To define the current balance between data and creativity in marketing, we first have to look to the past for context. Millennial marketers have never known a world without tech and data. But for veteran marketers, the growth of technology use in marketing may seem a slow evolution, despite the rapid pace of change.

"Historically, the term 'marketing creative' has been associated with the words and pictures that go into ad campaigns. But marketing, like other corporate functions, has become more complex and rigorous.... Do these changing roles require a new way of thinking about creativity in marketing?" write Mark Bonchek, founder of Shift Thinking, and Cara France, CEO of the Sage Group.

Therein lies a chicken-and-egg scenario in which technology both enables and demands further complexity within marketing programs.

The infusion of technology into marketing can pose a fundamental, even existential question for marketers: Is there a role for creativity in a modern marketing program? Moreover, is technology chipping away at creative expression and freedom?

At Walker Sands we surveyed roughly 300 marketers to assess their attitudes toward technology and determine the practical uses of marketing technology in their professional lives.

As technology becomes increasingly central to marketing success, one theme stands out in the research: In a tech-centric world, what role does creativity play?

Unleashing Creativity

Most marketers predict that in five years marketing will become more of an equal mix of creativity and technology than it is today, indicating that marketers feel technology will replace creativity at least to some extent.

Some 56% of marketers say an equal mix of creativity and technology will drive marketing strategies five years from now, whereas only 14% say creativity will lead the industry. Today, 29% say creativity dominates at present, and 41% believe an equal mix exists.

If we take what they say at face value, marketers view the influx of technology into their organizations as a deliberate process rather than a sudden change. In fact, marketers themselves increasingly serve as the technological gatekeepers of their departments. The 2018 State of Marketing Technology report found that marketing technology was owned not by IT but by the business end-users—87% of the time.

But those stats alone don't fully reveal how marketers feel about the pace of change and their potential reaction to the continued rise of machine-led marketing.

The Landscape

AI has ushered in not only a frenzy as marketers chase the next big thing but also an undercurrent of anxiety about their jobs.

Research shows that more than a handful of careers, from bookkeepers to telemarketers, have more than a 90% probability of being conquered by AI. Marketing managers, by contrast, have only a little over 1% probability of ending up as a division of Skynet.

The numbers alone, however, don't speak to the malaise marketers feel or the future-shock brought about by a world where the number of available martech solutions was 150 less than a decade ago but has now ballooned to nearly 7,000.

We asked marketers how they feel about living in an AI-centric world and what their beliefs are about the potential that technology will encroach on their job. Perhaps surprisingly, only 11% of respondents strongly agreed that they worry about technology threatening their jobs at some point in their career. By contrast, 61% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

For now, at least, signs point to a climate where tech and creativity can peacefully coexist.

The Future of Tech-Led Creativity

Marketers report that their martech stacks are very much a work in progress—and that progress might continue indefinitely. Fully 69% of survey respondents don't think the perfect marketing stack exists just yet, meaning there's plenty of room to incorporate the creative touch in efforts to execute effective marketing campaigns.

Even if marketers are able to conceptualize a perfect stack, it's unlikely they'll reach the holy grail of seamless integration. Technology is expensive, and adopting new tools at the rate they're being released is unrealistic for many brands: nearly half of respondents cite budget as the top factor preventing organizations from making greater martech investments. Limited resources will be a perennial problem, making human creativity continually necessary.

Finally, finding a balance is also necessary because marketers aren't entirely convinced that some of today's major tech advances can solely take their organizations to the next level.

We surveyed marketers on the use of five up-and-coming technologies: AI/machine-learning, blockchain, chatbots, VR/AR, and IoT. Of those technologies, the largest proportion of respondents had already implemented IoT, at 13%. Of the remaining technologies, half of respondents said they had no plans to implement.

While marketers aren't falling for flavor-of-the-month solutions, there's a bit of a mismatch between their fears about technology encroaching on their jobs and the far-from-universal nature of these bleeding-edge technologies. Marketers are in control of the technologies they bring into their offices, but they also undervalue the creativity they bring to the equation.

* * *

A degree of fear and trepidation regarding innovation is normal, but marketers should work to confront that fear by recognizing how creativity can supplement advances in technology. As long as humans are marketing to humans, there's room for creativity.

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Caught Between Technology and Creativity: Can Marketers Strike a Balance?

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image of Jennifer Mulligan

Jennifer Mulligan is an account director in the marketing technology practice area at Walker Sands, an integrated PR and digital marketing agency for B2B technology and professional services companies.

LinkedIn: Jennifer Mulligan