Jobs and Robots: 4 Mantras for Career Growth in 2019


Since 2015 September, through sheer chance and divinity (instead of meticulous planning) I ended up gaining in-depth view of business in 4 different industries: Retail, Health Tech, Media and Entertainment and Publishing. 2015 was the first time that PUMA became the numero uno sportswear brand in India. Subsequently, late-August, I ended my four-year long stint there and started on a journey of a (painful yet immensely rewarding) sabbatical to reassess my life and career choices.

While what happened thereafter was a topsy-turvy tale that’s best told another day, in Jan 2017 I joined HealthifyMe, India’s leading health and fitness app. It is here that I gained a more nuanced understanding of how to separate substance from style in the Indian startup ecosystem. I also witnessed up-close the requisite painstaking effort to build a top-notch mobile product at scale. Towards end-2017, I joined Discovery India where we’re right now striding ahead to grow our linear and digital businesses in the hotbed of the Indian media landscape.

In between, Buffering Love found a home with Penguin Random House. This was the most brutal outlook of them all. As delightful as my experience with Penguin was, the publishing business for first-time authors isn’t exactly a walk in the park. The truth hit home early. As a writer/ creator today, you are not just competing with books but also vying for a readers time against the heavy odds of streaming services.

This journey across these various industries made me think deeply about building sustainable and fulfilling career paths. Also, having spoken to a fair bit of CXO’s across these industries (and hiring for Discovery ourselves) gave me a decent idea of the kind of talent that’s commanding a premium and becoming rarer to find. Hence, with this benefit of personal hindsight here’s a shot at articulating some of the mantras that could help a working professional navigate these disruptive times. Being a maketeer for most of my career, the lens in the examples below at times might lean towards consumer facing businesses but most of the guidance is sector agnostic.

If you are an Analytics professional who knows his way around Product or if you are a Product guy who knows his way around Marketing, or if you are a Marketing guy who impacts Sales Conversions or if you’re a Sales bloke who can see more than his immediate target and invest in non-monetary alliances, you will have a lot to gain. Professional duality is a reality of our times and the sooner we embrace this, the healthier a future for us.

In the recent Annual Penguin India lecture, Yuval Noah Harari spoke about how job losses are imminent in the new world led by robotics and machine learning. He termed the ensuing job losses as ‘The Rise of the Useless Class’ by 2050. This purported class, he said, would need to up-skill very rapidly to survive. This is the classic ‘cut your losses’ scenario. Taking that argument ahead, think about it. Are you more likely to be replaced if you specialize in only one skill or two? The answer is obvious.

Final word: If you are in a role that’s been leveraging the same skill in past few years, think about how either you can up-skill or add more arrows in your quiver of skills within the organization.

This might sound like a timeless cliche but let me explain. In the Direct-to-Consumer world, we are largely getting divided into two sets of businesses- either you are a platform with immense reach like Amazon or you are a niche brand that’s ‘also’ connected with consumers directly. Both have their advantages but if you do not build that consumer connect directly with enough data for you to re-sell to them in the future, Amazon will, in old Liam Neeson’s words, ‘come after you, find you and kill you.’

Let’s take mobile products. You are already hearing ‘users journey’ in more boardrooms than ever. This is specially true for niche brands like Natures Basket and AllBirds Sneakers. Technically, products from these brands can exist on Amazon solely. However, losing that consumer connect will come with a price to pay for future. As a defence, these brands have invested in and will continue to invest in direct to consumer platforms and technologies and those professionals who understand consumers choices better will be at an advantage. Those who specialize in subjects like Design Thinking and Consumer Behavior will benefit further.

Let’s take some more examples closer home. In media, with the new and imminent Tariff Order implementation, communicating the right consumer proposition is of paramount importance for all channels and businesses are responding fast. Globally, again are you going to go with Netflix or pull out all your Disney content from Netflix and put it up on your own streaming service? Businesses have started making these choices. Discovery just hired a Direct to Consumer CEO. Disney’s at it too. So is Nike. Different industries- same objective.

Here’s one more interesting data point in this regard. I watch a lot of Shark Tank. In simple terms, if you have a direct to consumer business with a sizeable e-mail base, with basic business fundamentals, you’re very very likely to get funded by sharks like Mark Cuban. You can check his list of investments here. It’s a burgeoning list of businesses with an online direct to consumer channel available.

Final word: You can’t live without a platform but having that direct to consumer connect understanding will have give you firmer legs to run a marathon that sustainable businesses ought to be. See how your role speaks to or derives consumer truths on a day to day basis.

(Confession: I first called this point: What’s left, is right. It didn’t fit but I was too much in love with the pun to not mention it here.)

The image above is an infographic released by the World Economic Forum about the hottest emerging jobs over the next 3 years.

First, let’s look at the list next to the greyed out 75 million number in that image above. Anything mechanical, bearing repetition, or that can be simply captured on the cloud is bound to decline.

Now, let’s come to the more attractive part of that image- the list next to that beaming number of 133 million. Primarily, there are two kinds of jobs that will come into play, the hard core left-brained leaning jobs like Data Scientists and AI/ML Specialists and secondly, the ones that I like to call ‘Organize-Chaos’ jobs- like those of general management and transformation specialists. The one entry here that doesn’t fall in either of those categories is the Sales and Marketing specialists. Sales is a timeless skill but what about marketing? Marketing as a skill would’ve been classified as a conventionally right-brained job but it has undergone a massive shift over the past two decades with brands having a razor sharp focus on Performance Marketing.

As the world grows more towards left-brained leaning jobs, anything that can be automated through a set of rules, is likely to be led by these experts. So logically, a data scientist should be able to pull out all customer acquisition and engagement metrics and input and output data in a spreadsheet and come up with a set of actionable inferences. As mentioned in Point 1, I see specialized Performance Marketers up-skilling to write those queries and hold on and improve further on their left-brained leaning skills.

What about the right-brained guys then who create jaw-dropping communication? In 2017, as an experiment, McCann’s creative director in Japan Shun Matsuzaka went head to head against an ad solely created through data and AI for Clorets. When these ads went head to head in a nationwide consumer poll, the ad created by Matsuzaka narrowly won 54% of the vote. We saw both these ads as part of an ML workshop recently. The room was equally split on which between the two was created by a machine. The takeaway here is that jobs with even most right-brained deliverable is potentially up for ‘algorithming’.

This trend in marketing will continue and will create a demand for more left-brained professionals to write those algorithms, which means an organization can theoretically flourish with a bunch of ‘left-brained’ and ‘Organize-Chaos’ folks. This is where companies will bet on infusing more right-brained individuals in their midst to bring more diversity in thinking in their decision making. This is where the Researchers and Design Thinkers will come into play and so will even more specialized skills.

Which brings me to the large pool of right-brained creators. What about film-makers and animators? Graphic Designers and Painters? Writers and Producers? I guess it’s fair to say that those jobs will continue in a steady state but the ones to benefit the most will be ones who up-skill themselves. Take Bandersnatch e.g or Nannette. Both were the output of creators who up-skilled and disrupted the format of storytelling in itself to stand out in crowded categories. The same goes for Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic. You can continue to be middle of the pool with a steady state and risk being forgotten or stand out by upskilling.

Final Word: First, Sales and Marketing will be indistinguishable from each other in the short term and marketers will have a tough time surviving if they do not include a sales-linked deliverable in their goals. Second, generic right-brained jobs like Creative Director could potentially plummet in the near-term, before they rise again. However, the more specialized you are in your right-brained job, the better. Think UI Designers and Color Consultants. My sense is a social Media Creative Manager in it’s conventional sense will give way to positions like ‘Funny-Meme Makers’ or ‘Short-form Copywriter Specialists’

I know this is a left-field choice in this list. But the amount of thinking you need to do on tactical operations now is more than ever. First, you need to think of ways to automate those operations and then you have to think of what you can do better with those efforts and time saved. This reeks of change at a breakneck speed.

While various industries are getting disrupted, you will be forever challenged to keep pace with that change. One option is to play catch up. Unlike a Newspaper+TV combination from 30 years ago, that delivered everything you needed to know and watch under 2–3 hours everyday, you will have to keep opening newer browser tabs to absorb more material spiralling from the web or mindlessly click and swipe on thumbnails and hope in despair (paradox intended) that the content is worth your time, This is a constant, whirring, loud wheel of ‘Catch Up’ that will not relent unless you choose to shut off the noise.

My bet is that the more you are removed from the clutter and the ensuing FoMo, the better off you are. Exercising discretion in reading, streaming, eating will lead to a lot of other perceived missed joys. These missed moments will carry it’s own weight of regret but not so much if you have a mind that can filter out that clutter. Brands no lesser than Apple and Google are at the forefront of advocating digital well-being today.

I want to cap off this point with some empirical personal evidence. Between 2015 and 2018 in each of these years, I went through three different yet completely turbulent times at work. These were all unlike anything I had faced in my first ten years of working at HT Media, CNBC and PUMA. These situations weren’t the usual work related crises but something at a more tectonic level, for the lack of a weightier word. In two of these situations, my response was to try harder, prepare better and put in more hours to solve the crisis. I came off worse in both of those situations and the result suffered.

In the third situation, I simply added a 10 minute meditation routine every morning, thanks to a great off-the-cuff suggestion by a good friend. My response to that crisis in the third situation turned out much better than the first two and so did the results. Headspace came in handy here.

Again, this wasn’t anything too intense or deep but just to acquaint myself with the feeling that if I shut off the world for ten minutes, nothing changes. This was new and a refreshing way to see the world and my problems.

Final Word: The world you think you are missing and your own self are both insignificant variables for each other. Shut off the world and meditate.

On that note, I leave you to tell me if you think this list should have more career mantras.

P.S. 1: The World Economic Forum released a 147 page report last year titled The Future of Jobs Report. Yes, it’s a long read but the key findings there is an excellent summary of what lies ahead and it comes from experts unlike yours truly.

Do take a look here.

P.S. 2: A reader wrote to me saying that General and Operations managers are there in both emerging and declining jobs in the infographic above. My sense is the ones in declining are more Data Administration-led.

Tinker, tailor, writer, rye. Building Discovery’s digital future in India. Also, author, ‘Buffering Love’: a collection of short stories (Penguin India)