Lies We Tell Ourselves: Marketing Edition

I hate being called a marketer.

And from the many content strategists I heard last week distancing themselves from the oh-so-nefarious ad world—not to mention frequent assertions from the UX crowd, including one of my favorite rants on the topic from back in November—odds are good that many of you do, too.

But half a dozen years into this bizarre business of persuading and positioning, targeting and selling, I’ve decided (however grudgingly) to get a bit more comfortable with the term.

Should you?

Dirty words for dirty deeds.

I must have developed this distaste in college. Punch-drunk on long-form nonfiction and third-wave feminism, you couldn’t have paid me to take a marketing class. How banal! How insulting! How filthy! Let’s read some more Hannah Arendt and write a 3,000-word feature for the local weekly instead.

I stumbled into the ad world somewhat blindly, 22 years old and happy—no, downright ecstatic—to be paid a semi-decent wage (with benefits, no less!) to write and edit and generally roam around an agency looking for challenges.

The thrill of penning off cheeky headlines soon lost its luster, and I jumped to the web world in 2007. But I didn’t get to leave marketing behind. In fact, it has now been officially part of my very long title since November, though more by way of compromise than by choice. I won’t go into the details here, but I was asked to take a senior position that oversees folks in several disciplines, so the owners of my company figured they needed someone in the room to hold a marketing moniker.

Whatever. So it stays, and the clients I work with understand what it means and generally respect what I do. I don’t have to embrace it, but I’m through pretending it doesn’t apply to me.

Users don’t pay your invoices.

Look, I love users. I love ‘em so much I want to make them a drink and hold their hand on the beach. But if we tell ourselves that our work is all about their needs—not, say, our clients’ need to sell them more shit—we are just plain lying.

Brain Traffic’s Melissa Rach got this so right in her Confab presentation (taken out of context, and then placed back into context, quite nicely on Laura Creekmore’s blog): You can talk about user-centered methodologies all you want, but ultimately, you’re hired to meet business objectives.

Should organizations be investing some of those ad dollars in better product and service design in the first place? Absolutely. And I believe making products and services people want and enjoy requires a user-centered mindset—something the ad world has long avoided entirely (and probably can’t avoid much longer, now that controlling the message is damn near impossible).

Infiltrate, not separate.

The ad agency may have its work cut out for it, but as Karen McGrane clearly articulated late last year, it ain’t going anywhere—and it’s where the big budgets still sit.

Moreover, removing yourself from the marketing world nearly forces you to limit the scope of content strategy work to things like large-scale development efforts, which makes you pretty unlikely to bring user-focused thinking to everything else that needs it—like transactional email programs or social media efforts or any of the other million marketing tactics you can think of.

Take Cennydd Bowles’ closing plenary at this year’s IA Summit—a lovely read, and one I wish I’d heard in person: “If we want to rise to positions of senior influence, we should be open to alternative routes—product management, marketing, even technology—in which we can…spread the infectious message of user-centricity from department to department.”

Karen McGrane likened this type of infiltration to Log Cabin Republicans—admirable, perhaps, but also a shit-ton of work that many of us aren’t willing to undertake. I don’t disagree, exactly—especially not after a 12-hour day spent wrangling some CMO into investing a few pennies into a thoughtful, implementable, approach to content. But if I wanted to make lots of money with as little gut-wrenching complexity as possible, I’d stop swearing like a sailor, put on some pearls, and go rub elbows with rich old white guys.

Is it worth it?

Personally, I like being there for the hard parts. I like seeing fundamental shifts in mentality take place—especially amongst those whose minds have been so warped that they use the word “creative” as a noun without flinching.

Yes, marketing needs a swift kick in the ass. It may well also need a new name that more appropriately articulates not just bringing a product to the mass market, but designing products—and the means by which we experience them—that are more delightful as well.

But what it doesn’t need is to be left to its own devices, allowed to continue wasting people’s time and money. In fact, that would be downright irresponsible—and not just for clients, but for those users we profess to love so damn much.

So call me soulless. Call me silly. Call me a marketer, if you must. But, for the moment at least, I’ll be at my slowly evolving “full-service marketing agency,” pushing hard to change things from the inside.

Even when it feels a little dirty.

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