The past ten years have been a wild marketing ride. Although it’s hard to be hyper-critical reflection while the paint still drying, it seems we’ve weathered one of the most turbulent and pivotal decades in the last fifty years, rivaling the 1980s, in terms of innovation, social upheavals and rapid change.

As marketers, the period from 2010 to 2020 has completely transformed the way we conduct business. The promises of the digital world finally caught up to and in some ways superseded its physical limitations. Smartphones took over the world, social media reached a global audience and the rise of streaming and personalized content services fundamentally changed our relationship with government, the media and our neighbors. 

But like the black goo in the movie Prometheus, these innovations have warped and mutated almost everything they’ve touched. It’s also been a decade of rampant disruption, and the flipside to all this has been the rise of a whole new set of problems caused by new technologies, including culture wars to fake news and declining consumer trust.

To close the book on the last ten years, I’ve picked three of the broadest trends that shaped marketing over the decade—from the maturation of the sharing economy to the disintegration of the CMO role.

The Instagram Decade

The rise and (higher) rise of social media is easily the most significant trend of the 2010s. As hard as it might be to believe in 2020, when almost every marketing plan begins and ends with a social component, at the beginning of the decade most marketers didn’t know what to do when it came to social media.

It’s an understatement to say it was a decade of revolutionary change for social media. But, while Facebook and Twitter’s position at the top of the pile remains curiously unchallenged, there has also been a proliferation of new platforms including Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest and TikTok. However, if you could point to the one brand that defined the past decade, it would be Instagram. Launched in 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012, the photo-sharing app has grown like wildfire, ending the era with over a billion regular users and an estimated market value of $100 billion.

Instagram’s effect on marketing has been profound. Getting over an early reputation as a repository of food pics and selfies, the app has since gone on to redefine the relationship between brands and consumers. A state of affairs that anyone who has people queuing for a selfie at the Eiffel Tower or witnessed the punters lined up for brand activation at Coachella can readily testify to.

By encouraging its users to post authentic snapshots of their lives, Instagram has also been the main driving force behind the can of worms that is influencer marketing. Since emerging in 2013, spending on influencer marketing had hit almost $8 million by the end of the decade, but it remains a channel that is fraught with uncertainty. By the end of 2019, over-exposure to influencer techniques and an explosion of superficial, inauthentic content, faked results and declining conversion rates seemed to be blowing the bottom out of the influencer bubble.

Big Data, Growth Hacking And The Death Of The CMO

In the past ten years, marketing has gotten a lot more complicated. In the heady days of 2010, when programmatic and real-time bidding was still a very new technology, most media buying moved at a relatively stately pace. CMO’s had to concentrate on choosing a message, figuring out a media strategy and seeing what stuck.

By 2015, the world had changed. The introduction of ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence and martech produced ads that now moved in real-time, while machine learning meant that campaigns could be tweaked on the go. What’s more, the increasing adoption of media led to customers demanding two-way conversations with their favourite brands. The end result? Marketing departments suddenly had to think and move faster than they ever had before.

Around the same time, the marketing manager was also expected to do more. The rise in growth hacking from 2010, with its emphasis on long term growth over short term customer acquisition, extended marketing into almost every part of the business. Not only was the CMO now a vital cog in the product development cycle by the middle of the decade, but data and optimization had come to rule almost every department. The key to business is customer retention through seamless omnichannel experiences. To succeed, c-level marketers had to become a jack of all trades, juggling technology, analytics, creativity and brand.

If this sounds overwhelming to you, then it won’t surprise you to find out that chief marketing officers often have the shortest lifespan of the average c-suite. At the dawn of the 2020’s many companies including Uber, McDonald’s and Johnson & Johnson are doing away with the role, and instead, spreading marketing responsibilities around the boardroom. 

Engagement, Personalization And The Ascent Of Content Marketing

If you wanted to get a laugh from a room of marketers in January 2010, then the best way would have probably have been to tell them that the next decade was going to be a renaissance for content marketers.

Much of the industry viewed it as an appendage of search marketing and most of the output was unashamedly keyword-based. In fact, the only thing most marketers worried about was how to pump it out quicker and reduce costs further, as illustrated by a report from the Content Marketing Institute in 2010 reporting that the top challenge cited by marketers was quantity based over quality based.

That was until social media changed the landscape. By the mid-2010s, the rise of blogging, peer-to-peer platforms and data-led targeting produced a more informed buying audience who were less willing to believe overly branded messaging. The growth of on-demand services, in turn, led to a more independently minded consumer and the job of content marketing changed from push to pull.

By 2017, engagement had taken over clicks and interaction as the main focus of most brand’s content marketing strategies. Creatively, the emphasis shifted from answering questions and extolling virtues to inspiring customers, harnessing audiences and building brand love. Freed from the shackles of always having to employ the hard sell, content marketing started to rival traditional publishers in terms of creativity and quality. Data-led personalization turned customers into creatives, and ever more creative use of user-generated content has strengthened the bond between brand and customer.

Heading into the twenties, content marketing largely sits at the center of most brand communication. With Generation Z now coming of age, the importance of personalized content that’s relevant and shareable won’t be diminishing any time soon.