Seth Godin – Founder of the altMBA, Blogger, Entrepreneur and Author
Interview by Ninder Johal
These are just some of the thoughts from the man who sold his first company to Yahoo in 1996 for millions, turned down billions of stock options to stay on in the corporate world but instead turned to writing and in the process became a global bestselling business author.
Author of 20 best sellers including -Purple Cow, This is Marketing, Tribes and The Dip.
Known for this prodigious blog which X people receive daily – I set about to understand what makes this man tick and how does he propose that we should think about marketing – after all – without a market – you have no product, no sales, and no business.
So, what is marketing?
Seth Godin: I define Marketing as anything that touches the market. Which means it is how we change minds, how we design products, how we lead, manage, speak, and interact. That feels like a good way to make an impact and to help people cause the change they seek to make.
Why marketing – often misunderstood – as a result – it is one of the first activities to be cut in difficult times – not seen as important? in fact, few Boards have marketing directors – always led by accountants? you have a particular definition of marketing – what is this?
Seth Godin: Most people who do “marketing” are actually in the business of advertising, and most advertising doesn’t work. So, it makes sense to cut it when you have constrained resources. Real marketing goes far deeper—it’s at the heart of what the organization stands for, how it makes decision and what it keeps score of. And accountants can do this (anyone can) but not if they simply focus on the short term. That’s the recipe for a crisis.
Marketing has always been about market share, grab market share of someone else – outgun your competition – get as many likes as you can on your social media – but you argue against this – why and what is your argument?
Seth Godin: Because that’s not what marketing is, that’s what hype is. My argument is that there are a million ways to find a shortcut, to pander and to hack, but very few to be missed if you’re gone and to do work that matters. If you’re busy racing to the bottom, you might win.
In you latest book – ‘The practice’ – you speak extensively about the importance of creativity – how do you define creativity as it means so many things to so many people?
Creativity is the act of solving an interesting problem. It’s doing work that hasn’t been done before—generous work, work that will be appreciated, work that might not work.
If you’re not doing creative work, then you’re simply a replaceable cog in a vast machine, and the organization is going to find someone cheaper than you to do it.
Creativity is not a gift. It’s a skill, something we can get better at.
How can you spot a creative – every leader is trying to recruit them for their organisation?
Many leaders SAY they are, but then they measure mistakes, output and other false metrics of creative output.
If you’re actually looking for someone to be creative, look for people who have failed. Because if creativity is the act of doing work that might not work, you’ll need to have failures along the way. And look for people who have chosen to lead, because leadership itself is an act of creativity.
What is more important – being creative or being financially literate – you make an interesting distinction between Tim Cook who is the current CEO of Apple and Steve Jobs who was the founder and creative force behind the brand as we know it today ….
Important to whom? Cook has made a lot of people a lot of money. But only by spinning a flywheel that a creative person built. Since Cook took over, Apple hasn’t launched a single important breakthrough, they’ve simply done iterations on what came before. Which is what Wall Street wants in the short run, until they don’t.
Steve Ballmer tried to be Tim Cook, but he had the misfortune of having to compete with Google and with Apple, and he also didn’t have the discipline to simply turn the correct flywheel.
Despite Microsoft’s remarkable financial performance, Ballmer failed to understand and execute on the five most important technology trends of the twenty first century: in search – losing to Google: in smartphones – losing to Apple: in mobile operating systems – losing to Google/Apple; in media – losing to Apple/Netflix; and in the cloud – losing to Amazon.
How did he miss so consistently?
Simple – He only focused the company on what he thought Microsoft was good at. He structured the company to defend their core competencies, creating an organisation that was merely competent. They optimised for the 20th century and gave away the 21st Century to people who are willing to fail.
The way forward, in businesses large and small, is to find the interesting problems and to solve them on behalf of those you seek to serve. Wall Street is not your customer.
(Photo by Abby Greenawalt)
What makes a brand successful? How do you measure it? Is it what other people say about you or is it market share? You state brilliantly that 99% of people have ‘never heard of you’
A brand isn’t a logo. It’s simply the promise you make, the expectation we’ve come to have about you and what you make. Most companies don’t even have a brand, simply a logo.
What makes a brand successful is that people care enough to pay extra or go out of their way to work with you instead of someone else. If they don’t, your ‘brand’ has no value.
As for ‘heard of you’, with 7 billion people on Earth, there are few brands that have real awareness and engagement with more than 70,000,000 people. That’s 1%. Most organizations would be absolutely thrilled if a tiny fraction of that number would go out of their way to work with them. So, if that’s the case, IGNORE EVERYONE ELSE. Instead of racing around trying to be normal, focus on being important and remarkable.
How does a brand know that it has it marketing on point – how does it measure the success of its marketing? Can you pick out brands that you think have been successful?
What do people tell their friends?
What do they expect from you? How much extra time and money will they spend to be with you? Are you changing your audience—in what way? Where are you taking them?
A mediocre marketer can’t answer any of these questions.
Can a business scale and still have creativity at its core?
In an industrialized world, most scaling comes from organizations that double down on their momentum, not invest in changing the way they interact with the world.
There are exceptions, particularly in some industries. Netflix has certainly done a nice job of changing the content at the same time that they’ve built an audience and infrastructure.
But generally, the promise of a brand as it scales is not, “we’ll surprise you tomorrow.”
Is risk aversion the opposite of creativity – how do you balance this?
No, the opposite of creativity is short-term certainty.
In the long run, the most risk averse thing you can do is be creative, because the world keeps changing.
Imposter syndrome – is an important concept in leadership – you think that this a good trait to have and not to be dismissed…
It is a sign that you’re healthy and that you’re doing important work. It means that you are trusting the process and doing it with generosity.
Confidence is not the same as trust in the process. Confidence is a feeling we get when we imagine that we have control over the outcome. When Joe Namath guaranteed that he would lead the Jets to the Super Bowl, he was sharing his confidence with the media.
Every pro athlete is confident, but more than half of them lose. Every game, every tournament, has confident entrants who do not win.
Requiring control over external events is a recipe for heartache and frustration. Worse, if you need a guarantee you are going to win before you begin, you’ll never start.
The alternative is to trust the process, to do our work with generosity and intent, and to accept every outcome, the good ones as well as the bad.
Yes, you are an imposter. But you’re an imposter acting in service of generosity, seeking to make things better.
When we embrace imposter syndrome instead of working to make it disappear, we choose the productive way forward. The imposter is proof that we’re innovating, leading and creating.
You speak about leadership and its connection with having an ‘intention’ and we become what we do’ – this is how things get done
Leaders aren’t managers. Leaders creatively explore possibility; managers use authority to get predictable things done. It’s possible for one person to be good at both, but they’re different activities.
If you’re a leader, it helps to understand the change you seek to make in the world. To do it with intent, not simply as a side effect of making noise.
As we move into an increasingly AI world – will this destroy creativity?
Well, typewriters, word processors, touch screens, tablets, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, laser printers, and the internet ended up leading to a huge increase in creativity of all sorts.
I’m not sure why the endless permutations of a learning algorithm will be any different.
It merely changes our definition of what creative work looks like.
Finally, in a world post COVID – where double dip recession is a certainty, where unemployment will be high and access to finance will be tight – what is your advice to entrepreneurs and to leaders on remaining positive and how do you encourage to continue to place ‘marketing’ at its centre?
Every dislocation in recorded history has led to a dramatic increase in opportunities for leaders and people who would like to build something that matters.
If there are problems to solve, we need creative people to solve them.