“Marketing is for companies with sucky products”

Fred Wilson’s post here(http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/02/marketing.html) on marketing prompted me to give some thought to the changing nature of marketing and advertising in this interconnected world. The post started quite the firestorm and nice to see that Fred had a quick riposte to amend and further explain his position (http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/02/marketing-version-20.html). I agree with the majority of his post and parts of many of those who commented. Yet I disagree with the main premise – meant to be incendiary I’m sure – “marketing is for companies with sucky products”.

The arc of opinion on the benefits of marketing has swung predictably – driven, no doubt, by the consequences of an increasingly transparent marketplace (via social media). After all – it isn’t about one way messaging anymore. And after the enormous overvaluation and collapse of the dot com world marketing (and it’s evil twin – advertising) is especially seen as superfluous and venal – even more so in this anxious economy where expense of any kind needs to be carefully justified and framed within a larger and more moral context.

Going way back – about 100 years back – J. Walter Thompson created house ads (http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa/) that were meant to advertise their services to prospective clients. Many of them thoughtfully presented the business challenge and agency response. Here is one for Pond’s Cream – http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa.J0069/pg.1/. And here is another describing the agency process and it’s sensitivity to studying the business and the marketplace for each of their clients – http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa.J0074/pg.1/.

Yes of course, this archive reflects the time and tastes of America a hundred years ago. It is the thoughtfulness and understanding – and the earnest insistence – of business models and manufacturing strategies that really struck me. J. Walter Thompson clearly valued client engagements (as all good advertising agencies should) where they might have been able to affect and participate in the business itself. It made sense. It made for good advertising.

When I read “marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks” I hear the anger and strong reaction to the failed decades of advertising’s (and the economy which engaged it) worst years. I understand Fred’s point about creating social hooks in applications to allow for connection. Advocates are worth more than advertisements. Word of mouth is more powerful than a 30 second spot. And it makes dead sense to create products that don’t suck. It makes for good advertising.

Creativity and not-self

I was listening to a dharma talk the other day about the Buddhist concept of Anatta or “not-self”. I had just finished reading through Hugh Dubberly’s new book – “How do you design – A Compendium of Models” which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m a sucker for diagrams that offer to map out the creative process and he has them a-plenty in his book. Yet as I was listening to the description of Anatta it occurred to me that though interesting bits of eye candy the models presented by Dubberly suggest a process that cannot be mapped. The purpose of each model is, I suppose, to prescribe and replicate a process which is essentially that – a process. So the concept of Anatta as described in Wikipedia is the “rejection of the metaphysical assertions “there is a self” and “there is a not self” as ontological views that bind one to suffering”. It pertains to Dubberly’s collection of models in that the model could never be the process and to expect them to be such would be to induce the same stresses inherent in the attempt to describe them as such. “The map is not the territory” is an apt description. Yet what I found so enjoyable in the models themselves is the creative attempt to map the territory. It is very much like looking at old maps of the world – or current ones for that matter – as documents that reveal more about the author than the subject. Thus the need to map the process is a fascinating one and an expression of our time and place. It is characteristic of an essential pragmatism that dominates our space – the space of marketing and branding – and a desire to describe and make replicable the process of creativity through boxes and arrows. They are also an expression of the anxiety of an organization that cannot “figure it out”.

In my unpracticed meditation practice there are moments when I sense the moments between the moments –the spaces between the rise of emotion and memory, anxiety and judging. It is as if I was listening to the overtones of my nature. I’m sure this is a first step in a meditation (un)practice, and perhaps a distraction, but the experience of the overtones seems to me to best describe a creative practice. For me – creativity is a practice and not a process. The way into the overtones (the process) is multivaried and the description for me reveals more about my state than my truth.

Organizationally it seems to me that a company that desires to be “creative” reveals more about their anxiety that they are perhaps quite the opposite. While the desire is genuine the prescription is usually misleading. Like Dubberly’s models, the map is not the territory. And, as we know, the best creative shops are the best creative shops because they practice creativity and are able to achieve the organizational overtones (seemingly) without effort. An organization cannot aspire to creativity without embracing the practice itself.