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5 Things Your Friends and Family Will Say About Your Marketing Career

I love marketing. There, I said it.

To some people, it may sound like “I love lying” or “I love stealing.” They’re wrong about that. But I don’t blame my social circle for not getting what I do or why. Hardly anyone gets it, except for colleagues in the business.

Marketing is everywhere, but for most people it seems to emerge from nowhere. They don’t think about the people behind it, or wonder about what they do and why. Here are just five of the many things that people might say when you introduce yourself as a marketer — and why they’re wrong.

1. “So You Do Advertisements?”

When I once mentioned I was on a tight deadline to get a client’s website done, my brother said, “Wait, you do websites?” Uh, yes, and a whole lot more. People are often painfully aware of advertising: It’s what interrupts their favorite TV shows, pops up over the web article they were trying to read, or blocks the view on a road trip.

Advertising is the traditional core of consumer marketing. The great TV series Mad Men provides a simplified look at where ads come from and how they work (at least when the characters take time out from drinking and misbehaving long enough to do some actual work). A big turning point in the show comes when the agency expands beyond print ads in 1962, granting Harry Crane’s request to establish a one-person television department.

A much bigger turning point is hinted at in the final season, when Harry convinces the agency to install a great big computer in what was formerly the creative team’s concepting lounge. That happens in 1969, just before a similar computer would help put a man on the moon. Hardly anyone but Harry could see how it was relevant to marketing.

How things have changed. Yes we do print advertising, but we also do websites, video, social media, blogs, technical papers, events, training presentations, webinars, infographics and demos. We do brand development, strategy, positioning, naming, style and concepting. We do SEO, paid search, analytics and more. Marketing touches just about every aspect of business and work life, and we have a hand in all of it. I think that’s pretty exciting.

2. “You’re Selling People Stuff They Don’t Need.”

I was slumming at a party with a former co-worker, current friend and future marketing hall-of-famer. The two of us got into a conversation with an interesting, enthusiastic guy in the news business. He regaled us with tales of working first at the Chicago Tribune then as a representative for King Features, traveling all over the country selling comics, puzzles, opinion columns and such for placement in local newspapers.

Then he asked us what we do, and my friend began with, “We work in marketing.” Our new acquaintance cut her off with, “Oh, so you try to convince people to buy things they don’t need.” She answered, “I think of it as helping people solve problems.” I thought that was absolutely perfect.

In the world of consumer marketing, there are some things people do need, others they want, and many things they’d be just as well off without. If I were marketing a combination iPad and toilet roll holder or the Hutzler 571 banana slicer, I might have taken the feature salesman’s criticism to heart. I might feel just a little dirty. But I don’t. I’m proud to be a business-to-business marketer.

Our clients are passionate about what they do. They offer products and services that help people do their jobs better. The stakes are often very high. And when everyone succeeds, the world is a better place. More collaborative healthcare, better architecture, more efficient and beautiful lighting, easier access to outdoor adventures, safer workplaces, improved dental procedures — I could go on and on.

We do promote our clients’ products, but it’s not at all like hawking triple bacon cheeseburgers (or miracle weight-loss supplements). You have to put in the effort to truly understand the markets your clients serve and the specific ways they’re advancing the state of the art and improving lives. You learn a lot about how the world works — stuff that most people don’t think about or don’t even know exists.

And then, if you want to create effective marketing, you tell the truth about what you’ve learned in the most helpful and engaging way you can. It can be hard work, but deeply satisfying and worthy of pride — even if other people don’t quite get that.

You take pride in working with people who share your passion, collaborating to make the work better with every project and every revision. 

3. “Marketing Doesn’t Really Work.”

I often hike with a small circle of friends in the imposing Wasatch Mountains that rim my Salt Lake City home. There’s always a cooler waiting in the car at the end of the trail. During one hike, a friend was asking about what I do. I explained, and he said, “I never pay any attention to marketing. It has no effect on me.” When the beers came out, he passed around a brand none of us had ever seen before. 

“What’s this? Did you bring us something special? Tell us about it,” came the queries. He explained that he’d never seen it before either and was as eager to try it as we were. “What made you buy it?”

“It has an interesting name and the can looks way cool, don’t you think?” Enough said.

Although a beer can is an example of consumer marketing, B2B also works best when the message is delivered with creative appeal. This is something that businesses have had to learn. In many industries, you don’t have to look very far to find the same desktop-published data sheets and static websites you might have seen 20 years ago.

But that doesn’t work anymore because, really, who wants to look at that stuff? Consumer marketing led the way, but now people want, expect and deserve meaningful engagement in their business lives. Great marketing leads investigators to click through to the details that matter to them, surprises them with unexpected insight into their problems and how to solve them, encourages them to ask questions, and offers advice they can use through their preferred channels. Great B2B marketing evokes unexpected possibilities — just like a well-designed beer can.

What doesn’t work is not marketing, or marketing that doesn’t know how to make a difference.

4. “You Should Be Following Your Passion.”

I’m not going to lie here, this one kind of stings. Not because it represents how I feel in any way, but because I’m surrounded by such smart, creative people who I can’t help but compare myself against. Do they think I’ve sold out?

My brother, a guitar and mandolin builder, often says, “I hate marketing,” although he’s actually pretty good at doing it in his own way. In fact, he probably couldn’t succeed without two of the most affordable and effective marketing tactics: product trials and word of mouth.

My father, a highly accomplished newspaper editor, writer and historian, joked upon learning I had taken my first marketing job, “I can’t believe my son is a flack.” Of course, without the flacks his newspaper would have had no means of support.

My mother, herself a brilliant historian, scholar and writer, once introduced me as, “This is Tom. He wanted to be a professor.” True, I went to graduate school with that intention, and even taught writing and literature for a few years. My sister asked, “Don’t you ever miss that?”

Hmm, late nights grading papers, publish-or-perish, departmental politics, moving every couple of years chasing ephemeral jobs. No, I don’t miss it. At all. Except the part where you get to read good books, and I can do that on my own.

“Follow your passion” is like “find your soul mate.” It presumes you were born to do something. You just need to recognize what it is. And then be willing to live in poverty if your passion turns out to be writing obscurely metaphorical short stories.

There’s an argument to be made for “cultivating” your passion instead. It’s not something that comes to you in a vision, fully formed. True passion is nurtured by honing your craftsmanship through continuous work, evaluation and refinement. You choose to do something and learn to love it by learning to do it well.

And you take pride in working with people who share your passion, collaborating to make the work better with every project and every revision.

5. “You’re Working for the Man.”

Who is this “man”? Carl? He’s a little goofy, but is a generous, optimistic, outgoing guy who’s fanatical about making Symmetri the most purposeful agency in the business. Anyway, Carl may sign the checks, but I don’t work for him.

I work for my colleagues — the smartest, most creative and entertaining friends you could ever wish for. I work for my clients — talented, dedicated people who are making the world a better place, and who come to us with opportunities to help them do it.

And I work for myself — learning as much as I can, refining my creative thinking and writing skills, enjoying the teamwork involved in getting from good to great, and having some fun along the way.

Marketing isn’t for everyone. But if you want to create meaningful interactions — with engaging teammates, avid clients and attentive customers — it might be for you. Whatever your education or experience, check us out and send us your résumé.