In a recent HBR post, I discussed the rise of the digital CMO—specifically, what digital marketing asks of leadership and what it means for accountability. I signed off with what will be seen as a hopeful call to action or ominous pronouncement, depending on where you sit (organizationally and philosophically):

“Disruptions can be swift and unrelenting, and it is much better to be a disruptor than one of those being disrupted.”

This got me thinking about the collateral damage of change—those left behind by the swift and unrelenting forces of disruption.

IT knows this all too well. Each subsequent generation of technology brought new complexity that forced IT organizations to automate anything that wasn’t nailed to the ground. In many cases, the complexity of these environments exceeded the unaided capacity of human beings, making automation of manual steps and abstraction of low-level operations the only option.

It all sounds a bit wonky, I admit, but the analogy has important implications for today’s marketing leaders. Digital marketing requires standardization and automation of many procedures that were once performed by human beings. The speed, complexity and precision of the discipline depend on it. In the same sense that automation made some IT folks uneasy, digital marketing will surely do the same for some marketers.

But, as we’ve learned through the industrialization of IT, as each layer of technology is automated and commoditized, it allows talent to move up the stack to focus on higher-level, higher-value work.

Here are some IT lessons that may lend perspective to those weathering the digital marketing storm:

  • Automate yourself out of a job—drive the process of designing and implementing the next-generation. Instead of carving off and protecting the spaces you’ve traditionally occupied and owned, look for ways to automate yourself out of a job. Then look for new ways to add value.
  • Develop higher-level skills—automation is liberating. It allows you to cultivate higher-order skills and thinking by elevating your orientation from a game of Whac-A-Mole to a game of Stratego. Use automation as your lever to move up the stack.
  • Bravely lead the change—trust that leading the change globally, despite the provincial risks, will strengthen your position in your organization and in your profession.  
  • Start a revolution—IT has done a great job building communities of change. Open source, ITIL, DevOps—these movements were created and sustained by likeminded professionals with passion and a strong point of view. Organize or join a movement with a vision and agenda for change.

Digital marketing is nothing short of a disruption. Chances are it will substantially change your role. On which side of history will you fall? Be like the best in IT. Be one the disruptors, not the disrupted.


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