Thursday, June 30, 2011

archy, ayn, and amateurs

I bought my first book for my new iPod Touch, and it’s a business book.

Sorry, it’s not The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. That finished 17,168th on my list, behind Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus but ahead of Atlas Shrugged, a book I know is supposed to be great but to me is just a steaming pile of wet adjectives. (However, bonus points go to Ayn Rand for replying to an editor who wanted to cut the book, “Would you cut The Bible?” Often wanted to say it, never have.)

The book is, naturally, The Annotated archy and mehitabel.

You may not think of The Annotated archy and mehitabel as a business book. Likely you don’t even think of The Annotated archy and mehitabel at all, and that’s understandable, seeing as it’s a book of free verse ostensibly written by a cockroach but actually written by a semi-obscure, three-quarters-drunk and altogether brilliant newspaperman named Don Marquis.

So what does free verse written by a cockroach have to do with business?

Plenty. Probably the most applicable line for marketers comes in one of Marquis’ best pieces, a lament by one of the suitors of the unapologetically promiscuous feline Mehitabel, an old theater cat who decries the passing of the old ways thusly:

the stage is not what it
used to be tom says
he puts his front paw
on his breast and says
they don t have it any more
they don t have it here
the old troupers are gone
there s nobody can troupe
any more
they are all amateurs nowadays
they haven t got it
there are only
five or six of us oldtime
troupers left
this generation does not know
what stage presence is
personality is what they lack
where would they get
the training my old friends
got in the stock companies …
finish is what they lack
and they haven t got it
and again he laid his paw
on his breast …

for two seasons i played
the dog in joseph
jefferson s rip van winkle
it is true i never came
on the stage
but he knew i was just off
and it helped him
i would like to see
one of your modern
theatre cats
act a dog so well
that it would convince
a trouper like jo jefferson
but they haven t got it
they haven t got it
jo jefferson had it he had it

i come of a long line
of theatre cats
my grandfather was with forrest
he had it he was a real trouper
my grandfather said
he had a voice
that used to shake
the ferryboats
on the north river
once he lost his beard
and my grandfather
dropped from the
fly gallery and landed
under his chin
and played his beard
for the rest of the act
you don t see any theatre
cats that could do that
they haven t got it they
haven t got it

once i played the owl
in modjeska s production
of macbeth
i sat above the castle gate
in the murder scene
and made my yellow
eyes shine through the dusk
like an owl s eyes
modjeska was a real
trouper she knew how to pick
her support i would like
to see any of these modern
theatre cats play the owl s eyes
to modjeska s lady macbeth
but they haven t got it nowadays
they haven t got it

mehitabel he says
both our professions
are being ruined
by amateurs

It’s a fact of business life that our professions are continually being ruined by amateurs. If you haven’t had your business life turned upside-down by a hotshot MBA with a Brooks Brothers suit, a Maori tattoo in an inconspicuous spot, a faintly passing knowledge of what your company does, and a Droid full of ideas for implementing Lean Six Sigma at the breakfast table, you haven’t lived, business-wise. There’s him, and the hopelessly out-of-touch Veteran of the Wars, and the metrogeek who believes all of business’ problems can be cured with a Facebook page, and the brilliant globalizer who knows English in the same way that Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann know American history, and the shakeup specialist who believes he can use mind control to change traffic lights, and all the glorious clich├ęs. They live, and they are out to ruin your particular calling.

This is never more true than in marketing, which is regarded by most businesspeople as a science softer than William Perry’s abdomen, softer even than Art Garfunkel singing a Stephen Bishop song. Everyone in business thinks they can market, right down to the person spraying Ever Clear on the tabletops, in part because they’ve been repeatedly told that they are marketers.

And, you know, we as marketers are largely responsible for this. Part of plan for exploiting social media has been to open up marketing communication to the masses within the business’ walls. “Multiple communicators!” we beller. “Multiple communicators for multiple audiences!”

Perhaps. But in our quest for brand interaction and the establishment of all of our people as subject-matter experts on everything, even the spraying of Ever Clear on tabletops, we’ve missed a very important point, namely: These people are amateurs. We can coach them and guide them and ghostwrite for them and do everything but be them, but they are amateurs. They know everything about how to spray Ever Clear on tabletops, and very little about how to convince people to spray Ever Clear on tabletops their way. And eventually that truth comes out.

So between the executives who know nothing of marketing but think they do and the non-executives who have been drafted into marketing for their skills other than marketing, marketing is overrun with amateurs – not Olympic amateurs or NCAA amateurs or even Little League amateurs, but maybe backyard amateurs. Maybe.

So how do you market around these people without winding up like Mehitabel’s suitor, clutching your brain and wailing to a very small audience, “they haven t got it here”?

The first thing to do with them is to channel them and guide them to somewhere where they can’t hurt themselves. Social media is good.

This is not an indictment of social media, necessarily. The marketing applications of social media are still being worked out. You can do social media completely wrong and still do it right. You can also do it right or wrong relatively inexpensively, with little cost to human marketing life. And finally, there are enough important people at higher levels of all organizations who regard social media as a sort of marketing zeppelin – you know, give it enough time and it’s going to blow up famously, and then we can all go back to watching tube TVs and dreaming about two-way wrist radios – that it’s a great place to stick the amateurs. Have them blow it up and then watch them try to explain it to management.

The second and most important thing to do is to find your spot. Some people are great at this. You could stick them in a Turkish prison and they’d still be able to find a corner where they could hole up with a flea-infested blanket and a hunk of black bread as be as happy as possible, running Monty Python routines in their heads and scratching out Thurber cartoons in the filth with their fingernail.

Somewhere in your amateur-infested marketing scheme there has to be a place where you can curl up and do some real marketing your way. It doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be yours. Do it your way with whatever resources you can muster, throw it out there and let it shine in comparison.

Now, the problem is that the amateurs who don’t know how to market don’t know good marketing, either, so all your good work may go for naught. But keep at it. Eventually something positive will happen. A higher-up will pay attention, customers will pay attention, or the guy who sprays Ever Clear on tabletops will say to the heavily shaded fellow who talks like Charo, “Hey, this is pretty good.” And then they’ll go Panera Bread and discuss it over a bruschetta.

At that point you should probably exit stage left with Mehitabel’s buddy the theater cat. They really haven t got it here. And both your professions are really being ruined by amateurs.