Time to call myself out. In 2005, my high school conducted a class-wide personality assessment. The assessment was to guide me in choosing my career path. And this was a good test for me to take, for I was a bit of a wildcard.
I did well generally—excelled at math, but spent much of my free time performing comedy and making short films—so I welcomed the chance at finding direction. In the assessment, I was tasked to read statements and indicate to what level they applied to me. For example: “I enjoy confrontation, I like working with Animals, and I wish to experience foreign cultures.” For a career in Spanish bull-fighting, please select all three.
I answered in earnest, and then a couple weeks passed by unnoticed. One fateful Monday, the results came in. The school corralled us into the gymnasium and one by one, handed each of us a printed career prospectus with our name on it.
For my generation, this was the closest we’d get to an actual sorting hat ceremony at Hogwarts, and soon we’d discover who would be a Gryffindor and who would be a licensed HVAC technician—the cavernous gym buzzed with anticipation.
The meat of the document was a pie chart cut into eight individually-colored and equal-sized categories of labor: agriculture, health care, manufacturing, research, on it went. Drawn atop this chart was a constellation of three points joined by translucent lines. The area beneath the shape represented plausible careers for that student.
For some, these shapes formed a triangle slicing across two or more categories, with peaks representing careers most likely to align with the student’s preferences. For others, their shape took the form of a diamond pendant, highly-concentrated in a specific category; a ‘dream job’ of sorts.
And for special souls, such as those who authored this fine newsletter, they offered a ninth category. As my classmates enthusiastically shared their futures, I quietly fixated upon mine. At the center of my pie chart, unnoticed by most, was a small grey hexagon. In it I found not three points but one, and above my single point, a question mark. Unknown, read my purpose in life.
A software developer, then actor, then educator, then author, then digital marketing freelancer, then head of product, then 16-years later and this disappointing disoppinionated little question mark had proved itself right: I wasn’t meant for anything, I impact everything. Such too is the fate of marketing.
Today, software is the ground layer above which many businesses are built. A lot of manual labor still takes place, but most of it in developing countries. The businesses I often know and hear of are software businesses developed by people with a mindset fixated upon zeros and ones, a mindset which until recently poisoned my marketing. And here’s where I out myself: up until last week, I was a self-titled data-driven marketer.
There’s no strict definition as to what makes one a ‘data-driven’ marketer, but as I see it, I study inputs and outputs, and choose my next move based on the numbers I swallow. How many impressions did I get? How many clicks? How many permutations did I try? Do I have a large enough sample? Can I A/B test the header copy? What’s my CPC? CPA? Blood pressure?
So deep are my processes embedded in this metric-based decision-making that I lost sight of the marketing’s higher purpose. And while marketing does serve a grand purpose, it has no specific function.
Marketing is a men’s fashion accessory. The standard clothes I wear are so utilitarian I can’t quite tell my outfits apart. Standard jeans to cover my hairy legs, standard shirts to hide my dad bod, standard hoodies to keep me slightly warmer than I otherwise would be, I may as well assemble my clothes on a conveyor belt. Each element serves its purpose, and in this way, I dress to satisfy the conditions for which I must suite myself. And then I slip on an accessory: a bright red bracelet.
A bracelet that, by my count, has no known purpose. That bracelet weighs my right hand down. I can easily misplace that bracelet or get it tangled up in my coat pocket, or God forbid caught in my shoelaces. And yet, that one out-of-place detail differentiates me, highlights something about me, leaves in others an indelible impression of who I am. It leaves them with questions, intrigue, and a memory.
That red bracelet is marketing. I can’t put a price on it. I can’t quantify its output, for it has myriad impacts, many of which I will never perceive. It will repel some, yet attract others. It is my best shot at communicating what I think makes me valuable, and if I have to ask precisely how well it achieved that aim, I miss the boat entirely.
Missing the boat entirely are many of today’s executives who believe marketing’s sole purpose is to convert customers. As a consequence, wannabe scientists have taken over marketing departments everywhere. They tweak knobs, perform experiments, and launch campaigns based on data they glean from dashboards. And curiously absent in all this “marketing” is guts, art, instinct, and passion.
More like my red bracelet, marketing’s actual purpose is unknown, but its side-effects are palpable. When a candidate drops in for an interview and has a positive impression of the brand, thank marketing for that. When a customer refers another, thank marketing for that. And when the team rallies around a new beautiful campaign, thank marketing again. I can’t put a number on it, and I can’t answer why we had to do any of it, but I know damn-well it was necessary.
Out of college, I ended up an engineer. I worked within the bounds of a hard science, one in which zeros and ones defined everything possible. But as a 15-year-old who hadn’t taken that personality test and received those ambiguous results, I was a theater kid. I made movies and dreamt up commercials for top brands as lampposts whizzed past my passenger-side window.
I won a marketing award, the only thing I ever won outside a copy of Santa Claus on VHS. Yet today, the wrong version of me runs the marketing department, the wrong kind of nerd. It’s time for the engineer to take a back seat, and for the drama kid to step up to the plate.