In the age of AI, it’s marketers’ ‘soft skills’ that count most

The future of marketing is digital – but the future of marketing is also human

January 9, 2019

In the age of AI, it’s marketers’ ‘soft skills’ that count most

What’s the surest way to safeguard your value and employability as a marketer? With Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking on a growing role in marketing strategies, how can we ensure that we stay relevant? At a time of digital disruption, how can we avoid our skills stagnating?

The answers to these questions might surprise you. The instinctive response is to worry about the state of your ‘hard’ skills`: whether you can code, whether you know the latest AI programming languages, whether you can peer below the bonnet of the latest social media platform and know in detail how it works. However, the latest LinkedIn data suggests a subtly different answer.

If we want to stay relevant, unique and valuable to our organisations and our brands, then it’s our ‘soft skills’ that we need to be cultivating, just as much as these ‘hard’ ones. More technical capabilities are great – but it’s our more fundamentally human ones that we should worry about most. Creativity, Persuasion, Adaptability and the empathy and emotional intelligence they are built on. These are the characteristics that will be most prized in the future of marketing – and smart businesses know it.

Why marketing remains a must-have skill

LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs Report identifies the 20 fastest growing jobs and then analyses the skills required for those roles. When LinkedIn ran this analysis for 2018, Marketing was one of the four skills topping the list, alongside Management, Sales and Communication. These skills are critical to a far wider range of professional opportunities than Python, Software Development, Analytics and Cloud Computing.

When you glance at most predictions of the future of marketing (and there are plenty at this time of year), it’s easy to assume that the skills we use every day are the ones that technology will make redundant. In fact, the ‘soft skills’ that are fundamental to making you an effective B2B marketer or a great B2B sales rep aren’t being automated out of the workforce. Far from being eased out by the greater efficiency of machines, they’re increasing in value.

LinkedIn data shows that Creativity, Persuasion and Adaptability all rank among the top five most sought-after soft skills this year. The first two of these are the skills that B2B sales and marketing run on. They’re what makes us tick; the unique qualities that we bring to the table that can’t effectively be replicated by AI. The third is the key to continuing to take advantage of these parts of the marketing and sales skillset in an AI age. Adaptability is the key to making ongoing use of platforms like LinkedIn Learning to pick up technical knowledge as and when we need it. Adaptability enables us to continue adding value when our organisations undergo digital transformation. It’s our insurance policy against being stuck with yesterday’s skillset.

Learning to learn – the most important skill you can cultivate

If you’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn how to program algorithms for different marketing objectives, or grab a working knowledge of how AI code is written, then that is definitely a worthwhile use of your time. Those skills will help you to have more informed conversations with IT departments and external agencies. If you’re looking to integrate AI into your marketing strategy, they’ll help you identify where it might add value and where it won’t. They’ll help you appraise different suppliers with greater confidence as well. But don’t make the mistake that picking up own or two of these skills is enough to prepare you for the future. The real key is to cultivate your brain’s adaptability, embracing your inner curiosity, and practising the joy of learning new things on an ongoing basis.

Technical skills are important. They are definitely worth having – but they are very far from the only skills worth having. They are not the core value you bring to your organisation. The most in-demand marketing skills of 2019 won’t be related to a new digital technology. They’ll be related to being human.

How digital disruption increases the value of being human

It might seem counter-intuitive that an era of digital disruption places more value on skills that have nothing to do with technical knowledge – but there are actually very good reasons why ‘soft skills’ are in growing demand.

First is the nature of how emerging technologies translate into growth. A sophisticated new technology like AI or Blockchain creates lots of new marketing opportunities, like the ability to interpret data sets in new ways, personalise communications on an individual level, or transform how customers experience your products and services. However, monetising these capabilities depends on more traditional marketing and sales skills that aren’t easy to replicate using a machine.

AI systems can always be matched by other AI systems. In fact, the way that AI is developing, with AI-driven tools being made widely available, makes it almost inevitable that it will be. AI won’t differentiate one brand from another, but creative thinking, instinct and empathy will. They have the power to translate AI-driven insight and targeting into engagement, trust, loyalty and brand love.

Synchronising AI and soft skills

AI will help you and your sales teams understand what makes a particular prospect tick, and where exactly they’ve reached in their consideration journey. But you’ll need empathy to craft an emotionally resonant message to take advantage. AI will help you to put your brand in front of the right audience at precisely the right moment, but the value of that brand depends on a team of marketers with an instinct for what it stands for and emotional intelligence in how they leverage it. AI can personalise content – but the value of being able to do so depends on marketers understanding which moments in their audience’s lives are worth personalising around.

The second reason why soft skills are growing in value has to do with the life-cycle of hard skills. Demand for digital skills tends to rise rapidly – but it almost always declines rapidly as well. A few years ago, Flash was one of the hottest skills in any creative industry. Today, it doesn’t feature on LinkedIn’s ranking of the most in-demand skills. Cloud computing is currently the most in-demand technical skill in the UK. But nobody was recruiting cloud computing experts two years ago.

Research that LinkedIn conducted with CapGemini found that 30% of professionals believe their existing skills will be redundant in just 1-2 years. When the pace of change is so rapid, adaptability is far more important than any one technical capability.

Train your brain to work in different modes

There’s an irony to the fact that logical tasks, like coding, are easier for machines to replicate than tasks that rely on human intuition. Coding skills may be sought-after in the short term, but they are more vulnerable to automation in the medium to long term. It may feel like machines can easily ape human creativity by crunching the numbers on different aspects of creativity, and working out which words, phrases or images have produced results in the past. But genuine originality, an instinct for what human beings might respond to in the future, and a grasp of the subtle signals that make sense only in human-to-human conversation? They will always count more. They ensure that AI will augment human creativity rather than replacing it.

It’s true that machines can learn. However, only humans can learn a huge range of different technical and emotional skills that use different parts of the brain at different moments. Only humans can be both logical and emotional, both empathetic and results-driven, and know how to switch between those different modes of being and thinking instantaneously. That’s a unique capability worth nurturing. Train your brain to keep learning – but also to apply all of your marketing instincts and human capabilities across all of the different technologies that you work with. That’s your real point of difference as a professional.

The future of marketing will be digital – but the future of marketing will also be fundamentally human. Competing marketing technologies will but an even greater premium on traditional marketing skills that turn those technologies into real competitive advantage. As you look forward to learning new skills in 2019, make sure you’re nurturing and valuing those capabilities as well. They may be called ‘soft’ skills, but they are what your business’s cutting edge really depends on.