What Leonardo DiCaprio Can Teach Us About The Future of Marketing

James Ellis
Feb 10, 2017 · 15 min read

TL;DR: Martech has just about advanced to the point where self-optimizing systems will learn about your audience and what they respond to, delivering the “right” messages at the right time. So where does that leave you, the marketing professional? If we expand the concept of marketing as a system instead of a tool we can see our role shifts but stays vital to our clients’ and company’s success. The future of marketing is making our prospects want to want our message. Our primary goal becomes demand generation at the highest level, to incept ideas that lead prospects to the funnel.

I have to assume you’ve been paying attention to the news. Not the nightly news (let’s not get into that, okay?) but the news from the tech front. CES was last week and all sorts of new technology is rolling out. Police are looking to subpoena an Amazon Echo because it might have recorded a murder. Bots are talking to each other online.

The future is not the future. The future is now. It’s already happened. (Want proof? See the end of this article to see all the massive changes already impacting our world.)

So the question becomes: what happens when the future finally shows up and radically changes our jobs. Here’s a potential answer.

Here’s a list of game-changing tech knocking on the door of our daily lives: Micro-segmentation, personalization, algorithms, bots, everything as a service, expectations that all info is available all the time, mobile and hyper-mobile (watches and earbuds), automation, automated tool development, and machine learning/artificial intelligence.

So Where Does That Leave Marketing?

All these new tools and tech are super interesting and cool individually, but together they form the elements of a marketing engine. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see that when integrated and programmed appropriately, we’re talking about the advent of self-optimizing ad campaigns, bots that listen to prospect needs and objections and deliver relevant personalized information that moves them one step down the funnel, all delivered on any platform at any time, that scales up on demand. That sounds like what you’re paid to think about.

If you read all the data and articles coming out over the last two months, you’d assume this future spelled doom for your job, that all the day-to-day tasks of being a marketer will be taken over by these tools, either to do your job faster, cheaper and even better than you could ever do it.

Integrated correctly and fed the right information about targets, this collection of bits and bots will take people step by meticulous step from the top of the funnel to a lead-generation or sales page. It won’t get bored, demand a promotion and an upgraded coffee machine, or get sick and miss an opportunity to motivate a lead. It will take your “authentically human brand voice” and apply it to a million potential contexts and situations depending on the time, day, month, and channel, as well as the gender, age range and company of the target. It’s a million monkeys at a million keyboards trying to get someone from “aware” to “consider” without deviating significantly from your A/B tested script.

Packing your stuff up into a box yet? Hold on.

Aside from the fact that people will still need to own and manage these tools, requiring experts to fine-tune and integrate these channels and touch points so that people aren’t getting missed (or worse, getting spammed with an unending series of questions from swarms of bots), this little engine that creates unemployed marketers can’t do everything. At best, it can be optimized to the current context, but it can’t anticipate or create shifts in demand. That’s what a real marketer’s job is about to become.

What am I talking about? Most processes are designed around what’s true right now. Whether it’s the process of making a car, on-boarding new staff, or qualifying a lead, you built your process around the kind of car, the location and role of the new hire, and the criteria around what a qualified lead looks like.

But we all know change is inevitable, and increasingly insistent. A new car model is introduced, forcing a complete re-tooling of the assembly line. A new role is created, forcing HR to think through all the things that new hire will need to know. A new lower-priced product is in play, meaning you have to rethink what a “qualified lead” looks like and what their motivations might be.

Unfortunately, these changes seem like a scramble, like we couldn’t have predicted these changes coming (all the while tell each other that change is always here). The system was optimized for the current reality and needs to get built out from the ground floor for any little change.

Have you ever seen that video of a concrete printer which “printed” a house in a few days to custom specs? Amazing!

<iframe width=”560" height=”315" src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/DQ5Elbvvr1M" frameborder=”0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

But concrete is insanely rigid. Any little change in the structure forces you to break apart huge parts of the house just to change a window. It was able to be built so quickly because it designed to be unchanged forever. Compare that to a house built 100 years ago, which gets additions and windows and porches and refinished kitchens without having to gut the whole structure. It is far more flexible.

Those integrated marketing tools, still so new, are rigid like concrete. Until machine learning can be applied to the entire system (that’ll be awhile), it will always need you leading the path forward and defining the goals, targets and needs.

More than just a robot mechanic

But beyond that, there’s a much bigger role to play, one I think will radically change how we see marketing altogether.

Ads for pizza don’t work on people who aren’t hungry. Now, luckily, most people get hungry two or three times a day, so it’s really just a waiting game to sell pizza. Once a hungry person is identified, the marketing system will nudge them based on internal rules to make a hot fresh pizza top of mind when their hunger starts to spike.

That’s great for pizza, but what about cars, enterprise software and business services? The “hunger” for those services occurs every few years, often at fairly predictable intervals.

But the world is seeing an influx of products and services that five years ago either didn’t exist or no one knew could be useful. If your audience doesn’t know they exist and doesn’t know how they can be useful, you need to create demand to drive people into the funnel.

Initially, this looks like a job for a carnival barker, the showman who draws your attention to something new. Like a splashy (and expensive) ad campaign filled with celebrities and special effects drawing people into the tent where the automated engine does it’s work.

Of course, when every marketer thinks their job is to shout, the smart marketer will learn to be quiet. The smart marketer will realize that demand generation isn’t about volume, but about getting people to think in new ways. Remember, the true definition of marketing is to get people to change beliefs and behaviors.

There are clues in how successful products are rolled out. Think about how Febreeze, the spray that makes things smell better, wasn’t rolled out with a splashy campaign about how effective it was at clearing up smells, but in installing the idea that a room isn’t clean until it smells clean. For all your scrubbing and sweeping and mopping, the job wasn’t done until it smelled nice. That simple idea, already semi-present in our minds (do you think a room that smells bad is clean?), was the core of their marketing strategy and have made Febreeze not only a huge success, but a category almost on its own.

Yes, you are Leonardo DiCaprio in this story

This is the Inception strategy of marketing: getting people to suddenly realize they need to be interested in a thing (product, idea, industry, etc) to encourage them to start their journey to learn more (which is when the marketing machine works so effectively).

In the movie, the goal wasn’t to get the target to buy or do something, but to implant the idea that they would be happier if they focused more on being their own person instead of always being seen as the son of someone powerful. That simple idea was all it would take for everything else to fall into place and for billions of dollars to change hands.

Since the marketing machine is better able to lead someone down through the funnel, your goal is to plant an idea in people’s minds that will lead them to that machine.

Need to get people serious your digital outsourcing offering who’s primary goal is to extend services at a lower cost? There are lots of ways to create that interest and demand: a guerrilla marketing event in the business center (flash mob, drones building a tower, free coffee truck), a PR campaign to plant stories in business newspapers of executive success stories stemming from lowered costs, presentations at local exec mastermind groups about how the smart move in an uncertain economy is to lower costs at all costs, deliver TED Talk-like videos via Facebook about how the smart executive should be focused on getting the most out of their budgets, promote similar stories on LinkedIn, getting a local exec into HuffPo or similar sites talking about their view of the future of the industry including finding ways to add skill without adding budget (and having them share with their networks), etc.

Once incepted, they will start looking for articles, ask for briefings, search for solutions, at which point they will end up typing in a keyword you rank well for, read a web page with your tracking pixel on it, leading them to asking for a case study or ebook, leading to leading to leading to.

None of these things initial demand generation plays will promote the brand or the offering, but will serve to remind execs that there is a problem they need to solve and suggest an initial direction. That will be enough to get them close enough to the marketing machine to get snared in its web. Anything more direct will feel heavy-handed and pitchy, the antithesis of marketing’s future.

Think of it like the smell of pizza in the air. The aroma alone will linger in your mind and encourage you to change your lunch plans. That shift alone will increase the local pizza joint’s sales because more people are thinking about pizza.

The future of marketing is not to fight the new wave of tools taking over our day-to-day tasks, but position ourselves in front of them, letting them do their job by feeding them a steady stream of the right targets. This is where the machines can’t help and where marketers can leverage huge audiences to succeed.

James Ellis (BEX Consultants, @TheWarForTalent, and The Talent Cast podcast) is a digital and content strategist working in Chicago. He spends his time mostly helping Fortune 1000 companies develop recruitment marketing strategies to find and attract the best talent.

APPENDIX: Factors Driving Change


The other day, a Facebook ad offered me a t-shirt for people who used to live in Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ and then moved to Houston, TX. Despite its crazy name, Ho-Ho-Kus is a very real but small town measuring a little more than 1.5 square miles in size with a population of little more than four thousand people. What are the odds that anyone besides me fit the criteria for that t-shirt? Probably zero. So this was a product designed for me and no one else.

The “product” wasn’t even built. It was a virtual product, offered to me and created upon purchase. I would have been buying something that didn’t even exist yet.

In a world of real-time custom product development, we are seeing a parallel rise in real-time custom ad development. That ad in that version likely was seen only by me, but I would expect that a million different versions of that ad were delivered to a million different people. Someone just took a database of location names and fed it into an ad generator and connected it to Facebook. Voila, instant custom ads.

Beyond re-marketing, we are living in a world where we are getting custom messages designed for no-one but us. Even channels one would expect to be free of these custom messages are evolving. Digital billboards can recognize specific types of people are present and deliver custom messages to them. Magazines and newspapers can be delivered with custom printing to specific areas and individuals. Even TV shows can have custom ads inserted depending on geography and demographics (at least the ones on cable, anyway).


Micro-segmentation naturally leads to people expecting to get ads that have some element of targeting to them. When I get an ad for women’s shampoo, (a product I won’t be buying for demographic and dermatological reasons), I know that I have been subjected to a non-targeted ad. Five years ago, a targeted ad would have been somewhat rare, or at least so broadly targeted (basic geographic, channel, etc) it wouldn’t have been obvious. Today, non-targeted ads seem surprisingly out of place, even jarringly so.

We now have the expectation that ads we see will have some level of targeting. They might not know my favorite color, but they should be able to know that I have a young child, that I live in Chicago, and that I’m in my forties. This expectation of targeting means that people are looking to ads as a means of getting information about products that align with their needs. As I have been buying stuff for my 2-year-old on Amazon lately, I am glad to get suggestions of interesting products and services designed for other parents of young kids. The ads are less of an interruption and more of a means of delivering value.


When you post something on Facebook at 6:02pm on a Tuesday, people don’t actually see it at 6:02pm. Or 6:05pm. They, along with all other major social channels have switched from a purely chronological delivery system to an algorithmic one. The channel will evaluate the anticipated value of your post and determine when and if to show it to your audience. Those decisions are made on individual levels, so two different fans logging in at the same time will have very different experiences when they look at their feed. One might see it and one might see it the next day, or perhaps not at all, depending on the context of the rest of the information in their feed.

This is only one obvious way in which algorithms are directly impacting your ability to plan the reach of your campaigns. Go to Google and search for something. Then look in the top-right corner of your browser (easier if you are on a laptop rather than a phone) and click the gray globe icon to see what your search would return if Google ignored what it knew about you. These can be radically different experiences.

Algorithms are making stock purchasing decisions. They are deciding when to order more inventory from vendors. It recommends what movies we should watch next. It suggest jobs we might be qualified for. Understanding that math is driving the ecosystem rather than people fundamentally changes how what we build is seen by the targets, their networks and our competitors.


At their most basic, bots are small modular chunks of software that can be deployed almost anywhere. You apply it on a channel (email, Slack, FB Messenger, chat) and it will have a conversation for you. For example, instead of having to spend customer service time telling a customer what their balance is, a bot can take natural language requests and convert it into a query and respond. So that someone can say, “what’s my balance?” “Can you tell me my balance?” and “how much money do I have?” and the system will understand that they are the same request.

In the next year, we’ll see bots being rolled out that can have far more complex interactions, perhaps helping you pick the best set of candidates for a job or managing your to do list. They can deliver customized news to you every morning or pick the right product installation.

I saw on ProductHunt, a bot designed to get people to fill out a form exclusively by conversation. Perfect to help people to apply for jobs or submit interest in products without ever having to worry about whether the site is too complicated or easy to use on a phone. Combined with voice recognition (standard on every phone and now something you can get anywhere via Alexa or Ok Google), you can ask people to complete complex forms just by speaking into their headsets.

Think of bots as the smallest agent delivering customized value on any channel you use. The value to the end user is that they can get “full website” functionality in a far smaller footprint. Think about buying flowers or a pizza, but instead of having to open your laptop and browsing to the page, you can handle the entire interaction via your IM client or other messaging tool. Suddenly, you don’t need to develop complex sites to find, grow and manage your internal staff or customers.


An argument might be made to suggest that we are at “peak mobile,” that anyone who would want or use a mobile device likely already does so. But that assumes that each person who has a phone is maximizing their phone. Siri, when it first came out, was a parlor trick, a way of getting weather updates and sports scores rather than as a means of doing business.

But as new voice recognition tools have grown from Apple, Google, Microsoft and even Amazon, new opportunities present themselves. For example, in the Amazon ecosystem, you can simply ask Alexa for news about a subject and get industry updates. You can ask some tools about your schedule and integrate third party tools to help you get there on time or deliver just-in-time information about the people you will be meeting.

The latest innovations in laptops include handwriting and touch screens, but phones are getting functionality that integrates with every aspect of our lives. Beyond turning lights on and off remotely, they can build workflows for client leads, help you answer questions on the fly, and keep notes. Their impact will only grow over the next three-to-five years.

Tool Development and Automation

Fifteen years ago, blogs were an interesting idea that only people who know HTML could manage. Now, you can launch one in ten seconds, customize the design in minutes and buy traffic to it in an hour. The idea is interesting, but its not until people build tools to automated development can these cool ideas grow.

Take bots. Bots are cool. But what’s more cool is that you don’t need to be a developer to build one. If you look at ProductHunt or any other source of tool innovation, people are launching bot kits almost daily.

Google has launched a dashboard that allows one person to request ad space, bid a rate and accept an offer for hundreds of platforms in seconds. What used to take a media analyst days can be accomplished in moments and often at a lower rate.

You can overlay a puppy’s features on top of your face in real time thanks to Snapchat filters, but that same technology can allow doctors to train using virtual reality to overlay bones, organs and other vital elements, all mapped over a patient’s actual body.

More and more, the tools we touch to do our job are the growth point rather than the idea itself, which means we can expect more and more tool automation.


All the latest data suggests that many of the things we have taken for granted for lifetimes may be changing. For example, millennials own cars at a far lower rate than previous generations thanks to Uber and other car-sharing services. Those same trends are also encouraging more and more people to give up on finding a “job” and focus on developing their own services that can be offered to companies on demand, engaging in the “gig economy.”

Getaround, Netflix, Spotify, and so many other companies are suggesting that we needn’t buy things when we can rent cars, movies and music on demand. We don’t need to hire staff when we can farm the task out to someone on TaskRabbit. Get design services on demand via 99Designs. Heck, throw your closet away and live rented clothes thanks to Rent the Runway, GwynnieBee or The Mr Collection.

These shifts do more than lead to opportunities in subscription and product-sharing based businesses. It reduces the amount of capital you need to start doing something. Ten years ago, if you wanted to start a software as a service business, you needed to buy a ton of hardware (servers, cables, an air conditioned room to store them, etc). Now you can just contact Amazon and they will sell you only the cycles and bandwidth you used. You don’t have to pay them until your customers pay you, making your capital outlay almost zero.

Remember that Uber is a transportation company that owns no cars and AirBNB is a hotel than owns no property. What happens when there are few jobs and only lots of tasks to accomplish?

Everything As A Service

As stated above, you can deliver your software as a service via server as a service. Some companies have HR and/or Marketing systems as a service. But the service model is going to grow even further.

Think back to bots and the machine-learning that will drive their interactions. We’re not very far from companies offering intelligence as a service, allowing you to tap into a system that takes learnings from billion interactions you can leverage as you need. For example, Narrative Science offers the ability for a computer to write articles on the fly given data points.

We’re still a little way of farming out all your marketing to bots and rented systems, but we can’t anticipate the future of marketing without understanding how these systems will impact us.

James Ellis

Written by

Digital strategist in the #talent wars. Metaphor purveyor, systems thinker and pattern enthusiast. Chicago. I blog at bexconsultants.com and @TheWarForTalent

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