Of all the slams on marketing, one of the biggest is that it is, in a word, guesswork.

That distinctly pejorative view of our shared business discipline is that it is without any discipline at all. Images abound of marketers with Aquafina bottles in hand, brainstorming amidst riotous laughter, in conference rooms wallpapered in ad concept sketches.

We protest that this is an uninformed, almost-Hollywood-tainted view of us. That, far from being the job of creating first-quality BS and strategic initiatives based on wild guesses, marketing is an occupation of knowledge and information. We want the world to understand that it is a series of rational decisions resting on solid and carefully researched fact. We strive to soundly disabuse our engineering and sales and finance cousins of the view that marketing is just a bunch of guesswork.

Only problem is: it's true.

Saying so is, of course, heresy. Most especially in the eyes of all those selling services and software promising to "eliminate the guesswork from marketing." But I must tell you—based on nearly 30 years of guesswork—if ever something qualified as "marketing BS," it's phrases like that.

It makes no difference how scientific the vocabulary is that shrouds it. Fill me with the best information in the world from the best researchers money can buy. But don't talk to me about eliminating guesswork until you give me my own HAL 9000:

Good morning, Mike. The tractor must be sold through the retail channel in all states but Rhode Island, where you should use Arnie the manufacturer's rep in Providence; it must be priced at US$45,142; it must be battleship grey; it must have a seat padded with closed-cell polyethylene foam; it must be advertised with full-page, four-color ads in "Progressive Farmer and Farm & Ranch Living."

Research gives us guidance. But after the focus groups and the perception audits and the segmentation studies and the Nielsens and the customer surveys—we make those decisions based on interpretation of research data—based on experience, knowledge and creativity.

In other words: we guess.

Guess-making Is a Learned Skill

That's what makes marketing so difficult, so risky, so satisfying. It's those guesses, far more than snappy headlines or dazzling designs, that push our creativity to the limit—and put our professional necks on the line.

The best marketers are those who make the best guesses the most often. Lee Iacocca, Martha Stewart, Jeff Bezos, Meg Whitman come to mind. I've known a lot of others—names you'll never recognize. Great guess-makers, great marketers, all.

This is the organic career path of the marketer: reaching increasingly important levels of guesswork—moving from executing someone else's guesses to being the head guess-maker. From "what have you done" to "what do you think." Marketing specialist to CMO. If we want to be great marketers, we must learn how to be great guess-makers.

Great guess-makers are not born—they are not, like the white squirrel, the product of some partially predictable recessive gene. Great guess-makers are built, formed over time by diligent labor. A great guess is the product of the sum total of the guess-maker's knowledge, and experience, and creativity.

C Before P Except After Lunch

So what makes a great guess-maker? It's a big question—in some ways, an unanswerable one. And even where I do have answers... they're really only guesses.

But they are—I daresay—very good guesses.

To the four Ps, then, I propose we add the four Cs of guess-makers:

  1. Curiosity—They have to establish a base of knowledge that drives smart guesswork.

  2. Confidence—They have to believe that their guess-making is up to the challenge.

  3. Courage—They have to be unafraid to stick their neck out.

  4. Creativity—This is, after all, marketing.

All four are important disciplines. Curiosity—what we'll call from this point on the Marketing Curiosity—is the most important.

When I say curiosity, I don't mean something like a propensity to wonder. That is a trait we share with children—and even with some animals that have to get into everything. That kind of curiosity is passive, pointless, pleasurable—a delightful diversion, a daydream without direction.

The Marketing Curiosity is just the opposite. It is aggressive, ambitious, aggravating—sometimes not fun at all. It has a little bit to do with asking questions, and a lot do with searching for answers. In fact, it is just this—the search, not the answer—that informs and characterizes the Marketing Curiosity. The knowledge gained during the search is what creates great guess-makers.

The Marketing Curiosity is miserable, rigorous, neck-stiffening, eye-straining, carpel-tunnel-producing labor. It's about having the drive and the motivation and the skills to dig into a topic, pound up against one dead end after another, follow long trails to get a tiny speck of useful information, grind up against bad search queries and large documents without value, reconcile the inconsistencies between various information sources online.

Most especially, the Marketing Curiosity is about the capability to absorb and retain the information you find along the way—to be willing to digress, to track along side paths, to value the importance of learning above the importance of reaching a conclusion. And to put what you learn to use.

The Marketing Curiosity is plain hard work. The cats it kills die from overexertion.

And this is what we'll talk about next time.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (markitek.com), which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.