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Does the rise of marketing machines at Zalando mean the fall of people?

Last month, Ben Harmanus, Marketing Director at konversionsKRAFT, in his opening talk at the E-commerce Berlin Expo 2018 said that it is very likely that many marketing jobs will become obsolete due to the rise of Marketing Machines. Three weeks later, what sounded like an attention grabber at an industry event turned into reality for as many as 250 people working in marketing departments at Zalando. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Early March, the online fashion retailer Zalando announced it cuts up to 250 of its marketing positions. “We assume that marketing will have to be more data-based in the future. For this to happen, we need a higher proportion of developers and data analysts,” says Zalando CEO Rubin Ritter in his commentary for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In practice, all marketing tasks that used to be done by around 250 people, will be controlled by algorithms and Artificial Intelligence managed by developers and data experts. This is the biggest reorganization in the still young history of Zalando and an unprecedented case in the ecommerce industry.

THE FUTURE CAME EARLY

The current situation of flesh-and-blood Zalando marketers recalls Ben Harmanus’ opening talk at the E-commerce Berlin Expo on February 15, 2018, titled “Rise of the Marketing Machines: When will your marketing job become obsolete?”.

In this presentation, Ben Harmanus discussed how for online marketers, marketing automation and machine learning may be helpful in getting the right product in front of the right prospects at the right time. Yet, despite the positive impact of these advancements on the online marketing field, Ben also asked specific questions about job security: Will marketing become so automated that professional marketers become obsolete? Are marketing machines friend or foe? What can we do to keep our jobs in the future?

Zalando business decision signals that the concern about the security of many jobs in the future is justified – and that it comes sooner than expected. In this specific case, rather than marketing automation to help marketing people, now it is time for marketing machines to replace marketing people.

Similar unpleasant changes might soon affect a range of other jobs in areas beyond marketing. A study by Oxford economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimated the probability of as many as 702 specific job categories being replaced by “computerization”. According to this study, apart from Marketing, the areas most impacted will be Content Creation, Sales and Information Technology:

What can we do to prepare ourselves for times when our current jobs will be made redundant? Ben Harmanus in his E-commerce Berlin Expo talk focuses on marketers only and mentions five specific steps they can take to ensure they are still needed in the future.

Watch the full Ben Harmanus’ talk here:

Yet, to make this 5-step strategy work, marketers need time. Since decisions about strategy changes at large companies are taken in discretion and then only announced to employees, it seems recommended to take these steps as a professional routine rather than as an ad hoc preventive action when your desk at work is already on fire.

“WE. UNEMPLOYED.”

The sudden job cuts at Zalando caused heavy reactions from the fired staff. In a company that transacts billions, grows fast and talks profits, these layoffs may have come as a surprise. Pictures that leaked to social media show an elevator in the Zalando office HQ that was smeared with a penis graffiti in the corporate colours. In addition, a poster about employee layoffs was designed in a way that plays with the slogan and design of the current official Zalando Spring 2018 campaign “Me. Unlimited.”:

According to anonymous Zalando employees interviewed by Gründerszene, the mood at the company office in Berlin as bad. When asked, a Zalando spokesperson told Gründeszene that the difficult situation is understandably causing different emotions for many employees and that their private situations were taken into account in the settlement packages.

Some Zalando employees impacted also vented their frustrations across different social media channels, looking for the reasons for their layoff. “You work for a company, you help it grow, and that’s the answer…”, wrote a marketing manager in a post that was deleted after publication of the Gründeszene article linked above.

Zalando confirms that the employees are being released these days and the newly assembled marketing teams are due to start work next week. Still, on Monday, March 19, there will be an internal job fair where potential reposition opportunities inside the ecommerce company itself will be presented to employees impacted. “At the moment, Zalando has more than 600 advertised vacancies, which in the near future are to be filled internally, if possible,” says the company in a commentary for Gründerszene.

Zalando also wants to offer an additional non-financial support to the dismissed. In addition to the monetary part, the settlement packages include support in career coaching, access to workshops or trainings at CODE University, a start-up funding for founders, and a dedicated Zalando contact person who will accompany the impacted employees throughout this time.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR FORMER ZALANDOS AND POSSIBLY YOU?

Many companies see the opportunity in these layoffs to catch flesh-and-blood marketing talents that have just lost their jobs at Zalando via public posts on Twitter and LinkedIn. For example, Lidl plays with the design of the “We. Unemployed” anonymous poster in the following way to encourage former Zalando marketers to join their team:

Other companies, including many leading German and international ecommerce players, follow:

In the digital era when access to social media is common, decisions such as Zalando’s cuts trigger a plethora of human actions and reactions. Since as many as 250 people from Zalando alone might now have to find another job, and soon there might be more people from other companies sharing the same fate due to the rise of marketing machines, this can only possibly help.

It remains to be seen if Zalando business decision indeed triggers quicker changes in how online businesses are run and what jobs we will (or will not) have in the future. Irrespective of what happens, a positive example of the power of the Internet and social media in helping groups of people find other jobs quickly is the #HireUsAsATeam viral campaign of former Air Berlin marketing team.

Obviously, in the case of Air Berlin, the layoffs were caused by a different reason being the company’s insolvency, but still Ian Pascal Volz, former Vice President E-Commerce at Air Berlin, and his 60+ team managed to turn their professional tide in 72 hours. This was possible thanks to the power of the online world combined with the goodwill of real people who reacted to their posts and took human actions.