Q&A: Marketing Guru Seth Godin on How to Be a Better Marketer

'The cost of being wrong is lower than ever before'

Seth Godin
Seth Godin runs the altMBA program. Getty Images
Headshot of Ko Im

Key insight:

Seth Godin is a bestselling author and entrepreneur. He also runs an online course that helps marketers learn by doing, which has resonated with many industry professionals over the years.

Godin joined us on a bonus episode of Adweek’s Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad podcast to talk about how marketers can do their jobs better.

This Q&A has been edited for length. Listen to the full interview in the podcast embedded below.

I’m curious about your process and what’s top of mind now?
Godin:
My process has always been the same. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I think that everything happens, and then we make up a reason; but in the marketplace, in our culture, there tends to be reliable reasons, causes, effects that we can predict based on how something works or doesn’t work.

So if I see something in the world and I don’t understand why it’s working, I need to come up with another way to explain culture. Like, why is it that people are waiting in line to buy a Supreme hoodie for $250? If I can’t explain it, then I’m walking around thinking that everything is just magical. And it’s not. What we have is the sum total of how human beings behave. And our job as marketers is to help figure that out.

How does one learn to ride a bike in the marketing world? 
So the altMBA is our flagship; there’s no videos in it. All it is: small groups of people, five are at a time in a cohort of 120, with alumni coaches taking them through 14 prompts. And in the course of a month, they’ll give and get hundreds of pieces of feedback, more feedback than they’ve gotten in their entire career.

And what you do when you work through a prompt is you practice making assertions. You learn to make decisions, you learn to go faster, you learn to see and be seen. And that’s a deep emotional shift for most people who have a job because it is not about compliance. It’s about leadership. And leadership isn’t the same as management. Leadership is voluntary. Leadership involves pathfinding, figuring out where to go next.

But the reason it works is because then we say, ‘Alright, take this idea and apply it to your work,’ what happens is that people start workshopping their marketing in front of their peers. And too often, we hesitate to do that because we’re afraid. And so you’ve got all the people on Madison Avenue, who have a lot of bluster because they’re afraid to talk about why a campaign might or might not work. So they simply pretend it’s magic.

But it’s not magic. It’s an intentional act, designed to get under the skin of a few people and cause a change to happen. And if you can’t articulate it, then you’re a little bit of a charlatan, like we would never go to a doctor if she couldn’t articulate why a stent is going to make our heart work better. Well, I don’t think you should hire an ad agency that can’t articulate why an ad campaign is going to work.

It’s really about communication and practice when the opportunity comes up at your job.  
That didn’t used to be the case. What you were supposed to do in your job in the old days was what your boss wanted. And this hierarchical industrial approach goes all the way back to the magic of Mad Men and Bewitched and all the things that we think we’re supposed to do as marketers or people at agencies, etc.

But that’s gone. That the depth of the hierarchy, even at the giant Unilevers and Procter & Gambles, the hierarchy’s gone from 11 people from the top to the bottom to, like, three, which means that everyone who’s on the team has to contribute way more initiative and insight than they used to.

You also say one of the goals is to work faster. That’s changed. Is practicing riding a bike going to make you ride faster?
At my first job, my boss used to be on at Frito-Lay. And he told us that he had spent a year on the redesign of the Lay’s potato chip bag. Now, it’s probably true that there are still people who are spending a year redesigning the container for Oreos or whatever, but not most of us. Most of us are moving way faster than that, because the cost of being wrong is lower than ever before. And the need for fast feedback is more than ever before. So I believe that most of the time, we’re going slow.

We’re going slow because we have to go to more meetings. And we’re going slow because we’re waiting for someone else to take responsibility. And so the skill that you learn isn’t just the skill of, ‘I can ride a bike.’ It’s the skill of being willing to fall down. It’s the skill of being open to trying a different way to be in the world. And what we see among big companies that are faltering when technology in the culture changes is they’re not faltering because they’re dumb. They’re faltering because they’re afraid.

It’s gotten more selfish, a lot more selfish. And we justify it by talking about the competition: ‘If I don’t cut corners, someone else will. If I don’t race to the bottom, somebody else will. If I don’t ask for better terms, or if I don’t mislead people, someone else will.’ And we are seeing one industry after another suffering the consequences of racing to the bottom, that if you’re in the financial services business and all you can do is the kind of shenanigans that Wells Fargo did.

"What we get to do is make promises and keep them. That is the thrilling part of being a marketer, because we're choosing to lean outside of the established industrial standard."
Seth Godin, Author and entrepreneur

In one of your books, you talk about how marketing shouldn’t be selfish. Do you think it’s gotten less selfish over time, or is that where some are failing? 
Those are symptoms of racing to the bottom. Boeing raced to the bottom and they said, ‘Look, we’re a public company, we’re competing with Airbus, we have no choice but to cut corners.’ Well, yeah, they did have a choice. And the choice was they could have raced to the top instead. And if they had, they wouldn’t have lost billions and billions of dollars and killed innocent people. So there are consequences.

I think that when we talk about brands we admire, when we look at organizations that are outperforming, it’s because we believe in them. We want to believe them because we have an identity wrapped up in who they are. And in my talks, I put up a slide of a bunch of people who have some tattoos, and all the tattoos are from Harley Davidson. And I say, ‘Almost no one gets a Suzuki tattoo.’ And the lesson there is: That’s a choice. It’s a choice to make something tattoo-worthy. And the way you get to be tattoo-worthy is not by trying to maximize return on equity for your shareholders.

From where you sit today, who are the brands racing to the top and becoming tattoo-worthy?
Well, every time I mentioned a brand in a positive way, they fall apart, so that’s the golden curse.

Haha, the Godin curse!
So instead my answer is, tell me a brand you admire. Because if you admire it, I know why. You admire it because it’s got some identity for you. Almost nobody wants to go to Avis instead of Hertz, or Hertz instead of Avis, because they’ve both persuaded us that they’re the same. And the same with bottled water. If bottled water is all pure, then just buy the cheap one.

And then I think about what it means to have an actual brand versus a logo. If Nike had a hotel, I think we would all agree that we can imagine what it would be like, but if Hyatt had a brand of sneakers, we have no clue what it would be like. That’s because Hyatt only has a logo. But Nike has a brand. And what it means to have a brand is that you stand for something, and some people don’t like it. But everyone knows the promise that you are making and keeping. And what we get to do is make promises and keep them. That is the thrilling part of being a marketer, because we’re choosing to lean outside of the established industrial standard.

How do you want marketers today to be better? What is the choice they can make, or does it come in the thinking of making the choice—intention?
Every marketer who decides to be a selfish short-term narcissistic profit taker, who is cutting corners and hiding, has made that choice. We don’t have to do that. You can say to your team, ‘This product you want me to sell? It’s crap, I’m not going to push it.’ You can say to the team, ‘Oh, you want me to spam people who trust us? Not going to do it.’

It’s your fingers on the button. You don’t have to press the button. As marketers, if we’re truly professionals, we’ve got to take responsibility for what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. We should have the confidence to never say, ‘I was just doing my job.’ Because we can do better than that. Marketing is what changes our consumption. Marketing decides whether someone’s going to vape or not. Marketing decides whether someone’s going to get elected or not. So we’re responsible for life or death every day, and we should act that way. That is my mission.


@koimtv ko.im@adweek.com Ko Im is the community editor at Adweek and co-host of Adweek's podcast Yeah, That's Probably an Ad.
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