For years, I've wondered why the rhetoric of self-actualization and self-help is so prevalent in the world of marketing advice. It started with Tom Peters' emphasis on human potential and the search for excellence back in the 1980s but continues to play a role in the work of Seth Godin, Sally Hogshead, Chris Brogan, Mitch Joel and many others today. I often ask myself, "Why is that?"
Marketing: The Feel-Bad Profession
My main theory has always been that---given the general cultural disdain for marketing as an activity considered inherently deceptive, manipulative, and focused on getting people to spend money they don't have on things they don't need---marketers tend to feel worse about themselves than others in the enterprise.
Add to this cultural perception the organizational perception, held by some on the sales side and even in the C-suite, that marketers are profligate money-wasters, unaccountable for revenue, and chronically out of touch with customers. It's a small wonder that marketers flock to folks offering a path to improved self-esteem and a heightened sense of self-worth.
Having been laid off from a marketing job several years ago, I'll admit to having also shared these feelings of insecurity about my role as a marketer (more accurately, a marketing communications professional—the problem of reductively equating marketing with marketing communications is the subject for another post). Because I knew that feeling, I believed that the marketer's hunger for self-help tips came from a a place of lack and represented little more than the unsettled soul's search for a healing balm.
And then I spoke with Cisco's social media manager, Tim Washer. (You can hear my entire conversation with Tim in this week's episode of Marketing Smarts).
What's Your Calling?
Tim is a funny guy and, in fact, has for many years pursued, both directly and obliquely, a career in comedy. When I asked him about that pursuit and what drew him to comedy in the first place, Tim answered by citing the words of theologian Frederick Buechner:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Comedy, for Tim, was that source of deep gladness. In response to its call, he began taking improv classes (his first teacher was, in her pre-SNL days, Amy Pohler), writing, doing stand-up, and eventually contributing, as writer and actor, to The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, SNL and The Onion.
Having a calling, however, doesn't in and of itself mean that you can feed your family. "I learned quickly," Tim told me, "there wasn't too much difference for me between having a comedy career and being unemployed. They were, from a financial standpoint, very similar."
So, Tim had to get a day job, starting in sales and eventually moving into marketing.
Marketing and the Better Angels of Our Nature
Moving into marketing did not involve, as it turned out, giving up on his vocation. Tim has been able to inject a healthy dose of comedy into his work, first at IBM and in myriad ways at Cisco. But the fact that you there's a place for humor in marketing—even B2B marketing!—was not the lesson I learned from speaking with Tim.
The real lesson was this: People in marketing respond to self-help rhetoric and the promise of self-actualization not simply because they feel like losers but because we all harbor the desire to spend the brief time allotted us both following our dreams and, somehow, through that pursuit, to serve and nurture the world.
Is that too lofty a goal for mere marketers? Perhaps. But with the increased emphasis today in marketing on helping real people solve real problems, not only with our products but even with our marketing materials themselves, I would say that we're moving in the right direction.