Why the future of work is a problem for marketers too

“Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people." This line, from the Wall Street Journal in February this year, was one of the first facts that Jess Kimball, chief futurist (I know) at OgilvyRED presented us with at the agency’s ‘Does work have a future?’ event last week. Admittedly a provocative title, but the event actually proved to be more thought-provoking than I’d anticipated. Although it was perhaps a tad disappointing not to learn we’d all be shifting to 10-hour working weeks in the near future.

The event focused on the impact that increasing, widespread automation will have on jobs in the future. After getting us all thinking with the WSJ quote, Kimball kicked things off with some incisive comments on the state of the world’s economy, then explained why we should all be thinking about the future of work in 2017 and beyond. Within 15 minutes she’d highlighted the following heart-stopping facts:

  • Automation is hiding in plain sight: tech allows companies to make a lot more money with much fewer people; Apple could soon be worth $1 trillion, but employs just 155,000 people (not many, considering how big is).
  • In the past 35 years, there's been more technological progress than in the last 9000 – societies are not used to having to adapt to so many changes, so quickly.
  • The majority of new tech is currently coming from the same five companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft).
  • We’re now in an age of non-rival goods (non-rival goods, such as television or lighting, may be consumed by one consumer without preventing simultaneous consumption by others). The most valuable goods are now made up of 0s and 1s.
  • We're now living in an era of post-capitalism – an example being Uber’s recent loss of 200,000 customers when they deleted their accounts in just a few days (and the customers Lyft gained as a result).

Time to take a look in the mirror?

The panel discussion that followed covered all sorts of ways in which companies will have to adapt to the circumstances outlined above. But one of the key areas of focus was the increasing level of responsibility that companies will have to face as a result of automation. With its potential to make millions (or even billions) of jobs obsolete in the not-too-distant future, how much responsibility do companies (especially multinational corporations) have to take to make sure this doesn’t have a devastating impact on the future of society? For instance, what could happen if America’s three million truck drivers were replaced as a result of driverless vehicle technology?

Members of the panel were unequivocal – to survive, companies need to be more aware of their societal impact, and there will need to be a fundamental shift in the way brands operate and think. And this is something customers are already forcing brands to do, thanks in part to the direct connection customers can have with brands they buy from online.

This change in customer behaviour – customers increasingly making companies more accountable for their actions – means that businesses need to think about their real purpose, not just a mission statement. In fact, this is something I identified when working on a B2B Marketing report earlier this year (Uncovering the secrets of high-growth tech brands). I found the fastest-growing businesses sell a movement, not a product. And the B2B behemoths are well aware of this; just witness the tribal approach that brands like Salesforce and Marketo now take (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you attended the Salesforce World Tour in London this week).

Funnily enough, the debate over purpose was picked up last week in a column by Mark Ritson. Commenting on the recent beer advert everyone is talking about, his argument was that brands are putting purpose before profit, and this is something that needs to change.

I’m inclined to agree with the panel. If you’re a marketer, profit does matter, but knowing the broader purpose of your business and ensuring this is at the forefront of everything you do will be more important than ever in future, or else you risk being left behind.