Marketing needs more cynicism

Frank Zappa, when asked “why modern music sucks”, had an interesting answer which is highly instructive for the degradation of all sorts of artistic disciplines – not least marketing. It’s an answer you wouldn’t expect, but one which once you’ve wrapped your head around it makes perfect sense. He believed the problem began when people who actually liked music started working in the industry.

In the good old days, the theory goes, music was run by your stereotypical executive fat cats. Out-of-touch old men who couldn’t care less about the “craft” of music so long as the plebs were willing to pay for it. For them selling records was a cynical exercise; dividing the market into chunks and testing different artists to see what floated and to see what sank. The last thing on their minds was whether or not they actually “liked” the material they were selling – indeed quite the opposite. Most of it sounded like complete garbage to them, but hey, it’s what the kids are buying so we’ll go with it.

Now although we may see that as a sad way to run a creative industry, it does have one key benefit. If the decision makers are completely indifferent as to what succeeds and what doesn’t, they are far more likely to let a diverse selection of material though the gates. In practise having no taste is exactly the same as having incredibly eclectic taste, as in either event you are likely to be extremely open minded. This cynical commercialism was responsible for incredible creative leaps during the golden age of popular music from the 50s to the 80s, as the executives got out of the way and allowed the market to make the creative decisions.

Lets compare that to the way music is run today – at least according to Zappa. Rather than being dusty old codgers, music executives are now deeply passionate and knowledgeable about their art-form. They love music – and this is a serious problem. Why? Because if an executive has a creative opinion about their product they will inevitably favour that which fits with their taste. They will see it as their job to promote “good” music – meaning that which they prefer – and as such will suffocate diversity in the industry, gradually turning everything into a samey-sounding mush.

Imagine if the executives of the 50s and 60s had allowed personal “artistic” opinions to influence the music they sold? Instead of Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix we’d have been served a perpetual helping of warmed-over Glenn Miller remixes. But fortunately the record companies of the day cared more about money than music, and thus the landscape was allowed to change radically year upon year, with an ever greater diversity of product serving the diversity of the market.

By now perhaps you can see the relevance of this story in the world of marketing. The “millennial insights deck” has become something of a running joke in the industry, with every client having been subjected to some blend of recycled guff about “experience seekers” favouring brands who are “making the world a better place” and so on. The supposed ubiquity of this audience and their opinions has, in turn, created in an entire generation of brands which are seemingly engineered to appeal to the same handful of people in Shoreditch, whilst ignoring the rest of the world who aren’t part of this “millennial revolution”. Why? Because these are the people who work in marketing. These are the people who populate agencies, who populate media outlets. This isn’t, of course, a problem on the face of it – every industry has a particular demographic bent – the problem is that they care. They love what they do. They want to produce “good work”, work which “makes a difference” – and that means they will inevitably churn out an endless parade of brands which do just that; a generation of pseudo-Patagonias across a variety of industries whilst other directions are left unexplored because they don’t represent what is honourable and pure.

Marketing then, is in desperate need of a bit of cynicism; a bit of a return to the “dark old days” of the Don Draper-type figures we’re encouraged not to mourn. They neither liked nor believed in much of the work they churned out, but that didn’t matter because someone out there did. They recognised that their job was to diversify output, not homogenise it. They weren’t there to educate or elevate, but to serve; a humble approach that ironically arises from a hard-nosed commercial outlook, not an artistic one.

So if someone tells you that your brand in some way falls short of the millennial ideal, simply slip into your pin-stripe suit, fire up a cigar, put your feet up on the desk, and tell them “good”. For the supposedly “artistically bereft” has always been what sells across a variety of industries, the creative ones included, because the distinctive will beat the tasteful every time, no matter how cynically derived.

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