On the weekend I watched Art and Copy, a 2009 documentary featuring interviews with influential folk in the advertising business past and present. One of the themes was that great creative advertising people saw their work as “art” in the sense that it was about much more than selling product.  In their minds it was “a performance” and “culture”. Good advertising, they reasoned, could make a car company more than a car company. Good advertising, according these folks, aspires to drive culture (or at least teach us something about it). If your Ads aren’t doing that, according to these folks, your marketing is crap.

The examples used in the movie were campaigns for big companies (Apple’s ads, Nike’s “Just do it”, the “Got Milk?” campaign etc.). It got me thinking – are startup marketers missing something by not striving to connect with prospects on a more “cultural” level? How many startup campaigns aspire to do more than drive clicks or registrations? Should we? If we don’t, does our marketing stink?

In the Land of Art, Revenue is Optional, For Startups, it’s Oxygen.

In the movie there was very little talk about the results of the campaigns in terms of sales. “Success” was defined by how much people liked or remembered the ads themselves. In the movie the advertising folk admitted that selling was important yet nobody offered an example of how their ads actually drove revenue.  For example, the movie hailed the “Got Milk?” campaign as a great success yet the California Milk Processor’s Board describes the results of the campaign in terms of awareness of the ads only and in reality milk consumption declined during the heyday of the campaign and continues to do so.

Armed with an engineering degree and a love of spreadsheets, I’m the kind of person that 30 years ago they wouldn’t have let anywhere near the marketing department. Most startup marketing folks look a lot like me – we’re an analytical bunch.  We’re focused on clicks, pipeline, registration, conversions. We distrust non-digital tactics because they can’t be measured. I know startups that have a higher purpose as part of their vision (CommunityLend and ECHOage are 2 local ones that come to mind) and I think all startups worry about design but that’s something completely different. I can’t think of a startup whose marketing aspires to do much more than get you to take action.

Our spending is about driving business – I’m not seeing a lot of culture-defining stuff going on and frankly that’s just fine with me.  Do your Google ads change the way people think about the world? Do your e-books make people cry? Frankly, I don’t care about that stuff as much as I care about generating some business.  I’m way too focused on revenue (i.e. survival) to make beauty for beauty’s sake. The advertising folks in that movie might accuse me of being lazy but I’d call it being practical. Too practical to spend large amounts of money on things I can’t measure.

Just Because We Aren’t Making them Cry Doesn’t Mean We Aren’t Connecting with Customers

All of that said, I do think that connecting with customers is very, very important. I’m trying to tell them stories that make them believe we can do what we say we can do. I use humor every chance I get because I know that people like to be entertained and share entertaining things. I want to make sure I’m painting a picture for prospects of how my products will make their lives/jobs better/easier/more enjoyable. The difference is that my purpose is to drive folks to take action, first and foremost. If I have to choose between making them cry and making them click, I’ll pick the click every time. Why? Because if I don’t, I might not get to run another campaign. Ever. Throwing money at artistic activities that may or may not drive revenue is a luxury that startups simply don’t have. We’ll fund art when we grow up, right now we’re just trying to grow.

So tell me startup marketing people – am I thinking too much like an engineer on this one (hey, it wouldn’t be the first time)? Tell me your stories of art-filled startup marketing.