One of the highlights of last week’s Content2Conversion conference was a keynote by the always-stimulating Tim Riesterer of Corporate Visions, who argued that an effective sales presentation should (1) start with an unfamiliar factoid that shows why change is essential (a concept similar to the CEB "challenger sale") (2) show that you have a solution and (c) contrast your solution with other approaches to clarify how it's different and better. Riesterer’s own talk followed exactly that template, a bit of consistency I always admire. This in turn got me thinking about my presentation on machine learning systems at the MarTech conference in March. I pretty much finished drafting it last week, but it was still an interesting exercise to imagine recasting it along the lines Riesterer proposed.
Linear thinker that I am, this meant first looking for an appropriate factoid about why the growth of machine intelligence poses a threat that can’t be ignored. This led to several hours of research into what’s being written about machine intelligence, which I'll somewhat sheepishly admit is my idea of a good time. A reasonable starting question was how many marketing jobs are threatened with replacement by intelligent systems. Some quick Googling led to an article that quoted economist W. Brian Arthur as estimating that machines could replace 100 million U.S. jobs by 2025.* That’s pretty scary but a second, even more intriguing article quoted a study by Oxford economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne that estimated the probability of 702 specific job categories being replaced by “computerisation” (British spelling). This offers the possibility of showing how much employment risk is faced by marketers in particular.
Frey and Osborne list two categories with “marketing” in their title:
- “Marketing Managers” with a 1.4% probability of computerization, and
- “Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists” with a 61% probability.
Frey and Osborne did their calculations based on the assumption that it will be hardest to computerize jobs that require manual dexterity, creativity, and social skills. These assumptions may already be obsolete – the paper was written in 2013 and this 2014 video by machine learning expert Jeremey Howard suggests that new developments in “deep learning” are making machines more powerful than anticipated, especially in areas relating to creativity and social interaction. Frey and Osborne also conclude that management jobs are relatively safe in part because managers need social skills to motivate their staff – a need that will diminish if the staff is largely replaced by machines. So I'd say there's a good chance that all but the most senior jobs are less secure than Frey and Osborne suggest.**
That's all interesting, but what does it mean for my presentation? Let’s go back to Riesterer’s three-part template.
- The first step was proving that change is necessary. I think showing marketers that half to two-thirds of their jobs will vanish in the next ten years should do the trick.
- The second step was offering a solution. I’m proposing that learning to manage intelligent machines will be the key to future success. My MarTech presentation will offer some specific suggestions on how to do that.
- The third step was contrasting the proposed solution with other approaches. That’s easy if the alternative is to continue with traditional marketing methods. It’s a bit harder if the alternative is making other types of changes, if only because you’d have to list what those alternatives might be. I can think of a few approaches I can easily out-argue, such as random experimentation or buying new technology without addressing organizational and process issues. A more challenging competitor is to focus on optimizing the customer experience rather than use of machine intelligence. Customer experience is inherently a more appealing focus because it sounds strategic and customer-centered while machine intelligence sounds narrowly mechanical. Still, the ultimate question is which approach will give better results, and I suspect machine intelligence – by making marketers more productive and thus freeing them to do more new things – will eventually win out. (Or not. You could argue that machine intelligence is like electricity: vastly better than its predecessors and destined to be ubiquitous, but something that vendors will make equally available to everyone, and thus not in itself a long-term competitive advantage.)
*What Arthur actually said is machines in the U.S. could produce output equal to the 1995 U.S. economy, which employed 100 million people. Close enough. As a point of reference, the current U.S. total of jobs is around 150 million.
**To be clear, Frey and Osborne are explicit that they are NOT making predictions about whether, how quickly, or how many jobs will actually be lost. They do somewhat casually suggest it's reasonable to expect about half of U.S. jobs will be potentially computerizable in "a decade or two" but cite many factors that could prevent computers from actually taking those jobs.