The future of marketing: approaching a new decade

About the event

The Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative (FOMI) hosted its third annual research symposium in December.

FOMI welcomed a number of partners and collaborators to discuss the challenges faced by marketers at the start of a new decade. As well as reflecting on how much the marketing landscape has changed over the past ten years, delegates considered questions around data, advances in AI and machine learning, and the role that marketing should play in promoting sustainability within business and society.

Data, AI and machine learning

Professor Andrew Stephen (Saïd Business School), introduced the session by questioning ‘What do marketers need to be thinking about as we approach a new decade?’

Greg Stuart (Mobile Marketing Association), enforced how important it is to continue to consider the ethics around, and application of, data. He argued that ‘data, big data and the application to business is crucial to the future of marketing. Defining our ethics in application of data is the right thing to do.’

Lex Bradshaw-Zanger (L’Oréal), echoed this, encouraging marketers to pay close attention to channel and consumer shifts, and emphasising the importance of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial intelligence (AI) in driving change.

Professor Melinda Mills (Department of Sociology, University of Oxford), drew these two points together within a discussion around the newly established Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science. The cross departmental project is focused on understanding changing demographics and establishing ways in which we can identify key sources of big data.

Melinda acknowledged the implication the project may have for the Future of Marketing, with particular reference to AI and ML development. ‘What if we could predict where and when the next mass migration will occur? Accurately forecast the volume of neighbourhood-specific school and hospital places required in the next 5 to 10 years? If we can achieve this, we will be able to enlighten AI through Machine learning, and inform businesses of impending demographic shifts and consumers’ future needs.’

Julie Kollman (Kantar), agreed with this accord, however encouraged marketers to also refocus on the consumer. ‘Data is fantastic, but it only tells you what the consumer is doing, not why. Social Media doesn’t represent the opinions of the vast majority. As well as focusing on data collection, we also need to focus more on consumers’ needs and motivations – the "why." Marketers who invest the time to truly understand their consumers will have a massive competitive advantage if we adopt this.’

Ian Edwards (Facebook), recommended that growing businesses learn ‘to take a step back from data’ where they can, to allow machines to accelerate data collection. He spoke with particular reference to current targeted marketing practices.

‘It’s time to let go of old-fashioned targeting. With current targeting practices, marketers have optimised themselves into a corner. Understanding the consumer is still critical, but if you’re collecting the right signals you can then step back and allow the AI targeting to work.’

Understanding the consumer is still critical, but if you’re collecting the right signals you can then step back and allow the AI targeting to work.

Ian Edwards


Addressing concerns that AI and ML might eventually make marketers redundant, Ian reassured delegates that allowing AI to take over more time consuming and basic administrative jobs, will allow marketers more time to pursue other projects. ‘ML is a profoundly good thing for marketers. It will allow us to improve, drive performance, and ultimately create a better working environment.’

With this idea established, Andrew and Dr Felipe Thomaz (Saïd Business School) gave a short overview of two current streams of FOMI research which address the effectiveness of AI in contemporary marketing.

The first explores whether augmented reality (AR) in mainstream marketing can influence consumer behaviour, and thereby drive a commercial outcome. The team aimed to address this question in the context of food and beverage marketing, conducting three experiments to explore how presenting a food item in AR might influence its desirability. They found that viewing food in AR improves ‘mental simulation’ — i.e., a consumer’s ability to imagine eating their meal - which consequently makes food seem more desirable, makes dining more enjoyable and ultimately causes an increase in spending.

The second project investigates the assumption that giving chatbots more humanlike qualities makes them more effective in customer service roles.

Conducting five studies, analysing one large dataset of real-world customer interactions and four controlled experiments, the team discovered that deploying human-like chatbots to serve angry customers can actually have a negative impact on firms. They recommend that firms should attempt to gauge whether a customer is angry before they enter the chat environment (e.g., via natural language processing); this way, the firm can deploy the chatbot or customer-service solution that better aligns with the customer’s mood.

Sustainability in advertising

Coupled with this emphasis upon the importance of data and investment in new technologies, was a discussion around the role marketing must play in sustainability.

As Julie remarked: ‘The world is now seriously waking up to the idea of over-consumption. A large number of people blame companies for over-consumption, and this is a real problem for marketers to deal with.’

The world is now seriously waking up to the idea of overconsumption. A large number of people blame companies for overconsumption, and this is a real problem for marketers to deal with.

Julie Kollman


Hannah Harrison (WPP), reaffirmed this ethos, observing that ‘People are desperate for brands that mirror their values. Brands are now held to much higher standards, and as a consequence business are getting more nervous, and don’t want to do anything until they can do everything perfectly.'

So how can marketing remain relevant in a ‘post trust’ era?

Julie, Lex and Greg, alongside Martyn Etherington (Teradata), offered a consensus that – though marketers find themselves within a real crisis, nothing has the opportunity to address this issue like marketing does. ‘Unlimited growth is no longer an option – we, as marketers, are the key to driving this attitude change. It is our job to convince people to alter their behaviour in a more responsible way, and to therefore encourage the creation of products that are more sustainable.'

Geoff Skingsley, L’Oreal, acknowledged that consumer behaviour hasn’t moved as fast as the brand, and it is the role of marketing to figure out how to accelerate this.

‘Corporations are part of the solution. There needs to be much more of a focused, consistent and harmonised approach when it comes to messaging consumers in order to improve consumer trust and influence behaviour for the good of the world. Accountability is also key. If you set yourself up as a brand who is going to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing.’

The question of accountability was also asserted by Hannah, who concluded that a lack of authenticity will cause firms to fail. ‘It’s not enough to say, “buy our product and we’ll make a donation.” People want to see real impact, and brands need to take responsibility for that. By "owning their role," marketers will, ultimately, be enabled to expand their boundaries.’