I played the piano for 8 years when I was a kid. I could sight-read Bach, Mozart...anyone, really. But I was never as good a musician as my friends who understood musical theory. The theory just never interested me. So I couldn't take piano playing any further than I did.
In college, however, I was obsessed with literary theory. Barthes, de Saussure, Derrida, even Foucault - these were my supermen. Understanding the mythologies and iconic systems we use to explain our world to others was fascinating. I hope to spend my retirement exploring these ideas.
Some readers may remember I love comics and graphic novels. I recently picked up Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. He begins the book with a broad explanation of comic theory (yes, there is such a thing and it's really interesting). Citing everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the Bayeux Tapestry to Rene Magritte's famous pipes, he begins with theory of - our philosophy of - sequential art.
But today, I'm a marketer. And it's likely that you are as well. How should we interact with theory?
Theory Takes Work
If abstract elements like music, literature, and comics have theory, surely we can agree that theory will be useful for our marketing.
And let's face it - your marketing will suck without theory.
If your designers create something beautiful without knowing how it will sell the product: Fail. If your copywriters dream of being Hemingway rather than John Caples: Fail. If you can't communicate a product's benefits to the consumer: Epic fail.
You must know your craft. We ought to say we "practice" marketing the way lawyers "practice" law. Every day is an opportunity to learn more. David Ogilvy understood this:
We prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests. (page 20, Confessions of an Advertising Man)
In other words, you might hit on a "Got Milk?" every once in awhile, but that's no way to run a business.
Study, Study, Study
How much do you study your craft? I'm not talking about skimming through Ad Week while you're on the toilet. I'm talking about really learning it, practicing it, and molding yourself into the best there is.
Ogilvy wasn't charmed by our reliance on art or a flowery sentence. Later in the same book, he stated: "This willful refusal to learn the rudiments of the craft is all too common. I cannot think of any other profession which gets by on such a small corpus of knowledge. (my emphasis)"
Read as much as you can. I'm nowhere near the best at what I do, but I'm trying. I recommend learning from these sources.
But look outside the fishbowl as well. Learning the ways in which our brains operate can make you more persuasive. Learning how and why people make decisions can help you inspire their future choices. Look for inspiration in weird and wonderful places.
What About You?
How are you using theory to improve your marketing? Do you think about the philosophical ramifications of why you do what you do?
I firmly believe that history bears proof that tough practice trumps a fuzzy type of innate "genius" any day of the week. So how are you going to out-work your competitors this week? How will theory make the difference between an impression and a sale? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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(Image of Roland Barthes courtesy of believekevin via Flickr)