Spark Interview: Is 2020 the Best Time to Be a Marketer?

Richard Muscat Azzopardi, CEO of Switch, kicks off the debate of the year: are we entering a new golden age of marketing? Or is it a dark age?
Rachel Kador
September 16, 2019 - 6 min. read

Like all industries touched by the digital revolution, marketing is a field characterized by rapid change. Any marketing practitioner who’s been around for more than five years can track major shifts in the industry, though they weren’t always what we expected. 

The forces that give us more power than ever — better technology, global adoption of digital networks, more mature communication methods — are being tempered by societal changes — governmental regulation, industry oversight, and consumer advocacy.  

Depending how you look at it, marketers have never had it better. Or they’ve never had it worse.  

Richard Muscat Azzopardi is the CEO of Switch, a Digital & Brand consultancy based in Malta. With over 15 years of industry experience, Richard adopts a medium-neutral approach to marketing, focusing instead of the inherent humanity of both marketers and consumers.  

Richard will be hosting a debate at Spark, our digital marketing conference, on whether 2020 is the best time to be a marketer… or the worst. To get started, we asked him a few questions on why this topic matters to him, and what he thinks about being a marketer today.  

See Richard speak at Spark and join the debate. Early Bird tickets are available until September 30, 2019.

Q: Before we look forward, let’s look back. Is there a marketing golden age? Some point in our collective history where marketers had it best, a la Don Draper? What made it so good?

This might say more about me than it does about marketing, but I believe that each and every era of marketing presented its own challenges and opportunities. It is up to us to make the best of them. 
The ‘50s and ‘60s, however, were probably the golden age of advertising (as opposed to marketing). The age where an ad agency could win a major account based on a tag line. We actually refer to this in all of our proposals, because it is an image of advertising that most people still cling to. Agencies tend to be chosen at pitch stage (or given awards) based on a creative idea, but nowadays they’re judged on performance that’s measured in a very different way. 
So, to go back to your question — I believe that what made the golden age of advertising so good was that it was a period where big-ticket creative ideas were rewarded. Creatives dared more and companies let them roll with ideas for longer, because it took time to measure the results. The great campaigns of the time even defined a generation. This was the era that gave us the Marlboro Man, the Volkswagen Lemon, and deBeers’ Diamonds are Forever. Campaigns that changed how people think. 
Q: For many marketers, the ultimate job title is CMO. Now companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are removing that role altogether, distributing the work among different roles and departments. What do you see as the future of marketing leadership within global organizations? 

I believe that the role of marketing has become so varied and important that the traditional role of CMO is currently held by the CEO, and the CEO’s role is to bring a set of C-level executives that specialise in areas like brand, customer journey, growth and data together to deliver results that a traditional CMO couldn’t offer. 
To go back to the Mad Men analogy, the CMO role will eventually go the same way as the lift guy in Mad Men. Everyone presses their own button in the lift now. Just like every member of the organisation is responsible for marketing in one way or another. 
From where I’m sitting, and please keep in mind that my exposure to leadership of global organisations is limited to what I read, I think that global organisations will increasingly move towards models that promote specialisation in specific areas of marketing, so we’re getting more marketing people at C-level, not less. 
Q: I think a lot of marketers right now are struggling to succeed under increased global regulations. How does attraction and retention work when there are so many rules? How can we rework our engines to continue growing when a lot of our tools are no longer available?

My first experience in digital marketing was in a company that was obsessed with the rules. We were super careful about our reputation with each and every person we contacted. I carried this over to Switch and I’ve always told our marketers to remember that we’re humans, and we’re talking to humans. As long as we market to people in a way that we would want our own data to be treated, then we should be safe. 
In the short term, these new rules and regulations (and the restrictions on tools) are a pain for everyone, even if you were marketing ethically. However, as time goes by it will help separate the wheat from the chaff. The regulations will help marketers who are building deep connections with their audiences to stand out from the ones who were trying to take shortcuts. 
As marketers we should take it upon ourselves to balance out the long-term good of whoever’s paying us to do our job and the well-being of the people we’re marketing to. If checks and balances on our industry make it harder for people to run smash-and-grab operations, then I’m willing to pay the price of inconvenience for it. 
Q: On the flip side — do you think 2020 is the best time to be a consumer? Regulations are in place to protect consumer interest, and competition among platforms, channels, and tech providers has never been higher. Brands love saying they’re “customer obsessed.” Have consumers ever had it better? Or are they still vulnerable to the same issues they’ve always struggled with: spam, privacy violations, etc? 

Privacy seems to be the hot topic of the last half of this decade, and overall I think that consumers have much more protection than they’ve ever had before. My doubt, however, is whether the vast majority of people really care.  
We tend to live in an echo-chamber (I know I do, at least) of people who care about the environment, people who care about their privacy, people who care about other humans — and yet the world is showing us that the majority of people are OK with not making changes to protect the environment, to protect their privacy, or to vote against the Far Right. 
Spam and privacy issues will continue as long as there are people who are willing to profit off them, but now spammers’ lives are made harder with increased regulation and harsher penalties.  
Q: Let’s end by looking on the bright side: what’s the best thing about being a marketer today? How is it better than 5 years ago? 

I’m strongly of the opinion that, in spite of all we’ve said till now, or maybe thanks to all we’ve said till now, 2020 is the best time to be a marketer. The next five years are going to see changes that will make us wonder what marketing looked like in 2019. Just like we look back 5 years and the marketing profession was being decimated by Facebook. Everyone thought that being a marketer was just as easy as being able to post on Facebook. Businesses were convinced that all their marketing costs would vanish because the cost of physical media was going to vanish. 

Now we’re in a world where the dominance of Facebook (the platform, not the company) is diminishing. People are spending more and more time on channels that we can’t monitor yet. They’re more likely to share stuff that excites them on the “dark” web: Whatsapp, Facebook Chat, Instagram chat, Snapchat etc. These are all encrypted from peer to peer, so we have no visibility into the content that’s being shared (and we’re OK with it), so we’re going to have to find new ways of monitoring how effective our content is. 

As the reactions to our content go dark, so does our ability to listen, to gauge engagement, and to simply post your next offer on your Facebook page and press “Boost.” No more Frozen Lasagna. It’s time to dust the recipe books and learn how to cook again — and the next 5 years will see a slew of new recipes with flavours we’ve never imagined before.