How Machines Will Free the CMO

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (July 19, 2016)

Moses led his people from the Pharaoh. William Wallace (or was it Mel Gibson?) helped bring FREEEDOOOOM for the Scots. And now, artificial intelligence (AI) may unfetter the Chief Marketing Officer. In the past, you've seen me opine on the necessary destruction of the CMO [Chief Marketing Officer Is The Most Dangerous Title Around] as a standalone c-suiter--often more focused on grand vision and strategy than driving bottom-line results. While some called my report of the traditional CMO's death greatly exaggerated, the rise of the machines may actually provide a stay of execution. Now, I'm not reversing course and saying that the CMO should continue to exist in its present cost-draining ivory tower. Rather, I'm advocating that AI may provide salvation for the CMO by giving them the requisite free time to pursue the necessary bottom-line-moving efforts that make marketing worthwhile and justifiably profitable. And for those that must market, but occupy other management roles (especially in small and medium-sized businesses), the advent of AI will make marketing both approachable and doable without overly draining time or resources.

The AI machines we're talking about here are less Terminator and more cloud-based circuit-and-motherboard platforms. To be clear, we are NOT talking about marketing automation, which are systems like Hubspot and Marketo that help with inbound and DRIP e-mail marketing campaigns based on mostly manual user-set decision pathways. Rather, we are talking about machines that learn on their own with minimal human interface. Imagine IBM's Watson standing in for Seth Godin. And while I have a strong belief that marketing and business development require a human touch [Intrigue Marketing: An Evolutionary Assault To Inbound], there is a benefit to set-it-and-forget-it platforms that help brands remain top-of-mind while allowing marketers to focus on relationships.

“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded [by artificial intelligence].”--Professor Stephen Hawking

How I Came to Understand the Machine 

The genesis of this particular topic came from a recent cold call I received from a company called Vestorly. Focused on the financial services space (an industry already in the process of being fundamentally disrupted by Robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront), this venture-backed startup provides an AI that helps automate content by pulling in curated third-party media resources based on a user-set preference feed. This feed can then be automated and segmented to pull in these curated sources on a regular basis. Neat, but not quite enough to break the temporal constraints of the CMO. Where the real time-based benefit comes in is through the AI "learning" about the intended audience through a feedback loop that provides better and better content curated down to the single audience-member level. Think of this recommendation engine similar to how Pandora or Spotify might recommend new songs based on your preferences. As the system learns about the user, it also provides data on the back-end to the marketing professional--things like LinkedIn profiles, email addresses, etc. etc. which can be fed into a CRM. In the vein of Robo-advisors for investments, Vestorly calls itself a Robo-marketing assistant for client communications.

In my particular use-case, I was looking to create a standalone website for a new line of business at my firm. The plan was to create a few pieces of original content (which drive traffic, but have a high-cost of time and treasure) and supplement it with relevant third-party content from credible sources. There were a lot of smart media and influencer types out there already saying things of interest to our intended audience, and my intent was to create a meaningful, segmented and curated feed for them. The thought was that this would give my intended audience a reason for coming back to our site, and allow for ongoing communication touchpoints through selected and segmented newsletters. However, doing this myself would have proved heavy lifting for a marketing department of one. And, I still would have been playing a guessing game as to the effectiveness of my content and how best to personalize at the micro level. My call with Vestorly provided an art-of-the-possible moment--the chance to perform ongoing A/B and multivariate testing at N to the 1000th degree in a fraction of a second. To avoid John Wanamaker's famous dilemma: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

As I came to understand the AI and automation that Vestorly provided I became more intrigued and began to calculate the true cost-benefit in both number of hours saved and the potential acquisition and/or retention of leads/prospects/clients. While I changed roles before I could implement the system, it did get me thinking more deeply about the burgeoning field of AI as a whole, and how it might be applied to the benefit (and disruption) of all marketers.

Is the Rise of the Robots Upon Us? 

Artificial intelligence writ large is still a newer field of technology, and it inevitably will require some time for intrepid and forward-thinking marketers to fully realize its potential. But the times they are a changin'. And while original content creation, long-term strategy, brand, etc. will still remain in the purview of humans for the foreseeable future, the way audiences are engaged and how we, as marketers, learn about them, is likely to fall mostly to mechanical hands.

Econsultancy recently pointed to several marketing-related areas that are likely (if they are not already) to benefit from AI beyond content curation:

  1. Search Engine Ranking

  2. Social Semantics

  3. Ad Targeting

  4. Predictive Customer Service

  5. Speech & Language Recognition

Content creation itself could also be affected with companies like Narrative Science and Wordsmith (from Automated Insights). The latter is looking at auto-generating content for investors from companies' financial reports among other applications

An All Too Human Concern  

Part of the problem with AI adoption is likely to be the all-too-human egos of marketers themselves. While a generally quick-to-adapt group when it comes to technology, there is always a hint of self-preservation in much of their decision calculus. And that, perhaps, is the most salient point here. The marriage of AI and marketing is not the replacement of marketers. It complements their human intelligence and instincts, while also freeing up time to create more effective and bottom-line-focused results. It will shift the role of traditional CMOs and marketers, but it will not eliminate it.

For marketers that fail to adapt and adjust they face dire consequences. A recent Oxford University study says more than half of U.S. jobs will be eliminated by AI and intelligent automation enterprise systems--and that's in the near-term. While the AI industry is still relatively small (around $500m-$1 billion depending on who you ask) it is rapidly growing (expected to hit more than $5 billion by 2020 (53.65% CAGR) more than $11 billion by 2024)--especially in the sphere of marketing.

In a recent piece for consultancy Deloitte Tom Davenport said, "If I had to place bets on which business function would have the fewest humans and most automated systems by 2025, I’d pick marketing. This is ironic, of course, since marketing has long been known for its creative and artistic orientation. If Mad Men’s fictional character, Don Draper, were alive in 2025, he would probably have wished he had never seen such extensive use of analytics and automation in his beloved function." Who's Tom Davenport? Well, he's the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, a Fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and an independent senior advisor to Deloitte Analytics. Someone to whom we should perhaps pay attention.

And AI technology isn't being worked on by mad scientists in dark rooms--Microsoft, Tesla, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and Google are leading the charge (including in related fields such as robotics, predictive data/analytics and other autonomous and intelligent machines and systems). Further, I would consider Artificial Intelligence an integrated part of the next-great-tech-wave-disruption triumvirate: AI, Big Data and the Internet of Things. All powerful, all nascent, and all inevitable to materially change the role of humans in business.

In Conclusion

So, the bottom line for marketers is that while machines may greatly modify your current traditional function, the truly adaptable will see this as the opportunity that it is--to free themselves from the mundane, to provide greater insights and value, and to ultimately shift marketers to a role that is incontrovertibly human: building business through creativity, ingenuity and personal relationships. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that marketers (and those in business that must fill the role of marketing) should see AI as the tool of their salvation, a neural net of opportunity, if you will, to evolve marketing to a higher plane of existence.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair

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N.B. Regarding certain quotations used on this site: I recognize the modern controversy following some of the quoted figures. I further recognize the potentially harmful beliefs these figures held in their time. In quoting them, it is not my intention to glorify or demonize. Rather, I cite their discrete thoughts, which represent a moment of interesting thinking, as separate from their total biography.

© Neil St. Clair, 2020-2025

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