What IS Marketing?


What is Marketing? Many people think they know the answer, but I see evidence that a lot of people don’t. I see it in the classroom even after I tell students, at the very least, they need to learn what marketing is and isn’t, and they still get it wrong on the final exam.

I see it misunderstood by CEOs and presidents, founders and executives, even marketing executives. And I see it wrong in job postings and titles in businesses all the time, which is why I’m writing about it here.

Please don’t think I’m trying to shame anyone or find fault. My effort here is to explain what marketing really is, and what it isn’t and how it became so mixed up and misunderstood, which causes many problems in business and lives, even. Lots.

I’ll explain first what marketing isn’t. It’s not advertising. It’s not sales. It’s not SEO, social media “marketing,” or a long list of positions that employers want to slice off marketing and hire for at a discounted wage.

Marketing is about identifying a solution and bringing a solution to market that solves problems and is presented to the person or team that needs a remedy at the right moment, at the right place, and the right price. Read that again because that is what marketing is.

How to do that involves market research, focus groups, surveys, advanced data analysis, regression analysis, multivariate analysis, trial and error with positioning, price, and timing. It’s an art and a science. It’s not easy, and it’s expensive to do right. This is why most businesses hijack that term and use it to represent activities that it isn’t. For hiring purposes, sales purposes, sometimes due to ignorance, define an activity that is something else.

Marketing itself is sophisticated and precise, and an activity that requires a quantitative and qualitative approach and tools. Scatterplots, algorithm development, advanced surveying knowledge and interpretation, and a litany of skills and knowledge aren’t usually taught on the job or picked up just by starting a job. That probably hurts a lot of egos of CEOs and business owners that didn’t go to business school, but it’s true. In fact, you wouldn’t even know these things to be true unless you were familiar with what’s taught in B-Schools or worked for a Fortune 500 company in higher marketing functions.

I recognized this phenomenon when I began looking for jobs in the marketing area in Louisville, KY. Businesses were hiring for marketing, alright, but what they really were looking for were people who know to advertise. Managing ad budgets, knowing how to search for advertising-friendly terms in Google, and how to do social media advertising. Most of the “Marketing” firms here aren’t marketing firms at all. They’re advertising agencies, offering SEO, social media, and web design strategies that are in line with advertising and not marketing.

Don’t think so? If you have taken or taught MArketing courses in a University setting as I have, there isn’t one single thing teaching anything about SEO, social media management, search engine marketing, inbound marketing or any of the other activities that many marketing firms revolve around. Those things aren’t taught in a University. They’re either taught on the job or usually on someone’s own time by taking lots of online courses and studies. There are some great resources available, not surprisingly. There’s a lot of money in it. Just look at Hubspot, Salesforce, Adobe, Moz, or any number of online “marketing experts” like Neil Patel, Ann Smarty, Ann Handey, Mari Smith, Rand Fishkin and a hundred other very well-paid “digital marketing experts.” What they are are experts at digital advertising using digital formats and channels. But they don’t teach much at all about marketing.

I asked via Twitter, an acquaintance who’s a local marketing firm’s CEO, if he looks at where job candidates went to college. And he said he doesn’t. If he were an IT, accounting, or law firm, he would, which proves my point.

They aren’t hiring for sophistication or high knowledge of marketing. They want someone who has done advertising or worked at an ad agency, a small part of marketing but not marketing itself by a mile. Otherwise, it would matter how intensely and rigorously and to what degree they’ve learned marketing. There’s a big difference between a Harvard MBA and a “marketing” or web design degree from the University Down the Street/Online, and it also denotes a lot about the person holding the degree. Their level of astuteness, intelligence, drive, goal-setting and achievement, self-worth and experience, and professional and personal network. The roles most firms hire for are splinters off the marketing tree and necessary activities of a lot of marketing plans. It creates and sustains revenue, generates data for marketers to analyze, and opens new opportunities for future marketing efforts. So it is very important. But nearly no marketing professor knows anything about SEO, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn advertising, the tools there used like SEM Rush, Google Analytics and Moz. If you asked them their eyes would glaze over. The students they teach know about them. But the professors use Qualtrics and survey design software for actual marketing, scatterplots, regression analysis  and multivariate analysis.

I pondered if colleges would be missing an opportunity not teaching “digital marketing” and realized it’s too dynamic and fast-paced for most Universities to keep up with, budget for, and do properly.  Most classes in college these days are nothing more than material handed out by the professor that the textbook publisher created for them to use with their books and past teachers developed(usually adjuncts), test bank multiple choice automatically-graded tests, You-tube videos to watch in lieu of actual Socratic instruction and entire class times to be used at students’ discretions for “group work.” If you want to earn six figures, never work and get you rear kissed all the time for nothing, become a marketing professor at a State satellite school.

I myself have an English degree from a large State School and an MBA from a large state school. Both have high accreditations and rankings for their individual programs. They aren’t Ivy League, but I have close friends that went to Ivy Leagues for both undergraduate, master’s, and teaching levels in my network. I interact and commiserate with them all the time. My programs are ranked and were rigorous. I went to school to notch myself up a few levels in business sophistication and my network, and I did, successfully. College is mostly what you make of it and what you put into it. I’ve spent the better part of my long life on a college campus somewhere in some capacity.

So what’s the point or big deal? This explains why when I am called upon to help business owners find marketing opportunities to increase their revenue(or decrease costs), and I ask for their marketing plan, they have none. No marketing budget sometimes. And no real understanding of what marketing really is, which makes it hard to properly integrate with their sales, accounting, and executive teams. They should be integrated with one another. And when they look for marketing help, they go looking for someone who knows SEO, social media marketing, and many modern advertising tactics that aren’t marketing. It’s advertising. They’ve plateaued, which I did in business and is why I got my MBA. They need help organizing things to manage correctly, which I help people do, and I love to do.

Marketing is high level, not low level. So when I see job openings that are “entry-level” and pay accordingly, it’s a sign that the listing is in the wrong category. And the business is confused about what it needs.  And when I sit down with a CEO to discuss their marketing needs and ask about their marketing plan, the conversation may take a downward turn because there is no plan and the CEO or president has a large ego to protect. Which I get- if you’re the manager or leader, you have to appear that you know what you’re doing. This also means you also know when to build and protect your weak areas and be accountable. It’s not about ego in business. It’s about the business and the people that rely on paychecks and your support. I’ve been there. Some people can’t separate the two. It’s common in businesses such as a software development firm that sprang up in a dorm room and a ton of other businesses that were created on the back of a bar napkin. It’s eve common with professional firms like architectural and engineering. Creating a marketing plan (and sometimes even a written business plan) is out the scope of many business people’s talents, believe it or not. Or so they believe for some reason to the extent they don’t bother. Scarily, I’ve interviewed with marketing firms that had no marketing plan or budget.

Hopefully, that clarifies the differences. I can and do SEO. I know social media marketing. I even know a few things about sales. But I also know a lot about marketing itself, which is much bigger than any of those. It’s those combined, and more.

Here are my personal thoughts on the matter for what they’re worth:

Hiring a marketing person isn’t an expense. It’s an investment that should easily pay for itself. I can help executives focus on what’s important, see unintended consequences down the road to avoid, and net out what’s critical to success. I can point out what’s an outlier and what’s dragging the ship down. I know what’s on the horizon to optimize throughput and make businesses more profitable and competitive. I can streamline operations and make a business run like a Ferrari. That’s because I know what true marketing is and how to do it. I also know how to do the menial tasks it involves: web design, SEO, keyword strategies, competitive analysis, and more

I want to tell employers to call on me if you want to go farther faster and rise above. Or keep hiring SEO and social media people that learned online and see what makes the difference. Because doing the same thing the other guy is doing isn’t going to make you excel or competitive. It will keep you in line with the other guys and that’s all.  Average.


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