Don’t believe the hype – it’s a great time to be working in the marketing industry

Despite economic pressures, brand safety and data privacy issues plus a daily diet of bad news about the industry’s future marketing is actually in a better place than it was 20 years ago, writes Jean-Michel Wu of Grace Blue Partnership

March 19, 2019 9:49



The average person is exposed to 5,000 ads a day. This is the largest daily amount of advertising ever produced in human history and yet there are fewer people working in the industry when compared to 10 years ago.

The so-called ‘apocalypse of the advertising industry’ has been heralded over recent years in the form of many kinds of headlines; some literal (‘Ad agencies in terminal decline’) and others clearly written by copywriters (‘RIP Don Draper’).

If you look around, the case of the shrinking marketing workforce is not quite a mystery. The growth of adtech and martech combined with an uncertain economic outlook doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Marketers tighten budgets, teams get smaller, agencies merge, shared services and resources become on trend. Then comes the cost battle between investing in ideas and amplifying reach. In response, holding companies adopt flat operating models to give clients easier access to tools and talent across practices. This is the reality we’ve become accustomed to.

Cost cutting: an unsustainable solution

Unfortunately, that pool of talent in our industry is shrinking as people are always the first casualty in any cost-cutting exercise. Ask Kraft-Heinz, which laid off more than 10,000 of its workforce in four years from 2013 to 2017 as a result of zero-based budgeting.

The approach, heralded ‘revolutionary’ by shareholders, who loved the skyrocketing profit margins. And it was lauded by the business community for a few years until Kraft-Heinz reported a net loss of $12.6 billion in the final quarter of 2018.

The upside to that dip in shareholder value is that companies have sat up and taken note. Maybe ruthless downsizing wasn’t the solution for increasing engagement and customer loyalty. As a result, some companies have announced that they are increasing their marketing budgets and committing to brand building once more.

Ensuring accountability and efficiency is still important (there will continue to be audits and visits from procurement). However, marketing is once again being acknowledged for its contribution to overall brand growth. For people working in the industry, this is good news.

Good marketing people build brands

Our digital world has exposed the need for more specialised skills in the marketing industry. There might be less demand for general practitioners thanks to automated platforms and user-friendly software, but this is different from the opinion that marketing teams are bloated – with too many ideas people running around and little measure of their effectiveness.

The mistake that many companies have made is in the belief that research and development ,and media, alone will give them a competitive edge. Hence the rationale for cutting down on marketing talent and spreading an already challenging load on fewer people. Having a quality product is important, but brand building should never be taken for granted.

Even online-only brands understand the power of great storytelling and creative ideas. This explains why e-commerce companies set up brick and mortar stores, and digital-only services commit notable amounts of their budgets to marketing and engagement.

Every marketer needs to create that one-on-one relationship with the consumer. They will use technology to help them do it faster and smarter and at volume, although good marketing talent is still an important part of the equation.

People, not technology, will rebuild trust

Technology has had a tough year. And it’s not exclusive to the misuse of private information or the proliferation of fake news. The type of content that can reach your private screen can be harmful and scary.

Think about the recent Christchurch massacre on Facebook or domestic abuse streaming on Twitch. There’s a mistrust of technology permeating our society, which is manifesting in different ways – from the simple weekend digital detox to governments suggesting that ‘big tech’ be broken up. Impacting confidence further, the exit of top executives and a trail of payouts for misconduct don’t make technology’s near future look any brighter.

But again, a downward trend delivers an upside. With increased scrutiny of technology companies comes the realisation by marketers that the trust they need to build with consumers won’t come from technology.

It’s not going to be completely solved through more innovation or more advanced artificial intelligence. It will, however, be bettered through good decisions that come with having greater gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace, training and education, positive leadership and work cultures that empower individuals to speak up; and do what’s good for business and people.

The opportunity to make effective change

Believe or not, the marketing industry is better than it was 20 years ago. The world has made strides towards enabling a better quality of life for everyone since our parents were born. It might not feel like it though when issues of ethics and civility, and sadly, lack of basic human decency are reported daily. Instead of following what is newsworthy, we should turn our attention to the facts.

And so it is with the marketing profession. We now have the power to incite change through our work and reach millions of people with technology. There’s more to be done, but it can’t be done without the right people.

The marketing industry needs people who are eager and passionate to spread good ideas and encourage positive behaviour. People who will use platforms and channels to communicate information and concepts that will lead to a more open, more equal and more respectful society. As far as career options go, that sounds pretty good.

Wu still believes in the power of marketing

Jean-Michel Wu is Asia-Pacific chief executive officer at the recruitment firm Grace Blue Partnership and is based in Singapore