Data with Heart. Tech with Humanity.
By Adam Kleinberg
I recently had the pleasure of sharing my views with my friend Cory Treffiletti for a feature interview on his new podcast, Original Digital, on the current state of marketing, common challenges brands face today, and advice I have for the next generation of marketing leaders. This is an industry I’ve been immersed in for over 20 years, so I’ve seen my fair share of seismic shifts.
First, I want to thank Cory for having me as one of the first guests on his new video podcast to discuss the evolution of marketing and my vision for building brands that drive culture—and for using a photo from before my beard was grey 😂
(I'm also grateful to the team at Tactiq and Claude from Anthropic and for helping transcribe and synthesize my commentary into this article!).
Now, on to the highlights and key lessons from our conversation...
🧪 Reinventing the Agency Model
I discussed Traction’s transformation from an integrated creative agency known for big brand ideas into a more consultative role laser-focused on seamlessly integrating with clients’ internal marketing teams. As the agency model strained under the pressure for greater efficiency, accountability, and innovation, we made some bold moves.
Four years ago, we decided to fundamentally reinvent Traction around the success we were having with partners like Apple who saw us as true extensions of their in-house staff rather than just vendors. We shifted from a traditional agency setup with expensive overhead focused on polished deliverables to a lean, responsive consultancy powered by an on-demand workforce.
As I put it:
“We restructured our model completely to align the experience clients need with the experience talent wants—more flexibility but also opportunities for growth.”
Today, Traction provides both senior strategic talent who bring a wealth of experience from the brand side as well as an expandable army of specialists across every marketing capability. By tapping fractional talent from our networks on-demand, we can scale brilliant solutions up and down to solve clients’ biggest challenges without bloat or excessive staffing. This liquid workforce approach keeps clients nimble while giving our team members more meaningful work.
🔑 Bridging the Gap Between Performance and Brand
When asked about the biggest issues CMOs come to Traction looking to solve in this rapidly evolving business landscape, I pointed to the over-indexing on performance marketing and short-term results that has become commonplace. The intense pressure that public companies face on a quarterly basis often inadvertently incentivizes marketers to put brand building on the back burner in favor of driving converts, site traffic, or other direct response metrics.
But brand still matters—arguably more than ever before amid information overload. Though the days of dominating consumer mindshare solely through splashy Madison Avenue ads have passed, I emphasized that brands cannot forget about crafting cohesive, emotionally-resonant stories humans connect with across experiences:
“Performance marketing has never been more important, but brand building remains equally vital to lasting success. Our focus is on helping companies thoughtfully bridge that gap.”
We find ourselves at an inflection point where data-driven personalization and tangible value creation must integrate with imaginative, culture-forward brand narratives.
Marketing teams who fail to leverage both in their strategies risk falling behind those who tap into the power of compelling experiences wrapped around products and services people genuinely care about.
🖥️ Culture + Technology Will Shape the Future
When discussing what it will take for brands and their marketing departments to succeed over the next decade, I stressed that penetrating culture—and even driving culture—must become core competencies. As consumer attention spans get shorter and new innovations enable hyper-targeting, brands will live or die based on their capacity to drive trends rather than just react to them.
On the flipside, I made it clear that marketers who stick their heads in the sand on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and automation do so at their own peril.
Marketing has always evolved quickly, but the pace is accelerating faster than ever thanks to advances in data, predictive analytics, conversational interfaces, and more. Those who fail to make room for understanding and integrating leading-edge developments will swiftly find themselves obsolete.
As I put it:
“If you’re not dedicating real resources right now to upskilling yourself and your team members on AI’s potential applications, you’re putting your brand at existential risk of extinction.”
Most marketers lack the necessary time, bandwidth, or access to expertise needed to prepare for an AI-powered world. That’s why at Traction, we created an executive think tank called The Futureproof Project where senior brand leaders across industries (over 165 of them) learn from AI insiders and one another. We learn about real challenges and successes. We collaborate on pilot programs. We provide content, training and education. And after a year, we are now developing tailored blueprints for capitalizing on data-driven advances while mitigating risks.
It provides both a forum for education as well as an accountability network pushing brands to put ideas into practice across their organizations. I believe consortiums like this focused on future-proofing will only grow in importance and prevalence.
⁉️ Curiosity and Courage
With radical changes afoot, what advice do I have for the next generation of marketing leaders trying to chart successful careers in volatile times?
I urged young marketers to obsess over expanding their perspectives, challenging assumptions, and establishing themselves as thought leaders driving change. While hard skills related to data, analytics, and technology stack fluency matter, I argued that mindsets and ways of working may prove even more decisive in the days ahead:
“Dive deeper. Get intensely curious. Develop the grit to speak up when you disagree. These qualities will set you apart.”
I explained that with the acceleration of trends from AI to Web3 to the Metaverse and beyond, no one has all the answers yet on what comes next. Marketing leaders who think they know everything already are likely to crash hard. Instead, I suggested that intellectually humble yet incisively innovative thinkers willing to ask tough questions and pioneer new terrain hold the greatest advantage—no matter their current title or role.
Rather than chasing promotions, I advised identifying brands and bosses who actively foster experimentation, learning, and even healthy dissent. While the chaos of a rapidly-changing marketplace may intimidate some, the boldest talent will see opportunities to advance change rather than just reacting to it. They can shape a more ethical and inspiring vision for marketing instead of just following the crowd.
I encouraged rising marketers to have the courage of their convictions and the confidence to speak out when tactics contradict values. Share big—even wild—ideas without fear of failure. Collaborate broadly across specialties. Stay fiercely dedicated to your growth and that of your team, not chasing accolades over impact.
Brands led by marketers like this—who honor the humanity behind data and balance art with science—stand the best chance of engaging both hearts and minds for decades to come.
Let me know if you have any other questions on the current state of marketing or how to prepare yourself for the future. I’m always happy to discuss in more detail!
The Futureproof Project recently hosted two events that were all about embracing AI in the marketing world. Leading the charge at these events was Futureproof member, Sunil Subhedar, a growth marketing leader from Canva and Uber.
It’s no secret: e-commerce is driving a tsunami of change across the retail landscape.
Brands need to bridge the gap between technology and culture to keep pace with change. The emergence of AI will hit us like a tsunami in the coming years. The Culture Stack is the toolkit marketers will need to activate their data and penetrate culture.