Two articles published this week have caught my attention despite my recently self-imposed “information diet.” They rise above the din because of the keen observations they make on the changing workforce at advertising agencies.

“There’s a lot of inexperienced people on the ground doing a lot of grunt work.” – Forrester analyst Joanna O’Connell in Agencies in the Age of Machines by Brian Morrissey

“Accepting that there will be fewer and fewer staffers at the agency doing the grunt work of RFPs and spreadsheets: Do you really see more than a tiny handful of those people being retrained and redirected into right-brain Marketecture jobs?” – Upstream Group founder and CEO Doug Weaver in Brave New Agency

The disruptive force here is the rise of automated, programmatic buying machines. These machines eliminate manual human toil and efficiently grind towards their narrow objectives.

These articles remind me of the legend of John Henry vs. the steam-powered hammer.  In this folk tale, the status quo of hard manual labor is disrupted by a new technology: the steam-powered hammer. The laborers’ hero, John Henry, challenges the machine to a race. Through super-human strength and determination, John Henry wins the race. However, he dies at the finish line from over-exertion.

Is the digital media workforce composed of modern day John Henry’s? Will we suffer the fate of John Henry and die in our race against the machine? That’s one possible future.

Or can we adapt from laborer to knowledge worker? For this, we have to move from driving spikes to driving strategy. We have to move beyond today’s sledgehammer – Microsoft Excel – to tools that free our time and our brains to focus on higher-value pursuits. We have to train our right brain. Unfortunately, many won’t make the transition and will become obsolete. But those who adapt will survive and thrive.