In a Barnes and Noble bookstore the other day, I paused before the Marketing & Advertising section, struck by a visual pattern that transcended any of the individual titles. The shelves were packed with distinctive the yellow and black covers of a well-known series.
These were books written for Dummies.
For the sake of comparison, I looked at the Science section of the store. There was a Dummies book here and there, but most of the titles were written independently, by authors who were confident that their readers wouldn’t be afraid of a complex system of ideas.
We’re not supposed to judge any book by its cover, but there’s a trend here that goes beyond any single title. The idea that marketing is a profession populated by idiots isn’t uncommon.
People love to say that marketers are idiots, to denigrate the profession as something that appeals to people of consistently low intelligence. I propose an alternative: There’s something about marketing that doesn’t fit with people’s idea of what intelligence ought to be. It’s a cultural definition of idiocy in marketing, rather than a technical one.
Whatever this cultural concept of idiotic marketers is, it’s apparently held by marketers as well as people outside the profession. After all, those shelves at Barnes and Noble filled by books for Dummies must sell fairly well if the bookstore decides to keep them there.
Intelligence is measured by a person’s ability to come up with a correct answer. It’s a problem-solving skill, and problem-solving is an activity in which scientists and engineers excel. Yet, scientists and engineers are also known for not being very skilled at communicating about the importance of their ideas.
Persuasive communication and design is what marketers specialize in, and it’s not a job for Dummies. It requires intelligence just as much as problem-solving does. Yet, it’s regarded by problem-solvers as inauthentic, because it’s based upon creative interpretation of facts, rather than detailed examination of the facts. To people who base their professional identities upon the solving of problems, the kind of work marketers do often seems like a kind of cheating, a lazy way to get out of dealing with cold, hard facts by coming up with shifty story lines that simply distract people from what really matters.
Such an interpretation of marketing, however, fails to acknowledge the higher ideals at the heart of good marketing. The best marketers help people to perceive meaning in what they do, to live with a sense of purpose. They keep people motivated in their hard work in a way that simple material motivations cannot.
Of course, many marketers don’t think of their profession in that way. Many marketers are looking for shortcuts and cheats. They’re looking for simple solutions to complex problems. They’re looking for opportunities to sell a bit of snake oil.
These marketers have accepted the idea that marketing is an inauthentic kind of work, taken up by people who can’t hack it in the disciplined, problem-solving professions. They think of themselves as Dummies, and they tend to think of consumers as Dummies as well, people who will fall for gimmicks every time. So, they’re constantly in search of cheap tricks – thus, the popularity of books for Dummies in the Marketing & Advertising section of the bookstore.
The profession of marketing needs leaders who champion a deeper, more professional vision of their work. There are marketers who pursue their work with a sense of integrity, sensitivity, and respect. There are marketers who use their intelligence to find ways to call colleagues and consumers alike to the embodiment of higher ideals. They craft stories and design experiences that ennoble people, rather than luring them into cheap, momentary pleasures.
We need more authors of books about marketing who are willing to articulate this grander vision of their work – and we need more readers who are willing to buy them. It’s time for marketers to grow up, cast off the excuse of being Dummies, and take on the worthwhile work that they are capable of.