Marketing as Creative Pursuit

Let’s play a game.

Close your eyes, and think of a “creative person.”

No, seriously. Do it.

What did you come up with?

Maybe you thought of someone specific: an artist like Michaelangelo or Caravaggio or Picasso or Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock. A musician like Beethoven or Sibelius or John Lennon or Nelly Furtado. A writer like Shakespeare or Dickens or Jean Rhys or Zadie Smith.

Maybe you thought of an archetype instead: someone wearing bright mismatched clothes, or someone  painting furiously or practicing an instrument into the wee hours or sitting bleary-eyed in front of a computer, finishing the first draft of a novel. Maybe a grey-haired, straight-backed choreographer working with a cadre of ballerinas, or a designer flipping through fabric swatches and sketching out a floor plan.

My guess, though, is that you didn’t think of a marketer.

Why not?

Got a Humanities Degree? Go Into Marketing.

When I was just an undergrad, in between classes in Canadian poetry and postcolonial literature, I’d already started to think about what I could do with my degree. I knew how unlikely it was that I would be able to make a living as a novelist or creative writer, or even discussing literature and writing papers as an English professor – and to be honest, I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do, anyhow. After I started working as a marketing assistant at during my degree, developing an online forum where prospective students could talk to each other, I started to think about how I could apply my creative thinking to business problems.

TalentEgg suggests that I’m not alone. Among new graduates who were working in marketing in 2010,  34% had a degree in business – and a total of 23.5% had degrees in either modern languages or English. That’s right: almost a quarter of new marketing professionals have a language or literature degree, second only to business grads.


I’ve written before about why marketing needs humanities PhDs: our finely developed skills in research, writing, presentation and critical thinking overlap nicely with the skills that successful marketers need. But there’s another attribute shared by many humanities graduates and the best marketers: creativity.

What Do You Mean By Creativity?

Let’s go back to the game we played earlier. It’s easy to understand art, music, film, literature, theatre as creative pursuits, and the industries that have grown up around them as creative industries.

My argument, though, is that marketing, when it’s done right, is also a highly creative pursuit.

Take, for instance, this in-class assignment I gave to my MBA social media marketing students at York this semester:

What I’m asking students to do is to tell a story about the Tiffany’s brand: and more than that, to devise a mechanism whereby they will encourage others to tell their own stories around the brand as well. This task requires highly creative thinking. In understanding how to target this campaign, the students need to think creatively about who that target audience is, what they want, and what will reach them. Just as a novelist writes or a dances dances to elicit a reaction in his or her audience, the marketer does the same.

And before you claim that the artist makes art for art’s sake while the marketer creates in order to sell: not quite. Ask any novelist whether they want to sell their books, or any actor whether it’s important that people pay for tickets to their shows.

There’s a reason why there’s a film industry, a music industry, a publishing industry, just like there’s a marketing industry. The creative industries are essential – both their creative input and the fact that they are industries. There is no shame in accepting support for creativity. In fact, the saleability and interdisciplinary applicability of creativity – the fact that it fits nicely into the system in which we live – is one of the things that allows it to thrive.

The Need for Creativity in Business

It’s not just successful marketing that requires creativity. John Dragoon of Forbes argues that creativity is actually one of the most important hallmarks of a successful business leader:

True business and marketing leaders embrace uncertainty and complexity as creative catalysts that invite and, in fact, demand innovation. Creative leaders should view constraints at every level as exciting challenges that release–not restrict–creative responses. Additionally, creative leadership recognizes the risk in trying new things and doesn’t fear failure.

We talk a lot about the need for innovation in business, but too often, the kind of creativity that drives painters and writers is divorced from the kind of creativity that drives business innovation. Because business and the humanities are often “silo’d” from university onwards, there’s a crucial lost opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary way and to apply the creative thinking of the humanities to business – and to help humanities-oriented students and workers understand the business principles that could help them scaffold their thinking in real-life scenarios. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s great that humanities grads are being hired in marketing, and why I believe that a humanities degree can be a plus, not a minus, in business.

In other words: that impulse that gets you past writer’s block, or helps you figure out a chord progression that’s just not working, or helps you mix a difficult colour just right? It’s the same impulse that could help you solve a business problem. And vice versa.