“You Don’t Have to Outrun the Bear” | Thoughts on Marketing Reinvention

Two friends are in the woods, having a picnic. They spot a bear running at them. One friend gets up and starts running away from the bear. The other friend opens his backpack, takes out his running shoes, changes out of his hiking boots, and starts stretching.

“Are you crazy?” the first friend shouts, looking over his shoulder as the bear closes in on his friend. “You can’t outrun a bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” said the second friend. “I only have to outrun you.”

With this month’s Reinvention Notes I would like to connect a couple of random things I read recently to the need for marketing reinvention. The gist of these articles was, AI is getting smarter, and humans are getting dumber. “Argh”, you say… “not another AI article”. Well yes and no, this is really much more about us. About how for too long we have been complacent in accepting mediocre marketing and an outmoded marketing function. AI is just the catalyst that is now forcing an overdue discussion on the need for marketing reinvention.

So, let’s get started by getting you up to speed on the articles that I’ve based this post on. We’ll get to how the bear jokes fits in to everything a bit later.

AI Is Getting Smarter

A recent study has shown that AI may now be better at innovation than humans – at least at the early stages of ideation. The research suggested that AI beat people in both the quantity and quality of ideas generated. We’ve known for a while now that AI is superior at many basic things, but it may come as a surprise that it is now better than us at coming up with ideas.

Or maybe it’s not surprising. I’m sure you have participated in your fair share of workshops where, “there are no bad ideas”. But of course, there are bad ideas. Which is probably why fewer than 10% of startups will see a positive return – and remember, these are the ideas that made it out of the conference room.

Humans Are Getting Dumber

After about a million years of continuous growth, the human brain has apparently stopped growing. In fact, new research suggests it has started shrinking – significantly, in just the last couple of thousand years. In evolutionary terms, a thousand years is a remarkably short time.

Ironically, scientists theorize that this rapid reduction in relative brain mass can be attributed to our success in building a sophisticated, collective civilization with specialized roles and codified retained knowledge. Essentially, our prehistoric ancestors were forced to use their brains independently to get themselves out of tight spot, whereas we can rely on our collective intelligence without needing to tax our brains as much. Since our brains are not very energy efficient, evolution has started to redirect these resources elsewhere. At the risk of overly simplifying this – your smart phone is making you stupid.

What This Means for Marketing

I said I would tie these threads together for marketing reinvention, so let’s recap where we’re at…AI is getter smarter, faster than we thought, while our brains are rapidly shrinking and we’re probably getting dumber*. Well, we had a good run.

Before we throw in the towel to our AI overlords, what if the problem is not that we’re getting dumber and just that we have been a bit…lazy? I know that’s not really trading up in virtues but hear me out. Maybe AI is just shining a light on a much bigger issue that we have been complicit in as marketers. We have structured our marketing function and processes to value activity over outcomes. To highlight this, let me draw an analogy between marketing and manufacturing.

In the ‘80s, Japanese automakers revolutionized manufacturing by doing some relatively simple things well. One was to get rid of buffer inventory. The theory was, if you have easy access to component inventory at each stage of production, you never fix the systemic inefficiencies in your process.

For the last 30 years, we have never really fixed the systemic inefficiencies in the marketing function – we have not done “Lean”. By and large we have benefited from economic forces that have created an abundance of demand, and as a result our marketing capabilities have atrophied.

But these updrafts are waning, and we will now have to work smarter. Excess consumer demand created by the emerging global middle class has plateaued. The digital economy has matured and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to truly disrupt, or to fast follow into new growth.

For most of our careers as marketers (and consultants), we have not been forced to fundamentally reinvent how we do things to succeed. Now we have to.

Reinventing the Marketing Function

So let’s get started by establishing a couple of principles for how we will tackle this.

  1. Skate to where the puck is going
  2. This is bigger than AI

#1. Skate to where the puck is going

This is how Wayne Gretzky summed up the secret of his success in hockey. If you skate to where the puck is right now, by the time you get there it will be too late – the play will have moved on. Similarly, if you redesign your marketing function to take advantage of the AI capabilities that exist right now, by the time you retool your marketing function, it will already be obsolete. To imagine where the AI puck is going, a little thought experiment may be helpful.

Thought experiments are often used in physics to imagine what could be possible. If you have ever interviewed with a consulting firm, you might have been asked a type of thought experiment to assess your problem-solving abilities. One I was given was, “if electricity is free, how much does a lawn mower cost?”

In the context of reinvented the marketing function, our question could be, “if you have an unlimited capacity of average marketing (i.e.; from AI), what exceptional things should your human marketers be focused on?”, or even, “what are the 5 things we do today that cause the most pain for my team?”

Whatever questions you use to think through the division of human versus artificial labor, the key is to create clear swim lanes, for example:

  1. Activities deferred to AI
  2. Activities augmented by AI
  3. Purely human activities

Remember this is not about becoming smarter than AI (because as we’ve established, that’s a losing battle), this is about working smarter than the other humans at your competitors. And that’s how we connect this back to the bear joke that opened this blog. You don’t need to outrun the bear (AI), you just need to outrun the other human.

#2. This is bigger than AI

If you center the redesign of your marketing function around who does what (humans versus AI), things may actually get worse instead of better. Much like our manufacturing example, just throwing free/cheap AI labor at low value work, just masks the real question – should anyone, human or otherwise being doing this, or should you just stop doing it? The question of “what” you do – to create advantage, to find growth, as the low hanging fruit disappears, is far more important than who does it.

AI is just a catalyst for tackling the big thorny questions about “what” your marketing function should be focused on. But unpacking “what” your specific team needs to be great at, is a bigger topic than we can cover in this post. As you might imagine, Vivaldi has an approach for answering this question, so please contact us if you are interested in learning more.
Thanks for reading and see you again soon.

* I should note here in the fine print, that we don’t yet know if our smaller brains are any less capable. It may just be that evolutionary improvements in our brain’s circuitry allows us to do the same (or more) with less mass. But since that possibility didn’t support the point I was making, I am including it here in the footnotes.