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The Importance of Marketing Craft

2011 May 18
by Greg Satell

I recently met a cousin of mine who is starting out in his marketing career.  He’s a very bright, enthusiastic young guy who is a bit frustrated with his job at a major publisher.

Previously, he had worked at small, innovative firms and now feels like just a cog in a big machine.  Even worse, he believes that he’s not learning anything.  All the exciting stuff seems to be passing him by.

It’s a shame that all the crap that gets hyped by mindless digital maniacs ends up having that effect.  In reality, my bright young cousin is acquiring skills that much of the digital world still needs to develop – the essential elements of marketing craft.

Marketing Craft vs. Marketing Crap

Of all business disciplines, marketing is the most instantly appealing.  While other areas, such as finance, accounting or even management can seem like endless drudgery, marketing looks inspiring and creative.  Very few would jump at the chance to comment on their company’s capital structure, but everybody likes to talk about marketing.

There’s some truth to these notions.  Marketing can indeed be a lot of fun and certainly there is no shortage of opportunities to be creative.  Nevertheless, marketing is a job.  It requires skill, knowledge, experience and, most of all, must produce results.

Unfortunately, much of this has been lost on the digital world.  There’s so much that is new and exciting, all of that “old economy” marketing stuff often seems passé. Why suffer the mundane when you can tweet your way to success?

Make no mistake:  marketing without craft is marketing crap.

Elements of Marketing Craft

After a few minutes of discussion, it became clear that, while my cousin found himself somewhat removed from the exciting world of start-ups, he was learning how to do some very valuable things.  For example:

Templating: One of the chief frustrations for young people starting out in marketing is that they don’t get to be creative or innovative.  Instead, they find themselves making small variations on standard themes.  What could be more boring?

In actuality, working with templates is an important skill.  True professionals know to resist the urge to change what works in the name of being “original.”  Understanding the subtleties of what to change and why is far more important and sensible than trying to reinvent the wheel each time.

Incidentally, web developers understand this, which is why they invented CSS.  In a similar vein, usability experts emphasize the importance of following conventions.  Many people who call themselves digital marketers, on the other hand, have never built anything, so the concept is often lost on them.

Briefing: Probably the most neglected skill in the digital marketing world is giving and taking briefs.  Often, the concept is confused with generating a technical specification.  The briefing process involves far more than that.

The essence of taking a brief is asking good questions in order to establish goals and intent.  Generally speaking, people don’t really know what they want and it’s the supplier’s job to help them define it.  That’s easier said than done.

People who give briefs, for their part,  need to learn to speak in terms of goals rather than dictating implementation (i.e. “I want to do social media.”).  If you can’t verbalize clearly what you want to achieve, your chances of success will be slim to none.

Briefing is a skill that comes with time and experience.

Building Effective Presentations: Good presentations should be as short as possible.  It’s also nice if they have a point, which makes it so much more worthwhile for the people who are going to have to sit through them.

Far too often, digital presentations are too packed full of jargon and buzzwords to be meaningful.  The purpose of a presentation is to communicate, not to show everybody how many acronyms you can use.

Framing Ideas: Ideas don’t live in a vacuum, but need to be put in context to be effective.  Your ability to do that is a direct result of the number and quality of ideas you come across.  You get infinitely more opportunities in this regard when you work for an established company than when you work for a narrowly focused start-up.

Getting Paid: I recently met with a senior executive of one of the world’s biggest ad agencies who lamented that they often lose people to hot young digital shops.  However, he said that they often came back.  Why?  Most of the hot young agencies aren’t very profitable.

While innovation is fun and exciting, it’s standard solutions that drive profitability (which is how they became standard in the first place).  In my cousin’s case, the stuff he was churning out with such regularity that it became boring was generating more cash than whole start-up companies generate in a year.

A business is only a business if it makes money.  Poverty and creativity are two completely different things.

The Big Idea Paradox

Many people will say that marketing is about big ideas and, to a certain extent, that’s true.  Home runs, touchdowns and scoring goals are the reason we watch any sport.  However, in order to come up with a big idea that works, you’ll inevitably have to spend a lot of time with quite ordinary ones.

Moreover, as I wrote before in a post about technological evolution, big, breakthrough ideas are inevitably achieved through combining smaller more conventional ones.  It is only through a thorough knowledge of the ordinary and mundane that the truly extraordinary can emerge.

In order to be consistently successful you need to perfect your craft and that’s as true in marketing as it is in any other field.  While that might seem impressive or exciting, it does have the virtue of being true.

– Greg

12 Responses leave one →
  1. May 18, 2011

    Really enjoyed this one. The basics of any profession can seem rather mundane and “boring.” But if you don’t learn them to the point were you can excel at them you will never produce anything amazing.

  2. May 18, 2011

    Thanks John. Glad you liked it!

  3. May 18, 2011

    Hi Greg,

    “True professionals know to resist the urge to change what works in the name of being “original.” Understanding the subtleties of what to change and why is far more important and sensible than trying to reinvent the wheel each time.”

    Someone might deem that passage Luddite, but I think it is right on point.

    For example, after I finished grad school, I taught magazine editing and production. In that class, we divided up into groups of four or five students, and each group was charged with creating a 32-page magazine that focused on student life the university.

    As the students brainstormed the titles and direction of their publications, I would eagerly wait to see which group would ask if they could orient typeface parallel with the spine of the magazine. Without fail, one group would always ask—and I would always forbid it.

    Invariably, they would accuse me of stifling creativity. When I asked them why they wanted to do that, the best answer was nothing more than, “Because it’s different.”

    But the simple fact is that orienting the type that way creates a magazine that is difficult to hold and read. All magazines are printed with the text perpendicular to the spine because that’s what works. There is no need to change that fundamental design element.

    I see a lot of similarities between those students and digital maniacs.

  4. May 19, 2011

    I couldn’t agree more, Brett! Creativity is only useful if it solves a problem.

    – Greg

  5. May 23, 2011


    I especially like the part where you talk to clients about how to give a brief. After taking literally thousands of briefs over my years in marketing, I can’t even begin to say how many started out with the client having no idea what they needed to tell me, other than implementation details. I recognize that’s is my job to steer the client in the right direction, but it sure is a lot easier when they know, at least, that they’re need to provide (at a minimum) some direction!

    And this seems to happen even with marketers who have been marketing for years–there seems to be something about the beginning of projects that has clients forget the lessons they have learned previously. I have been wondering why for years.

    I think they get excited, then lose the lessons from previous projects when their amygdala takes over the cerebral function. And this is where going back to our standard brief makes so much sense; we have our years of experience that is built into that brief to rely on.

    Which is the other thing about templating–good template really are the accumulation of years of experience. The trick is knowing when that applies and doesn’t, and that experience in itself can take years to develop.

    As usual, nicely done!


  6. May 23, 2011


    I agree. I think that clients who can give effective briefs are rare indeed. However, I’ve also found that it’s possible to pull a good brief out.

    I once knew a woman in Poland who was a master at it. She would ask basic questions and then follow up with more specific ones until she got her brief. She was relentless, but in the nicest way possible “So you mean kinda….”

    – Greg

  7. June 14, 2011

    Hi Greg,
    As usual, a very good blog post from you.
    The basic skill sets are definitely lacking in both marketing departments and advertising agencies and digital…

  8. June 14, 2011

    Very true, Hans. What’s really disturbing is how many skills have been lost in the name of “strategy” while “implementation” has become a dirty word.

    – Greg

  9. June 17, 2011

    A lot of any craft is detailed and mundane in its particulars. I was thinking this morning about another new event I have helped launch and the fact that I think of business as a series of science experiments, while many people prefer to think in terms of fictional stories, hunches and surmises – more fun and seemingly creative superficially but much less likely to create profitable outcomes. Creating and selling fiction is a business but business can not be fiction.

  10. June 17, 2011

    Very true. I’m a much bigger fan of small ideas rigorously pursued than big ideas dreamed up!

    – Greg

  11. June 29, 2011

    “Good presentations should be as short as possible.”

    This post fits the bill 😉

  12. June 29, 2011

    Thx. 🙂

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