Marketing is Art with a Job

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This is a Porsche 911 at an industrial design museum I visited in Munich, Germany. Its timeless form has endured since the 70s and earned it a spot in many design museums.

Even though this Porsche 911 found its final parking space just a floor below paintings by Matisse, Macke and Marc, it’s not art.

Product designers juggle many constraints artists don’t face: The thing needs to house an engine, provide safety, insulate from noise, be aerodynamic… the list goes on. 

If it didn’t do those things, the Porsche 911 might still be beautiful. It would turn from design into sculpture: An object that only exists for its own sake. 

Both sculpture and design can be beautiful and transformative. But while they’re both aesthetically pleasing physical objects, they’re different: Design has a job, art is unemployed.

Art with a job: Why creativity isn’t everything

The same is true in marketing. It’s not enough for a logo to be aesthetically pleasing. It needs to embody the company it represents. It needs to work contexts from website to packaging. A logo is not art. It has a job.

Good copy is the same: It’s not there to sound cool, poetic or creative. It’s there to do a job. To sell a product, to persuade, to educate. To be effective, it needs to be clear, concise, and on-brand. If it’s not those things, it’s not good copy. Copy is words with a job.

I made a 2x2 matrix. I am now a management consultant.
I made a 2x2 matrix. I am now a management consultant.

All of marketing is like this: If it doesn’t accomplish its goal, it has failed. No matter how entertaining, creative or poetic it is. As advertising godfather Claude Hopkins put it:

The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its actual sales.

-Claude Hopkins

I don’t think that’s totally right. Yes, the first purpose is to achieve a measurable goal (sales, donations, funding etc.). 

But this viewpoint is myopic: There are many advertisements, websites and infomercials that sell well—until they don’t. Anyone who’s spent time in the jungles of direct response marketing knows:

Overblown promises, fake scarcity and pressure sales tactics sell.

They just don’t sell forever. Because customers feel tricked and stop buying from those companies. Marketing that’s effective in the long run builds on respect and trust. 

So while marketing needs to sell to be good, you unlock something else once you’ve done that. 

Once you’ve satisfied the constraints of the media you work in and the purpose you’re creating for, you’ve unlocked creativity. 

Level Up: Creativity unlocked

The same way the Porsche 911 layered beauty on top of functionality, marketing layers creativity on top of persuasion. 

Marketing at its best is persuasion with a soul.

This 1997 Apple ad is persuasive: The way it tells you you can change the world? How you’re a revolutionary by buying Apple? How it equates you with Einstein, Gandhi and Lennon?

Yes, it creates a desire to buy Apple products. But it also inspires people 25 years later. Compare that to the forgettable ads that scream their product name until they infiltrate your brain and you relent.

The best marketing not only sells, but also makes our world more interesting, more beautiful, and more humane. It has an element of costly signaling: “We have so many resources we can make something awesome for you!”

This is true for copywriting as well: As long as you communicate your message and inspire action, you can brighten your readers’ day and be entertaining, motivating and inspiring.

And for design: You accomplished your job of communicating? Good, now you can make it beautiful! 

Marketing is art with a job. But it also has hobbies. 

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