"Yer a wizard, Harry"

Occasionally I lecture on marketing.

The single message that I try to land is that marketing is a more wondrous thing than they expect.

‘Wondrous’ is very silly word, but it is deliberately flowery. It is important to aim high. I believe we have a responsibility to reset students' expectations of what communications professionals do, and, by focusing on the 'wondrous', I hope to offset the industry's grubby reputation. This ambition isn't solely self-serving: the industry fails at diverse recruitment in part because we're simply not aspirational. The best and the brightest are drawn to other industries, seen as more glamorous, challenging, or worthy.

Nor do we make it easy for ourselves. As a sector, we've veered away from wonder. The most famous marketing agency in the world right now is Cambridge Analytica. Which means the biggest communications story for a decade is not only seedy af, but also disproportionately bitty. Marketing, according to the media, has descended into delivering attitude and behaviour change through... increasingly nuanced algorithmic targeting. This reflects the industry's new obsession with detail; the drive to glean every grain out out of our diminishing returns. But data harvesting isn't any more representative of "marketing" than a 30” TV spot is. Or a sticker on a urinal, for that matter. Those are all merely the tools; fads, not art. 

And that’s why the wondrous is so important. It is an invitation to step back from the details, and open up to the possibilities of what marketing can accomplish. After all, in its simplest form, our industry is about getting someone to do something by saying something to them. Going back to the lecturing - as far as my students are concerned, 'doing something' means 'buying something'. But that's a base translation. 'Watch a movie.' 'Dress this way.' 'Use more deodorant.' 'Drink less.' 'Give blood.' 'Exercise.' 'Stop littering.' They’re all somethings that people have done - solely because some marketer said the right words, to the right people, at the right time.

More wondrous: these are changes to the real world. Change4Life couldn’t physically control your portion sizes. Vote Leave didn’t mark your ballots. This Girl Can didn’t drag anyone to a gym. Yet, somehow, these changes happened. The world was changed, because of marketing.

Transforming the world around you, purely through the power of words? There’s a word for people that can do that: 
Being a wizard is also immensely flattering:

“If any one complain of the difficulty of our Art,...  I have indeed explained [its secrets] with sufficient lucidity for those who are worthy, but that the unworthy can derive no profit from them.”  - The Golden Tract Concerning the Stone of the Philosophers (trans. A.E. Waite, 1893)

A generation later:

“None but able and experienced men can meet the requirements in national advertising. Working in co-operation, learning from each other and from each new undertaking, some of these men develop into masters.” - Scientific Advertising (Claude Hopkins, 1924)

It is no wonder that Ogilvy loved Hopkins so much: it is an invitation to Hogwarts; membership in a worthy elite. Potent formulas and powerful rituals for the illuminated minds, granting the ability to change the world itself. This is a truly glorious way of portraying focus groups and BOGOF stickers, but, hey, we'll take it.

I can’t promise not to return to this theme: magic provides a useful epistemological framework; a means of thinking about how we think about impacting the world around us. Anything that encourages us to think about what we do - and how we do it - has value.

Plus, I like being a wizard.

Get: Idealistic undergraduates
To: Pay attention to the next three hours of a lecture
By: Proving that marketing is literally magical


Further reading:

  • The Surrealists’ Tarot Deck - recently re-appearing in China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris.

  • Henry Jenkins, of Convergence Cultureoften writes about the real magic of Harry Potter - how and why the series became such a fertile ground for fandom. One of its secrets? The way universe of Harry Potter contains the perfect - if accidental - volume of vagueness. It provides enough detail to picture the world, but also encourages readers to to fill in the remaining blanks themselves. An invitation for ‘self-insertion’ - and arguably one that is incrementally revoked every time Rowling adds to the canon.

  • "There is no magic greater or more powerful than the magic of words... what that means is that Art, essentially, is magic. And with it one can actively change the world. Perhaps that is why the Old English term for “be” was also 'art'." - Author and artist Ganzeer (who has explored this topic far better than I ever will - subscribe).