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Now more than ever, it’s time for marketers to invent their own future

I was stopped in my tracks this weekend by a famous but familiar quotation written in bold letters on the wall of London’s V&A museum. The quote was: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, and it was credited from the early 70s to Alan Kay of Xerox’s influential PARC research function (where it was effectively a mantra).

Although the originator of this quote may be moot (derivations have attributed to the likes of Drucker, Lincoln and Gabor) its relevance to marketing in 2017 is anything but, and that’s why it resonated with me so profoundly.

Context is key – the quote features at the very end of the V&A’s landmark ‘Revolution’ exhibition, tracing the transformations in culture that were unleashed in the 1960s, and are still reverberating today. I visited eager to understand more about the explosions in creativity around music, art, design, fashion and culture that defined the 60s, and whilst there was much exciting material on that (including original Beatles suits and song lyrics), there were also much more challenging sections on war, politics, environmentalism, marketing and technology. By the end, I had to reappraise my opinion of this period, recognising that it had both highs and lows; challenges as well as opportunities; and was sometimes characterised struggle, sacrifice, disharmony and conflict.

On reflection, its obvious that such negative implications are inevitable consequences of profound transformations in society – people respond with different levels of resistance and willingness, and sometimes they are downright hostile. For every opportunity for positive change, there is an equal one for negative change, and different groups will have divergent opinions on what falls into each of these categories.

The biggest transformation impacting on today’s society is obviously digitisation, and the mixture of challenges and opportunities to emerge from this evolve and mutate almost daily, impacting on every aspect of our lives, for both good and bad. For every viral message of goodwill, or new online business opportunity, there is a fake news site or an extremist commentator, spreading lies and stirring fear and discontent – as 2016 has shown us.

For marketers, the implications of digitisation are more profound than in many other professions – it places practitioners in a situation where they are constantly required to question and re-evaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it, in the knowledge that there are likely to be better, faster, easier or just trendier ways out there. This can be stressful, confusing and exhausting; making the job simply unmanageable for some.

But for me, this is where the Alan Kay quote becomes empowering, or a clarion call for action and a new state of mind. Instead of being reactive and responsive to the change defined elsewhere, marketers must increasingly seek to invent their own futures – to define or shape the environment, context and manner in which brands engage and connect with buyers. Never before has the environment been so fluid, or have the opportunities for fresh, transformational thinking been so many and varied. Not even in the halcyon days of the 1960s.

To invent your own future requires a bold and decisive mindset, a willingness to think different and explore new scenarios, and the ability to pivot to align with and embrace new technologies and opportunities.

I believe such attributes are not just nice-to-haves: they will become increasingly essential to enable us to withstand the challenges ahead, and whatever 2017 throws at us.