Greek tragedies often resolved intractable plot complications by suddenly parachuting in an omnipotent force from the heavens above. Known as a “deus ex machina”—or, literally, “god from the machine”—it was a reliable device for yielding a happy ending or adding a comic turn to an otherwise tragic plot.

Today, many digital marketers stare skyward hoping on the arrival of their own heaven-sent machines. Their tragedy? The fragmentation of audiences, the proliferation of channels and the exploding speed, scale and complexity of digital engagement. In this case, the machine is automation, the robots set in motion to make marketing a precision instrument for driving business growth.

But some digital marketers don’t know whether to be relieved or afraid.

Breathless headlines now foretell a vaguely dystopian future where the robots reign. Automation, as the storyline goes, is bound to steal your job—if not now, then on some later horizon.

It’s worth noting that the flames of this particular fear have been fanned for eons, as each generation of technological and economic progress ushers in its share of Luddite resistance. But perhaps this time it’s different, you think. Perhaps, this time, fact has overtaken fiction in the inexorable march of progress.

And there you stand, flatfooted, glancing over your shoulder, wondering: Are the machines friend or foe?

Chances are they’re both. Gartner predicts that, by 2020, the majority of non-routine career paths will be disrupted by smart machines in both positive and negative ways. Smart machines have the very real potential to be friend or foe, depending on the role they—and you—play in your marketing organization.

What’s the threat level? It depends on how deeply you employ automation, which graduates in roughly three parts that range from filters and analysis to programmatic action to machines that actually learn.

  • Augmentation—is where automation is used to assist people in what are decidedly human-centric tasks. Here, automation provides the assist, but it’s used directly in line with human-led tasks. For example, curating content, social listening, crowdsourcing ideas, crunching data. These are all examples of augmentation, where automation amplifies human performance.
  • Orchestration—is where machines execute an explicit set of instructions to carry out rote tasks, often faster, with more precision and at greater scale than people could execute on their own. Here, people define the business rules, the thresholds and the parameters and the machines carry out the orders down to the letter, like dutiful soldiers in your command.
  • Autonomic—is when automation takes on adaptive, self-adjusting qualities. Here, automation goes beyond explicit programmed instructions and actually learns based on its own observations—so called “machine learning.” This is where automation starts to rub up against human intelligence as algorithms learn, adapt, optimize—in a sense: think.

Each level of automation displaces some level of human effort. In doing so, it will commoditize certain roles. But the best marketers won’t attempt to hold back the inevitable tides of automation; they’ll carve out a path that puts them in control of what they accept as a necessary evolution.

They’ll also learn balance, recognizing that robots—for all their operational and analytic prowess—simply can’t feel. By cultivating both data- and human-centric skills across strategic and operational domains, marketers rise above the machines as inviolably capable in subtle, ambiguous and creative disciplines, which are durable against the commoditizing effects of automation.

As Gartner’s Intelligent Brand Framework suggests, the best marketers learn to balance head with heart.

Robots may well replicate some aspects of human intelligence in the march of progress, but they’ll never replicate the uniquely human aspects of heart.

1 Comment
  1. 16 May 2014 at 11:56 am
    Justin Brideson says:

    Over the past decade, successful marketers have changed their approach and evolved as technology continues to move forward. I agree we will adapt and still remain relevant and necessary.

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