The Lost Generation

Wed, 22/09/2021 - 14:38

Five years ago Keith Weed, Unilever's then head of marketing, delivered an address at the Festival of Marketing where he spoke to one of the greatest issues affecting the industry: a lack of digital knowledge.

As he put it, “we’re no longer doing digital marketing but marketing in a digital world”. He proceeded to define marketing practitioners in their 30s and early 40s as the “lost generation” - people too young to have children old enough to immerse them in the digital age, and too old to be digital natives.

Noting that these current and future leaders were likely ashamed to admit their lack of knowledge and would consequently make poor investment decisions, he called on them to upskill their digital strategy and execution skills urgently. Yet in my recent conversations with many CMOs, it seems that, half a decade on, while the message may have resonated, it’s yet to be fully actioned. 

All too many senior marketers I encounter express irritation at the terminology their agencies use, bemusement at what tech they should deploy and frustration at the metrics and reporting standards used to determine whether campaigns are actually working. 


Most dispiritingly of all, there seems to be a sense of resignation to their fate. While few would confess to bluffing their way through meetings with agencies and colleagues, it seems that many are forced to do just that.

In the period since Weed’s speech, the need for digital skills training has become even greater. Technology’s role in the marketing landscape has grown exponentially - in 2016 (the same year as Weed’s presentation) Scott Brinker included 3 874 marketing technology solutions on his martech supergraphic. His 2020 chart had over 8 000. 

For good measure, his organisation (ChiefMartech) conducted a survey into which of the C-suite executives had the best understanding of technology. Of the seven functional chiefs, the CMO came second last, way, way behind the CIO, CTO, CEO, CFO and COO.

Digital laggards

The pandemic has made matters worse for digital laggards with brands shifting even more spend online - Gartner’s most recent CMO Spend Survey suggests that pure-play digital channels now account for 72.2% of the total marketing budget. The report notes that channels that were traditionally seen as drivers of awareness, such as TV or out of home (OOH), are now vying for budget alongside those that have been considered as performance marketing channels, such as search and social advertising.

The latest version of Spencer Stuart’s annual study on CMO tenure found that in 2020 the average marketing head was lasting just 40 months in their job - the lowest tenure since 2009.

While a lack of digital skill is unlikely to be the primary driver for this declining life expectancy, it does signify that there’s something fundamentally wrong in the board’s perception of marketers’ capabilities. Mark Ritson may have been onto something when he disparagingly referred to old school marketers as occupying the colouring in department.

A decade ago CMOs were able to build and manage brands with few distractions. They focused on market research to understand audiences to whom they would tell stories, using great creative to land messaging.

Today, they need to generate and analyse data, extract insight from performance metrics and iterate campaigns in real time while demonstrating a grasp of CX, CRM, RTB and a bunch of other acronyms. 

It’s an unenviable task and for all the new online learning programmes out there, few, if any, CMOs have the luxury of being able to take an extended study break to upskill. It leaves me wondering if there’s not more we, the agencies, can do to help.

Aside from helping a fellow professional in a moment of need, sharing frequent insights in a short burst high impact fashion could make us more relevant at a time when the insourcing trend is picking up speed.

*This article originally appeared on MarkLives

Need Assistance with Digital Strategy?

Rogerwilco’s team of strategists, business analysts and data scientists is here to help.