Author: Chris Simmance
Grab a coffee and strap in. This could be an easy read about the future or something you completely disagree with and want to fight me on Twitter. Let me know on @chrissimmance.
Our industry is going to change, rapidly, whether we like it or not. I for one am excited for the challenges ahead but only because I have realised it’s best to embrace inevitable change rather than ignore or fight it. Get excited!
Fear is described in Wikipedia as “Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. … An irrational fear is called a phobia.”
It’s fair to say that fear is a natural human feeling. It’s natural to fear an aggressor or fear something you can’t see (like an illness). It’s also natural to fear what you don’t know or understand. This has been evident in politics of late with politicians on all sides weaponizing fear to win votes. In our world, the Digital Marketing one, we like to think we’re all (relatively) rational human beings. Rational, that in some cases, we see the world in a different light in the cases of typical fears.
From my many years in this industry I think we’ve embraced change better than most others rather than feared it. We’ve seen things coming and by our natures have tackled them head on for the betterment of our industry, our clients and ourselves. I used to make a joke “I hate change” when Google updated its algorithm or changed how the SERPS looked or worked. The reality was, the change was exciting because we had something new to challenge us and learn from to predict or prepare for the next change.
What I’ve seen over the last 5 or so years though is a feeling of apathy that’s wrapped around a veneer of that same old skool gusto and enjoyment of change. Almost nobody is aware they are even like it and not because they’re idiots but because they are focused on other things. Stay with me, I’ll explain later in the article.
As Google in particular has become more smart and better able to present the user with the right answers to their queries we’ve seemed to all accidentally fall into a change-chasing industry. An industry where all we’re doing is helping this big machine do its work better and make ours harder. Think back to 2010, SEO and PPC weren’t ‘easy’ but they were a million miles away from what they are now. Admittedly, a good portion of that shift has been brilliant. It legitimised our practices into a necessary department of any half decent business. It’s hard to argue it’s ‘easier’ than it used to be though.
Here’s my prediction so bookmark the page and set a reminder to chastise me if I am wrong:
We aren’t far away from a time when the current SEO/PPC agency or in-house role is irrelevant. The work being done now and the way we think and work in general is change-chasing and not change-preparing. Google will soon make it largely, either too hard, cost prohibitive or irrelevant to exist.
I feel that this prediction comes down to two key things that I’ll explain further:
Changes in required skills, methods and reporting are making the ‘traditional’ job of one person, the job of many well connected people; &
Google isn’t a search company out of the goodness of its heart, in spite of the Ad revenue. All that data has an endgame which is not search. – This is not it’s final form.
On point 1; Skills, methods and reporting, I feel this comes down to a couple of issues:
Us and our emotional and physical capacity;
Employers and their physical and financial capacity; and
The pace of technical change and the impact on point 1 and 2.
In recent years, what changes have done is make a job that was pretty suitable for one person, a job that needs several very different but essentially connected people. I don’t care who you are, you simply cannot be as good at understanding data as you are at writing content that sells the page to a user and to a robot. You aren’t an expert in Technical SEO and ‘Outreach’ or Link Building. <rant> We aren’t Experts in the first place I might add. In spite of what you want to put on your LinkedIn profile. We have SEO or PPC niche expertise and we’re still trying to learn or keep up. </rant>
The other side of this is both the personal and professional toll we put on ourselves because of what we see. We are all constantly seeing X person posting things online about what they are doing or knowledge they are sharing and we worry we’re being left behind. “If he/she is always doing a video and also running an agency am I way behind them?”.
In an agency or in-house this adds pressure on us to ‘keep up’ but also, as an employer struggles with hiring (for demand or costs) the capacity you as an individual have for more work is reducing. As work capacity reduces you have less time to learn or grow. People then get unhappy and move on or burn out. If the agency of the future isn’t an evolved version of today, it’ll be gone and probably forgotten. It’s the people that make them what they are.
My advice: Look at the future, find a niche that you suit and will be viable still and become THE person in that niche who everyone comes to.
Trouble is, the job market will soon struggle to cope with the new expertise needed as well as the cost demand on agencies or in-house teams to find these people.
A good friend of mine Nick Wilsdon put it better than me when we talked recently: “The amount of knowledge required within digital marketing roles is expanding rapidly but unfortunately not in line with growth in recruitment and team budgets to allow specialisation. More is required each year from a team with finite resources.”
The only viable solutions to this are to change how we work and evolve into something new. It’s true of almost any department really but, as an employer, one of the solutions you can try is in data – there is money available within marketing but we need to direct more of it into the right places. Visualising the opportunity more accurately will allow budgets to open up for the right roles.
That solves the ‘who gets what cash’ problem but doesn’t help with the ‘who gets what tasks’ problem. If the needed expertise comes from 5 people, not 2, then the employer needs to buy in the right people. This can put a burden on the current team as already explained but it can put a financial and logistical burden on the employer too. In some cases, this may be unresolvable and cause endemic, people and operational issues that erode that businesses margins to scary levels.
My advice: Invest in people who are great at one thing but also understand other things to a good level. As things need to adapt, you have the flexibility to change the offering to suit what is needed or hire in less urgently. Know your numbers as an employer. This will mean you know what you can do. Speak to Robert Craven or Janusz Stabik if you want to understand the numbers and Financial, Marketing Operational mix better than I can.
Ultimately, the agency or in-house team of the future may be quite different by necessity but, with some luck, by design. As the industry changes and we evolve with it the future team will look more like a crew from a special ops unit. Admittedly, less hench and with back problems but specialists in their niche who know how to work as a team.
Ross Tavendale said this and I tend to agree “…we are going to be out into broad buckets of analysts, strategists and creatives. It will mimic the departmentalisation of traditional ad places. Ad buyers, planners, strategists, creative. But in our world it’s the people who know how to read the data, the people that can make a plan of action with it, the people that make the “robot food” as you call it, and the people that go into the robot cage to feed the thing.”
THE PACE OF CHANGE
Reality is, as Nick put it, things are changing more and more rapidly than we can ultimately cope with well. – This is also true of the wider world but I only have a few thousand words so read “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” for that bit. I think that resilience is a big part of being great in our industry. We are ALL resilient in our own way.
My thoughts here are not that we can cope with change and adapt, that’s why we’re doing what we do. It’s more that things are changing too rapidly for us and the industry to keep up, keep people and keep relevant. How many times can you reinvent yourself before you get exhausted? What toll would that take over time?
I hate to put both Yuval Noah Harari and Ivanka Trump into the same thinking but they both make the same point pretty well. It basically boils down into ‘In the future, we’re all going to have to keep reinventing ourselves and learn new skills. There won’t be time or money to keep going to University for 3 or 4 years each time’. What I think they are getting at here is that, as things change we need to
- have the flexibility and resilience to change how we work
- invest the time and or money to do so but there may be a ‘reinvention limit’ if we aren’t careful.
My advice: If you think your skill is always going to be needed, think again. Rather, look at what makes your skill so valuable and then distil down into what that is and become ‘The Guy’ in your business or niche for it. As things develop, you’ll only have one niche within a niche to keep up with as well as the ability to evolve that skill to suit the demands.
On point 2 of my prediction breakdown; Google’s final form isn’t search.
To be completely honest, nobody, not even me knows what that final form is. Even in Google itself they might have plans but the amount of testing features and tools suggests that the ‘final form’ isn’t 100% agreed yet. This could be really fear inducing right? We could all be feeding a beast that eats us all or turns our cat against us? – NOOOOO!
Personally, I feel that so long as we aren’t in denial that the way things are isn’t how things will always be and we’re open to change and evolution I think it’s really exciting! – An opportunity for us all to be better.
I’m rather confident, and I hope enough people agree rather than lynch me over it, that Google in particular will evolve itself almost completely out of search and its current paid models.
Yes yes yes, they make Billions of Dollars in Ads so why would they ever want to risk that? They’d want to do MORE Ads right?… Not less! – Kinda….
They have SO MUCH data and so many different data points on so many people that eventually, as Machine Learning (not AI… Nobody ever say AI in this context or I’ll find you) becomes smart enough they will use this to pivot massively for huge financial gain.
I don’t expect them to pivot overnight or into something ridiculous but I expect that, sometime soon, our jobs will not be to drive people to our clients sites through all the typical techniques we use. It’ll be a caretaking and information creating game.
Here’s what I see, nicely summarised in a WhatsApp chat with a friend (Gerry White) recently:
I feel that our roles would be ones of data provision in the sense that we’d make it really clear that our client does X or Y and is authoritative through the content created for the robot to eat up and spit out to the right person at the right time. Possibly this would be a paid ‘feed’ but who knows.
The work a lot of clever people are doing now around NLP, Entities and JSON-ld mark ups to tie it all together is literally making this data gathering and understanding job easier for the robots to show your site to the right user rather than all users who are after something. Wouldn’t it be great if 50% less ‘traffic’ came to your site but you converted 65% of them rather than the current 1.5%? I’d pay for that!
It means though, depending on the ‘final form’ that websites would, largely, become redundant except for those with content that entertains. Articles, videos and entertainment hubs would still get traditional ‘traffic’ directly to them from a PWA type deal or similar. Other websites may still exist to transact with users but even that could be fulfilled in a Google ecosystem really. I suspect our jobs won’t be to do what we traditionally do. We’ll basically need to be really smart about how we get the vital information to the user via a robot. – Think about it, it’s not a million miles from what you currently do. It’s a pivot in where the user goes as well as how we get them to us.
This could cause ethical or moral arguments of course in as much as politics and the potential to corrupt things. That’s for another article I think.
Exciting times with big changes to come and, so long as you’re open to change and really ready to find your niche, you’ll be fine.
I predict that the agency of the future will probably resemble more of a distributed team of specialists who are coalesced and managed by very clever people organisers.
Are you excited or worried? Or do you completely disagree?