Digital marketing is among the most rapidly-evolving industries in our economy. Few others have made the kind of transition that marketing is currently undergoing: from being an artistic and aesthetic-based industry to a veritable tech sector.
The core goals of marketing have not changed since the first Greek merchants hired criers to promote their incoming shipments throughout the ancient agora, nor since John Wanamaker invented modern advertising in 1874. Now as then, marketers seek to create and engage the market for a product by positioning it well and putting the right value proposition in front of the right potential consumer.
What has changed is nearly every modality of how those goals are accomplished. Given the pervasive skills gap in marketing — 90% of marketers consider themselves underskilled at digital marketing, and 77% report “missing skills” to be the critical obstacle to achieving digital transformation in 2015 — it’s clear that many professionals in the sector are being blindsided by changes in the market environment.
Here to help them is Wharton Professor George S. Day. An academic vanguard of marketing theory for over three decades, Day wrote an often-cited paper in 2011 that seeks to instruct marketers on how to solve the industry’s skills crisis. In doing so, he proposes the most elegant formulation of the skills gap in marketing I’ve ever come across.
Marketing’s Digital Skills Gap
The paper, “Closing the Marketing Capabilities Gap,” lays out three points of action that marketing teams can enact in order to stay ahead of a confusing, dynamic market: “vigilant market learning,” experimenting well, and forging forward-thinking partnerships. Day’s truly inspired insight, though, is to pose the digital skills gap in marketing not as a matter of teams lacking the skills they need now, but as a relation between the acceleration of teams’ skills and the acceleration of market complexity.
Companies tend to see the digital skills gap as the difference between what digital skills they think they need and those that they currently have. Professor Day considers this inadequate for the marketing industry. Instead, marketers should focus on the heterogeneity of their marketing capabilities as related to the fragmentation of the market in which they work. In other words, he’s more concerned with how fast the market is complexifying versus how fast you can adapt to it, not just how well you can market today. It’s reminiscent of the way that physicists determine acceleration by finding the derivative of velocity. In this case, Day relates the rate of market fragmentation, or “complexification,” to the adaptability of a marketing team. He styles the problem thusly:
The ability to develop new capabilities is the true institutional asset in this model. “Because capabilities are deeply embedded in organizational processes and practice and use cumulative learning and tacit knowledge, they are difficult to copy or value,” writes Day. This means that a team’s culture toward learning is more important than what specifically they can do today — provided that they’re competent at digital marketing at present. “The capabilities approach to strategy locates the sources of a defensible competitive advantage in the distinctive, hard-to-duplicate resources the firm has developed.”
Modern marketing, in other words, relies on digital skills that must be thought of as an evolving body of work, and judged by how well a team is able to keep up with their evolution. The lesson is that however good you are at digital marketing today, the more important concern is how well you’ll be able to market to a drastically changed, more complex environment in the future.