pose them no discernible threat—in order to quell this anxiety. It’s creates a downward spiral that “compounds into your entire organization being less smart,” Cordes says, and “it’s devastating.”

But Miller says advertising has always attracted young professionals because “it’s an amazing career for people who want to come to work and be part of work that impacts culture,” she says. Now, “because of the speed of change and the speed of technology, we have to work harder at balancing how people work. There’s a little bit more strategic talent management that has to happen. That’s the difference.”

Strength in partners
Gone are the days when clients gave total creative control to a creative, so it’s critical to choose partners wisely.

“We spend a disproportionate amount of time together,” Machado says. “It doesn’t mean it will always be fun and cool and happy, but the trust will always be there.”

And that trust is necessary for taking risks. “When you have a strong partnership, you can take a leap of faith,” he says. “Most of the work that I consider to be outstanding hasn’t been done before. And that comes with uncertainty. You need to be able to cope with uncertainty.”

Ang ranks finding good partners up there with making sure she’s always learning. “If you truly want to embrace marketing, you have a lot of partners,” she says. “They don’t just provide a service, but they provide you a new perspective to look at the market.”

And having so many different partners requires new skill sets. Time’s short to craft and troubleshoot an idea, to present it to the client, polish it and beta test it. “We have to develop our muscle memory differently,” says Leake. “The new muscle memory has to be a lot more active listening to what’s going on in the world. Did people like that? Let’s come up with a second version and put that out there. It’s a lot closer to improv than a scripted monologue.”

Don’t forget who’s who
“My bugaboo about consumers is when we use that word we’re dehumanizing the very people we’re trying to connect with,” says Leake. “There are no people out there who aren’t consumers and no consumers who aren’t people.”

That, ultimately, is the through line that has driven so many individuals in the ad sector, and that will continue to drive them.

The industry, Leake says, is “predictably fluid. Fluid is by definition not predictable. We don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s not going to be the same. That’s what we know. And the one constant is that people are at the other end of what we do. That’s the one thing that’s not changing.”

Adds Ang: “Data can sell you a lot of aggregation. What the trends are. But at the end of day it’s a one-to-one experience. I always tell my partners, ‘The best part is dealing with people, and you and I are people.’”

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