Why marketing is so confusing

Have you ever seen a marketing agency’s about page?

Like this one:

“[NAME] is an agency that works to bring innovation throughout their projects and push technology as well as strategy to help their clients achieve success.”


If I were copyediting this it would be bleeding in red ink. What kind of projects? What kind of technology? Success in WHAT? What do you DO?!

This is the marketing equivalent of a politician’s answer: lots of words, yet somehow, nothing of substance is actually said. It’s code for: we aren’t sure either.

You could argue like many do, that marketers are consciously deceiving you [LINK]; but having worked in the underbelly of this institution, I can assure you that’s giving them way too much credit.

Most marketers (agencies especially) are just as unclear on what they do as you are.  Which is why you’ve probably walked out of a 2-hour meeting going, “Wait…what?”

No one is blurring the truth on purpose per se; we’re all confused. And the reason it’s so confusing has to do with this unique place in history we happen to be in.

Marketing, as an industry, is in transition.

It’s similar to where medicine was in the 1950s.  Back in the day, you just had “doctors” and “not doctors.” And doctors did everything. You’d never expect a podiatrist to be able to perform an appendectomy today. That’s CRAZY. But back in the day, we did. We didn’t know any different. Specialization was not a prerequisite for implementation.

Same for marketing today.

We can’t seem to decide where to draw the line, so we don’t.

Instead, we clump everything together and call it “marketing!” when really we mean “web development” or “public relations” or “data analysis” or “graphic design” or “social media management” or “SEM” or “advertising.”

Few of these have overlapping skill sets, btw.  A good web developer is probably not a good social media manager in the same way your brilliant IT guy is probably not great at being the MC at your holiday party. They’re different skill sets.

It’s no one’s fault. This is actually a really great thing, like adolescence. It’s unpleasant, but necessary for maturity.

People who had a business back in the day didn’t need to study design or HMTL or copywriting or know anything, really, other than, “My business sells widgets – do you need widgets? Buy them here.” An announcement would suffice.

Getting someone’s attention back then wasn’t difficult. You had 4 ways of reaching people (Radio, TV, Print, or what’s called OOH (“Out of Home”) which includes things like billboards and subway ads).

Today it is exponentially more difficult to get someone’s attention. For two main reasons:

One: There are lots products to choose from in each category. If you want a watch, you don’t just go to the watchmaker. You do “research” and go through 50 brands before you decide on the watch that’s right for you.

Two: There are wayyyyy more distribution channels beyond the original 4, such as your computer, smartphone, or tablet. And then the million channels within those channels, like search engines, social media, or plain ole regular media like forbes.com.

It’s harder to stand out today than it was back in the day.

In your mind, marketing is just a bunch of things that help you get customers. The how is up to the marketer (which, in fairness, is a decent way to think about it).

Here’s what typically happens:

You, business owner, get smart. You do some reading; you learn enough to be dangerous. And you’re like, “Ah! I got it. I need SEO!” So, you do the logical thing and you hire an SEO guy. The SEO guy is like, “Yes! I have a client! I’m going to do the best job ever!” and he does.

But then sales are “eh.” And you’re left wondering why.

It’s because marketing is a system.  SEO is part of that system, but it’s not the entire system.

Neither you nor your hire know who is responsible for setting up that system. The SEO guy thinks it’s you since he’s only here to do SEO. And you think the SEO guy’s responsible, since, WTF you’re the business owner and that guy is in marketing, so this is his domain to rule and advise you on.

(Not to mention, the SEO guy, in earnest, promised you SEO was the silver bullet you were looking for and would get you a bagillion leads. (he wasn’t wrong that it would help with leads…it’s just…you need to then do something with those leads…hence the “system”))

This happens all the time. It’s the chicken or the egg conundrum of marketing. Who is responsible for setting up the system!?

SEO without a conversion optimized site (which is part design, part development and engineering, part copy, and part branding) is like getting everyone in the neighborhood to come to your shoe store and then the store looking like crap and no one can find their sizes or styles they like and then asking, “Why did no one buy shoes?”

There’s no simple answer. It’s inventory, it’s merchandising, it’s the pricing strategy, it’s the distributors, it’s the checkout process, it’s customer service…There are a LOT of reasons someone didn’t buy shoes.

When it’s a brick and mortar store, it’s much easier to assign jurisdiction and governance to each domain. Obviously, your marketing person is not going to be responsible for checkout or inventory, that’s fulfillment and supply chain territory. But in today’s world, especially online, the lines aren’t so clear-cut.

The trouble lies in one simple question: Where does marketing begin and end?

The simple answer is: we don’t know, yet.

Lots of thought leaders wax poetic about how “marketing is everything!” and they’re not wrong. Every customer touchpoint is communicating something about your brand to your customer.

But it’s not exactly a helpful distinction (or definition) when you’re trying to run a company and make different departments responsible for things.

We’re getting close. We’re nearing the phase where we go, “hmm maybe a foot doctor should focus on feet and an internal medicine doctor should focus on appendices. And also – let’s get a different doctor working on the brain. They shouldn’t be messing around with feet or appendices. That seems like a good idea.”

Until then, if someone tells you they’re in marketing, reserve judgment when they cannot tell you exactly what it is they do. Odds are, they aren’t quite sure what they do either.