Digital marketing millennial influencer posting on social media.
An influencer records a make-up tutorial - but digitally rendered 'virtual influencers' are now a fixture on some platforms

Marketing, like many industries, is in the midst of a digital transformation. Analytics, emerging technologies and social media platforms have revolutionised the field, which today looks more Big Tech than Mad Men. But understanding the limitations of new systems — and scepticism about some of the wilder claims — will be essential to maximising returns.

Euan Davis, associate vice-president at technology consultancy Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, rebuts some of the wilder claims that surround the advance of digital automation in the sector — and its threat to job numbers and human creativity.

“It isn’t all bad news,” he says, arguing that while tasks such as email marketing are being taken over by robots, humans are still needed to impart flair. He cites social media marketers as an occupation that sits at the “intersection between empathy, tech, intelligence and innovation”.

Mr Davis’s work has included a prediction of the 21 marketing jobs that might emerge over the next decade. Among the careers he sees becoming increasingly relevant is data ethnographer, who will “tell stories from data concisely and clearly”. Applicants will need a combination of analytical, people and digital skills, he adds.

At a strategic level, Mr Davis predicts ESG (environmental, social and governance) requirements and shareholder pressure are likely to give “brand purpose” a central role in marketing. “In five to six years’ time we will be seeing the chief purpose planner,” he says. “This is how PR teams will begin to rethink their roles in companies.”

Another predicted role is the Orwellian-sounding machine personality developer, whose job would be to fine-tune and personalise machines to establish a relationship with consumers — making interactions with self-service checkouts, domestic robots or automated parking meters more authentic, for example.

Increasingly powerful technology is likely to be applied to new areas. Synthetic media, for example — artificial intelligence-generated videos, audio and images — are best known for their use in deep fakes of celebrities and politicians.

But Henry Ajder, head of threat intelligence at Dutch tech group Deeptrace, predicts they will find applications in marketing. Seamlessly dubbing an advert into multiple languages would be fairly simple, he says, and the technology to achieve that is becoming cost-effective and fast.

This image made from video of a fake video featuring former President Barack Obama shows elements of facial mapping used in new technology that lets anyone make videos of real people appearing to say things they've never said. There is rising concern that U.S. adversaries will use new technology to make authentic-looking videos to influence political campaigns or jeopardize national security. (AP Photo)
Facial mapping being used to manipulate dialogue in a 'deep fake' video © AP

Yet he stresses that “disruptive” ideas need time to prove themselves. Synthetic media can create embodied chat avatars, for instance, giving virtual assistants such as Siri or in-app chatbots an on-screen “personality”.

Another growing niche in social media is “virtual influencers” — digitally rendered humans who act out fictional narratives and showcase products. These have already become a fixture on visually led platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

While Mr Ajder believes synthetic marketing may be more effective for younger generations, he says the “staying power” of such esoteric approaches remains to be tested.

Andrew Stephen, professor of marketing at Oxford Saïd Business School, echoes that caution. He says it is vital that marketers develop a baseline knowledge about technology’s capacities — and limitations.

While that does not call for entire firms to learn how to run models and code, he says, they should instead develop digital literacy to guard against hype. “There is an increasing need for understanding [of] what the tools and tech can do for [marketers] . . . it’s not just about waving our magical AI wand,” he says.

The same thinking applies to deciding where brands should invest time and money, says Mr Davis. While TikTok, the short-video app produced by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, has become popular across the field, he cautions that platforms are often ephemeral and that crafting a message for different audiences can be difficult.

“The question is, how do you begin building a brand that resonates with the image of TikTok?” he says. The app is known for its often bizarre, irreverent humour, and a larger Generation Z demographic. Mr Davis says that even on more mature platforms such as Twitter, marketers can “get it really wrong and really right”.

Marketers’ investments in the $8bn influencer marketing business might also need to be re-evaluated, says Prof Stephen. “A lot of marketing chiefs who have gone pretty much all-in on influencer marketing,” he says, “but we need better measurement.”

While digital platforms have made it cheaper and easier to trial new techniques, brands still need to look at the data to see whether influencer marketing will work for their specific needs.

As with any marketing, Prof Stephen is clear there is no one-size-fits-all approach that guarantees success. “For certain brands [influencers] can be pointless,” he says, “and for others it would be super valuable.” Marketers need to be clear which camp they fall into.

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