The Marketing Revolution (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

A lot has changed in business during the first 20 years of 40 Under 40. I contend no discipline has seen more change than has marketing.

I am a proud member of the Class of 2002; my classmates and I sit in the middle of the Arkansas Business 40 Under 40 timeline. I spoke with a few other past honorees, including those who came before my class and those who followed. Here are some thoughts about the most dramatic changes in marketing during the past two decades, along with what is likely ahead for the next groups of young business leaders in our state.

One big trend has been entrepreneurialism, and not just actual startups. We’ve seen a change in mindset: a growing free-agent mentality celebrated in TV shows and pitch competitions, and fueled in part by downsizings and the unwinding of implied contracts between corporations and employees. There’s also evidence in the growth of “solopreneurs” as well as the outsourcing of business services to small, expert teams. The good news is that there is more infrastructure and capital available now in Arkansas to support entrepreneurialism. (A hat tip to Rex Nelson, Class of 1994, for reminding me of this trend.)

Another trend has been an explosion in communication tools. This is rather obvious with the growth of the Web and mobile, yet it’s easy to forget how quickly this has all moved. Some of the world’s transformative businesses (Google, Facebook, Twitter) did not exist 20 years ago. (Trivia: The original name for Google’s search engine was BackRub.)

In the 1990s, with the growth in the number of cable TV channels and specialty print outlets, people in the marketing and media businesses talked about “audience fragmentation.” That meant consumers’ media use was spread out among more options (and that it became more difficult to reach a large number of consumers with an advertising message).

The more recent growth in communication options has been different, not just people reading or watching in the same way across more options, but actually behaving differently. Occasionally this seems to have veered off the tracks (as when I see four people sitting together at a restaurant, each with eyes glued to a smartphone or tablet rather than talking to one another) but mostly it has been liberating.

This has led to another trend, that of increasing consumer power. The rise of websites, information sources, review services and blogs has produced huge ripple effects. Arkansas Business has over the years reported the impact on businesses ranging from auto dealerships to travel agencies to restaurants and nearly anything in between. Consumers and business buyers are better equipped to negotiate or exit, and they have ever-higher expectations.

The implications of these trends are very different, according to whether you’re wearing your “personal hat” or “manager hat.” More professionals are using available tools to build their personal brands and keep their free-agent options open. For managers, the new toolbox can seem nearly unmanageable. BYOD initiatives promote flexible work styles but threaten security. Employees’ use of social media promises to deliver bigger groups of brand evangelists but also risks organizational reputation.

The next 20 years will be interesting. I have no idea what is in store, although a safe prediction is that marketing and IT will be forced to converge and collaborate in new ways.

You might recall that when the iPhone debuted in 2007 there were no apps. Apple soon saw the potential of leveraging a community of developers, and then created a store where they could sell their wares (creating value for developers, users and Apple). Less than three years in, Apple reported the 10 billionth app download.

Keep a customer focus with your eyes wide open to innovation; that’s at least one time-tested fundamental that should hold up for another couple of decades.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See