The crisis of meaningfulness in marketing

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We were all internally struggling with how to maintain a balance between being good marketers and being good citizens, write the co-authors of "Good is the New Cool."

As marketers, we are living in one of the most profoundly revolutionary times for our discipline. Marketing-savvy millennials and Gen Z consumers know all the tricks of the trade and see right through all of the carefully cultivated facades brands create through advertising—and that's if they see the advertising in the first place, given the rise of cord-cutting and ad-blocking. But in addition to the massive generational and technological shifts, there is a fundamental spiritual shift happening within the marketing community—a crises of meaningfulness.

Although businesses have made many meaningful contributions to the betterment of our world, it is also well documented that corporations have been responsible for all sorts of crimes against humanity, ranging from massive environmental damage and pollution to predatory mortgages to sweatshop labor. While marketing has also been responsible for building brands and driving businesses that give millions of people jobs, many campaigns created by marketers have actually harmed humanity. Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man inspired generations of young people to start smoking, while Photoshopped imagery that created unrealistic and unattainable appearance goals caused body-image issues for generations of young girls. Marketers have helped to create a culture of materialistic excess that has led to the cancer of overconsumption. And even today marketers are all too often guilty of "greenwashing" or "brandwashing"—marketing their brands and corporations as paragons of virtue while ignoring insidious practices and reprehensible behavior behind the scenes.

That is why it's no surprise that according to Morten Albaek, CEO of Voluntas Investment and former CMO of the Danish company Vestas, "The fact of the matter is that consumers don't trust marketing. Advertisers regularly poll as the least trustworthy professionals, scraping the bottom alongside politicians and civil servants. Can we as individuals accept that these odds are no longer tenable, that we have a moral responsibility to redress such inequities in the modern marketplace?"               

We have reached a tipping point where the majority of the world hates what we do. In survey after survey, marketing is listed as one of the least valuable professions to humanity. A 2012 survey carried out by Adobe showed that 68% of people found advertising to be "annoying and distracting," with 53% reporting "most marketing is a bunch of bullshit."

That same survey listed advertising/marketing as being amongst the bottom four most valuable professions to humanity (the top four being teacher, scientist, engineer and social worker). What was most surprising was that the survey included people in the advertising/marketing profession—who were more than twice as likely as the average person to rank their profession as useless! It signals a deep "crisis of meaningfulness" in what we do for a living.

The desire to find more meaning in what we did for a living was the catalyst for us to start writing our book "Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn." And we realized we were not alone: in private conversations with our peers, many told us they were feeling professionally unfulfilled. As dreamers and doers who give brands voices, personalities and power, they were rewarded well to use their talents to optimize pro-ts, but they were increasingly inspired to optimize people's lives. We were all internally struggling with how to maintain a balance between being good marketers and being good citizens.

Formerly a partner and chief creative officer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Jeff Benjamin is one of the most respected creatives in the advertising business. He had an epiphany one day he told us about: "I was watching the movie 'Deep Impact,' about an asteroid hitting the Earth. In the movie, they create a shelter inside a mountain to safeguard the best of humanity—doctors, engineers, scientists. I was watching the movie, and it hit me ... what I do for a living wouldn't help me make it into the mountain." That's a great way to frame this problem: How do we do work that helps us make it into the mountain? 

In the next 20 years, the human population will swell from 7 billion to 8 billion people: the fastest population growth in the history of the planet. With this growth comes a choice: Do we continue to think in a "transactional" manner about the way our societies operate, continuing to do business as usual and ignoring the larger issues of inequality, discrimination, the environment, and other existential problems? Or do we choose to think in a "transformational" manner, finding new models and solutions to help ensure a fair and prosperous future for all?

To us, the answer couldn't be clearer; as marketers, we need to find new ways of working together that rejects the outdated models of the past. We need to find new ways to utilize our unique talents in ways that haven't been possible until now because of the generational, technological, and spiritual awakenings that are affecting us on a profound level. We feel like we are only at the beginning of a better paradigm, one where courage replaces conformity, empathy replaces apathy, and hope replaces cynicism. And in doing so, perhaps finally we can find that meaningfulness in our work that it seems we all so deeply desire.

—Afdhel Aziz, director of Absolut Labs, and Bobby Jones, CMO of Peace First, are the co-authors of "Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn."

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