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When Marketing Kills Creativity

Image: timfishburne.com

“I don’t want to make a list of influencers, connect with influencers, or even build a list,” the client said.

“Is it okay if after we go through these preliminary steps and launch the website,” she asked, “if I just more or less stay quiet with my writing, publish my writing on the site, and see what happens in the course of a year?”

How refreshing. I had to return to her center, not mine, not the market place’s. She didn’t want to advance an enterprise, expand her reach, or “become big” in the public eye. Not yet.

A retired minister, she wanted, instead, a website to catalyze her writing process and satisfy her existing followers who want to read her work. She’s not the only client with that intention. Established writers, start-up designers, and corporate executives dipping their toes in creative pools have approached me with similar aims.

Marketing matters to anyone wishing to build a business, advance a career, or become a viable writer, artist, or designer. You know that.

But in the wrong doses and with the wrong timing, marketing can kill creativity, thwart innovation, and stall personal and professional growth.

To treat website development as catalyst for creativity is legit, but doing so requires authentic strategy, and it demands putting marketing in its proper place.

Distinguish Intentions from Goals
Your intentions drive you, day-in and day-out. 50-plus years of social psychology reiterates that purpose more than profit fuels most human beings in business and the arts and in general.

You have to know in your heart of hearts what’s jazzing you about developing a website. To earn $200 K doing what you love is not an intention. It’s a goal. A worthy goal, mind you, but still a goal.

Tell me what excites you about your work or the potential of your work in the world, why developing a website and expanding your platform thrills you, how you love the process of what you and the media in which you work, then maybe we’re getting at core intentions. Tell me where you truly envision yourself a year from now at your best.

Then, if you have clearly defined annual revenue goals – a gross income goal, separate revenue stream goals, a profit goal – then a wise consultant or coach should take note and develop a strategy according to both your intentions and your goals.

My core business intention is to simplify my mind and model. That intention filters the decisions my coach and I make. If he were to start spouting marketing strategy for strategy’s sake, I’d question him the way my minister-writer client questioned me.

Another client’s core intention for renovating an existing website is to discover what she’s really capable of as an artist and as a professional facilitator. We’re writing clear revenue goals, but I know that the process itself will in part be a creative process.

Apply Creative Process to Web Development
Most corporations and agencies have creative departments and marketing departments. Creative develops the product. Marketing sells it. It’s an on-going, often messy process between the two. But creative trumps marketing in the sequence of things.

The creative process engages faculties other than the rational, analytical decision-maker. In fact, the beauty of the creative process is that it can help us become aware of what most psychologists and even economists consider about 95% of the embodied mind. Jonathan Haidt calls it the elephant mind that guides our political and moral decisions. Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls it the Lazy Controller. Timothy Wilson calls it the adaptive unconscious.

Imagination, emotions, and intuition are foundational faculties that drive and influence the little rational guy who thinks he’s in charge.

Those of us in “traditional” creative fields – writing, design, the arts, theatre – get this. We’re well acquainted with less rational regions of the mind. Meditation, like creative processes, also can help you witness these faculties functioning in decision-making.

In creative process, you choose website titles or website architecture with imagination, emotion, intuition – and marketing savvy. You take creative risks to step outside of what everyone else is doing while being authentic.

You identify and define the core of problems. You view problems and decisions from various angles – and trump your own assumptions about what you think you know to be true and right. You love your mind-at-work and at-play. It demands you love the material – in this case, yes, the material of a digital website.

A client wrote me this note after discussing her website-in-process: “I deeply appreciated and enjoyed our conversations last week.  Something mysterious and spiritual is happening as we talk about the project in these new ways, and I thank you!”

Another client wrote to say she no longer feels like a flaky freelancer but feels like a creative professional and that even her husband has recognized her increased focus, passion, and well-being.

Another corporate client started her website as a catalyst to pursue her own creativity. She originally wanted the site to be a vehicle for self-expression. But we took it beyond that and found ways the site could be fulfill her personal passion and fulfill her new professional pursuits.

When marketing specialists have reviewed the prototypes of her site, they don’t get it. “Where are the revenue streams? How will you earn your ROI?”

These questions have their place.

But captivate yourself first. Captivate your audience second. Draft to discover. Craft to design.

The Emotional ROI
Again, though, emotions drive us. And in the long run, positive emotions sustain us. But emotions run deep.

As much as some marketing specialists know how to play upon the chief emotions of consumers, they often do not understand the emotions that drive their clients (or themselves).

So, if you jump in with marketing strategy first, you’re likely making decisions from a superficial place, only about 5% of your mind’s pool, so to speak. What seems smart market-wise in the short-term can be deeply un-gratifying soul-wise in the long term.

If marketing trumps everything when developing a websbite, you’re missing out on the “deeper” picture, not just the bigger picture. An aspiring novelist who – while drafting page 1 – thinks about the marketplace is doomed to fail or at least doomed to craft hack work.

And there’s nothing wrong with crafting hack work, by the way, if the novelist’s aim is to churn out work and get things done. And if the novelist is a serial novelist with a huge following in standing, then that novelist has found a formula that works for an already defined marketplace. But the Stephen Kings and Toni Morrisons of the world usually do not draft their first break-through novels by over-thinking what will sell.

Still, the creative with no market-savvy will starve.  I have had to reiterate this point to more than one client – especially authors who sell their books for big advances who think they’re “set.” They’re not. If you’re a reader, read John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture to shutter at what the industry looks like. And then get with it. On your own terms.

Marketing has its Place
Marketing specialists have their place. I recently interviewed five business coaches. I wanted someone with “the right stuff” to carry me through a deliberate, strategic process at least for six months. Namely, intelligence, field know-how in business & marketing (they’re not the same), and the ability to ask the right questions to “get” where I’ve been and where I might be going.

The marketing specialist I interviewed started the pro bono by telling me how expensive and busy he was.  (For the record, he’s not as expensive as the stellar coach I hired.)

His shtick is to give free advice and free strategy – and that’s where he failed. During our 30-minute pro bono, he launched into taking me into strategy. The problem? He didn’t ask the right questions to get at the deeper history and context for my first business goal. We wasted 20 minutes on a peripheral issue. Strategy without context can be time-wasting and creativity-killing.

But little of the above is this guy’s fault. He’s a marketing specialist. He’s a salesperson. And thinking quick strategy is what marketing specialists do well. He was being interviewed for the wrong position. He might come in handy later.

When developing a website, know where marketing has its place. Its role should come once you have established your deep intentions and distinguished them from measurable, attainable, and action-oriented goals. It might come even later once you’ve drafted and tested out your designs or your writing or your ideas in a prototype website.

If you currently have more creative than revenue goals, with a book or a website, then hold off the market mindset.

However, if you do want to sell books or designs, if you do want to “make it” as a creative, if you do want to develop an online-driven business, then do get media-savvy and market-savvy.

Just as a professional who wants to write and publish a nonfiction trade book should define an audience’s psycho- and demographics and should know the field’s market before wasting too much time drafting, a person who wants to launch an online business should define similar elements.

Get a salesperson in your wild pack. But know her filters.

Love it All
And then love your creative process while you can. Author of We Learn Nothing Tim Kreider talks about the absurd marketing steps he has taken since he finished his book. Here are some excerpts from the Times piece, “Like the Video? I Wrote the Book”:

“The sudden, insane hoola hoop-like popularity of social media and mass dinosaurian die-off of print has publishers panicked and willing to try anything, and so writers, typically reclusive types who are used to being able to do their jobs without putting on pants, now find themselves shoved on camera and hawking their books like mattresses on Presidents’ Day.”

“I now find myself, to my surprise, looking back wistfully at the two years I spent writing my book. ..For a long time I imagined that the time after I’d finally finished this book would be a kind of indolent, well-deserved afterlife. It’s hard to accept that the part you had to make it through to get where you thought you wanted to be was where you wanted to be all along. the part you hated was your favorite part.”

The ultimate stance is to love it all – the creative, the marketing, and everything in between.

It’s your one wild life after all. And you can’t sell that. (Can you?)

How do you balance the creative mindset and the market mindset? How do you negotiate the inevitable forces of technology in the marketplace that potentially liberate us and lock us up at the same time? I’d love to hear your stories and perspective.

See you in the woods,







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