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Marketers are an insecure bunch.

Or at least that’s the impression made by various panelists’ comments at yesterday’s Big ReThink U.S. conference at the Time Warner Center in New York City.

Subtitled “The Age of the Entrepreneurial CMO” and presented by The Economist magazine, the conference pointed more toward the radically changing situation of Chief Marketing Officers than it did to their clever initiatives.

There are “huge changes” underway with marketers, panel moderator and Economist media editor Alexandra Suich noted.

“It feels like a ship [has] left one shore and hasn’t reached the other one yet,” said Andy Hobsbawm, founder and CMO of a company that provides an Internet of Things platform, Evrythng.

One shore, of course, is the traditional, Mad Men-like world of marketing and advertising. The other is the settled future. In between, marketers are paddling as fast as they can in a sea containing so many hidden rocks it’s a wonder they’re still afloat.

For one thing, no one has a clear idea of exactly what modern marketing covers.

“The CMO is now about service,” including customer service, said Salesforce CMO Lynn Vojvodich in one panel on Market Conditions. It’s “wherever a customer touches the brand.”

On another panel about Marketing on the Internet of Things, IBM VP of worldwide developer marketing Howard Pyle essentially agreed. “I come from the school that says [marketing] needs to be the steward of the customer experience,” he said.

Of course, this expanded view of marketing’s portfolio is going to come as news to at least a few product development and customer service departments.

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Many panelists sang the common chorus that we need to lose the silos — independently acting departments — and added the refrain that marketing could become the unifier. In fact, Salesforce’s Vojvodich noted, CMOs are already acting like General Managers these days.

But that was taken down a few notches by a view that marketing may not always be all that important.

“Marketing doesn’t always matter,” Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser said, pointing to the fact that some good products basically market themselves.

It’s not just whether marketing should be everywhere — or nowhere. There’s also the question of whether basic assumptions about today’s marketing environment are crumbling.

Take data, the marketer’s new gold. One panel on multi-platform marketing noted that the data surrounding a product sometimes becomes more valuable to the brand than the product itself. Free music in order to get more information about your interest graph, for instance.

In other words, instead of data-driven marketing, there’s also marketing-driven data.

Then there’s demographics, the old veteran who remembers when Don Draper was throwing back cocktails at 3 in the afternoon.

Schneider Electric CMO Chris Hummel recalled that, given the rise of personalized marketing, “someone told me that the idea of demographics is over.”

“It’s now a demographic of one,” he said.

Thought you finally had a handle on customer relationship management (CRM)? Well, here comes what Evrythng calls “product relationship management.”

That is, given that we’ve started sharing the planet with zillions of intelligent, connected, and sensing things, relationship management is no longer just brand-to-customer or customer-to-brand.

There’s also customer- or brand-to-product, or even product-to-product.

Cookies for tracking leads are on their way out, but it’s not yet clear what’s next. “We’re just at the next step in this evolution,” Facebook adtech head David Jakubowski pointed out on one panel.

Agencies have to become publishers, Ogilvy & Mather chief executive Miles Young told the audience — even as he noted that 67 percent of the content put out on the web is not read.

One panel discussed the fact that programmatic ad buying, the engine of digital ads, leads to a loss of control of where the ads are placed, the hallmark of ad strategy.

Ultimately, it’s not about data, demographics, programmatic ad buying, and products talking to products, according to Unilever senior vice president of marketing Marc Mathieu.

In order to really understand what will move your customers, he said, “marketers must learn to be human beings.”

If you count getting from here to there while all the street signs keep changing, then the Economist’s conference showed modern marketers still qualify for the species.

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