Monday, November 10, 2014


I got into the office today with an e-mail from the boss-of-bosses waiting for me. On Friday afternoon, right before I left for the weekend, I had completed a task she had assigned directly to me; the e-mail greeting me this morning was simply her saying "thanks, nice job" in response. Always nice to get a little recognition, especially from that high up the food chain.

So clearly in this diagram the deputy secretary is the eagle and I guess I'm the worm?

I'm going to take a brief sidetour for a moment here into the early days of my professional career, but I'll loop back around to where I started, I promise. I'm not exactly sure why, but I was thinking last week about my first real job that I applied to and interviewed for (as opposed to showing up on assignment from a temp agency and then being poached), which was as a marketing assistant at a tech company. I had no formal training in marketing at the time, but various people had told me it might be a good fit for me career-wise, and before too long I thought I had grasped the reason why. If there's a creative side to marketing, beyond calculating how many brochures to order or balancing the ad-buying budget, it comes into play in discovering a narrative to build the messaging around. Most people who know me know that I was an English major, that I like to write, that I'm halfway decent at telling a story, &c. All of which are applicable to that narrative-discovery element.

Which is different, I hasten to add, from narrative-invention, and that of course is my writerly passion. I love creating stories from whole cloth, something out of nothing, and controlling their form and flow wire-to-wire. This did not come up terribly often within the professional context of fulfilling my duties as an admin in the events department for a non-profit association; much more common were circumstances such as the staffer in charge of the association newsletter being unable to attend a new kind of event, and me being tasked with composing some kind of summary article that hit all the journalistic 5 W's. And I was happy to take on that assignment, which was certainly more appealing than the same amount of time doing data entry on future event rsvp's. But it's a very different kind of writing, where the creativity part of the creative process is minimized. One is expected to pick and choose and synthesize and place in the most logical order a set of facts based on what actually happened, and I myself find those to be entirely reasonable parameters.

But marketing lies somewhere in that murky gray area between straight reportage and pure fiction. I realize this is not exactly a news flash, but what has stuck with me lo these many years is a memory of watching my boss, the head of the marketing team (which was truthfully all of about four people) trying to convince the executive VP's of various other departments that she had a great new idea for a marketing campaign. It basically boiled down to the idea of personal connections. The tech company was a consulting company implementing new approaches for companies during the dot-com boom, and the marketing director was of the opinion that lots of companies out there could throw armies of code-monkeys at problems and come up with new security architectures or new web-enabled storefronts or whatnot, but what differentiated our company was the relationships we formed with our clients. This is of course one of the hoariest chestnuts in the marketing bag (I know now), the idea that a given company isn't just selling you what they happen to already make, but rather will get to know you and then offer you exactly what you need. Anyway, the marketing director wanted to literally photograph some of our employees and some of our clients interacting to capture the visuals for the campaign: the head of sales going shopping with one client, the head of enterprise solutions going golfing with another. (Yes, the head of sales was a woman and the head of enterprise solutions was a man; condemn the easily-digestible late 90's sexism as you will.)

The marketing director never made much headway with this idea. But I remember her railing on and on about it for a while, and the entire time she was insistent that these photo ops - the shopping excursions, the rounds of golf - were already happening anyway and we might as well leverage them. And, from my distant third-hand perspective, I gradually got the idea that they kind of weren't, at least not as organically as the marketing director claimed. Maybe the sales lead wound up driving a client to the mall once as a favor, maybe our execs and client execs bumped into each other on the golf course now and then. But basically what my boss was attempting to do was to discover the narrative about our client relationships, and she found little scraps here and there and invented a bunch of connective tissue to fill in the gaps for the story she wanted to tell. Every professional marketer will tell you that their job is fairly simple: to tell the world the true things about their company which, if everyone knew them, would make everyone love their company, and to present those tellings in the way that reaches and impacts the maximum number of people possible. All of which is fair enough and accurate in a way, but it's that little "true things" part that gets slippery.

And long story short way too late, that's why I don't work in marketing anymore, because I didn't want to exaggerate or flat-out fabricate under the false veneer and (naive?) expectation of honest representation. In my mind, at least, there's a significant difference between telling lies that start with "once upon a time" and those that end with "buy our stuff".

Anyway, it's just an occupational hazard that it is prudent to be aware of: when you spend a lot of time looking for narrative threads, you might develop a tendency to spot a strong throughline where there's really only the barest trace. And that gets compounded by your own personal feelings about any given pathway to making sense of things. Right now, my major concern with work is whether or not it's going to continue beyond March of next year or so. I would very much like to believe that the attaboy I received from on high feeds into that contract re-bid narrative, and that it's a good sign that people with decision-making power approve of the job I'm doing and would, it seems reasonable to conclude, like to see me continue doing the same job. But just because I want the story to go that way doesn't mean it actually will. I have to continue conducting my business as if I can affect the outcome, but things are rarely that simple.

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