I was recently asked what advice I would give my younger self to succeed in the digital marketing industry. The question, of course is nonsense: No one has a time machine or could recreate the unique circumstances of these past decades.
We now possess almost perfect information about the technology, business environment and leaps of faith and brilliance that created our digital world and a brand new industry — but we did not have that guidance back then. Still, after over 20 years in this “new” industry of online marketing it might be time to reflect on some of the challenges and choices that have shaped our current state.
Advice for the Industry: 20 Years Too Late
Stop being so defensive. It’s hard to imagine now but in the mid 90’s many were still calling the Internet a fad and were waiting for it to go away so they could return to “business as usual.” At that point many (even large) companies were still busy debating whether they even needed a website, some agencies and marketers were slow to learn or adopt digital skills and our educational institutions lagged behind in teaching students what they sorely needed to succeed. Much of this was pure defensiveness and a stubborn refusal to accept that the world was changing.
Stop creating buzzwords. We lacked the language or imagination to describe new concepts and capabilities effectively and the new buzzwords did nothing to add to our credibility. Buzzily named products, companies or approaches quickly became synonymous with something fleeting. They didn’t earn a place of respect even if the product deserved it.
Focus on the stuff that matters. Early technologies and efforts were often about what we could do and not what we should do. As the better technologists matured into businessmen and women who valued the metrics and results that mattered to a sustainable business and industry our bubbles were replaced with platforms and channels that have rewritten our world. Still, we suffered through too many shiny objects and useless toys that didn’t help the early credibility of the Internet as a business environment.
Make inclusiveness a priority. Make sure everybody and especially every young person in every neighborhood has access to the tools and training that will help them succeed. Expensive technology and slow moving infrastructure unfairly handicapped some populations in joining the web revolution. That slowed us down and limited our success as a whole.
Help industries and professions to evolve. Many found their jobs changing or disappearing (hello travel agents?) with no idea how to pivot their skills and services to stay relevant and effective. Disintermediation was a real thing. Some jobs and vocations became irrelevant or unrecognizable overnight and those affected were left to fend for themselves. We should be better than that.
Commit to standards that help everyone. Put a premium on cooperation over competition to set and keep common standards in data, ads and other elements. That consistency would have reduced a lot of the pain points and smoothed the learning and success curves for users all along the spectrum. Monopoly or first-to-market businesses, governing bodies and associations of professionals with vested interests kept us in chaos for far too long.
There are also a few things I wish I personally had known way back when that could have informed my own choices.
Advice for Myself: 20 Years Too Late
Get comfortable with change. Our industry is relentlessly dynamic. Get used to change as a constant and get prepared by committing early on to frameworks and processes that can absorb and integrate new approaches and opportunities without sacrificing the strategic core.
Get data smart. Marketers who understand how to collect and apply data are miles ahead of those who don’t in this day and age.
Write — a lot. Communications skills, especially written words, are at a premium as every person and business requires thoughtful content regularly generated in many formats. Strong and strategic writers, designers and communicators are critical in the digital economy.
And, just for good measure … find an exercise you love, stick to your diet, travel more and buy Apple stock.
Perhaps we can learn from our past to help us enrich our collective future.
What good advice would you give your past self?