Dear CMO:

Is marketing an art or a science? This is a more important question than the typical “chicken versus egg” treatment it usually gets because it sets up two questions:

First, what sort of marketer are you? Are you an “artist” or a “technocrat”? A Branson or a … well, “technocrat”? Some gravitate to one role better than they do to the other and acknowledging how you do what you do up front helps not only your team and your shareholders, but it also helps you come to grips with how you want to approach your role.

Second, it goes a long way in aligning you with the CEO, who may or may not share your enthusiasm for things like “buzz.” So, quite apart from a purely academic exercise, how you answer this question goes a long way in determining how you and your CEO will end up getting along. Let’s take a quick dive into each, tackle the advantages and pitfalls of each, and see if we agree. Or not.

Marketing as art:

First and foremost, marketing is about creating desire. Creation, by definition, is an active word and requires an artist’s imagination. Regardless of your need to measure, one must measure something of worth and value. I’ve seen too many Mid-Range Plans that have endless statements of the obvious and pitifully little creative attention to “what we will do.” Analysis isn’t what marketers are paid to do. Creating desire is what they’re paid to do, and measuring the worth of their efforts is the professional hygiene that comes with the territory. Therefore, marketing is an art.

Advantages: there’s a certain “damn the torpedos!” sprezzatura to a “marketing as art” type of company. They’re creative, fast, and they do stuff that other brands wish they could do. They believe in causing a fuss in the market and are generally fun to be around. Assuming you’re a consumer.

Pitfalls: if your CEO thinks marketing is an art, you’re probably in for a rough time because your CEO is going to end up as the artist in residence. If you like taking notes, this is a good CEO for you. If you like to do marketing, this is going to be a frustrating experience.

Marketing as science:

First and foremost, marketing is the science of predicting human behavior. The human behavior we’re looking to predict is how often and with what frequency people are going to buy our stuff. Period. Desire is pointless unless action is taken, and unless we know with a reasonable degree of certainly if and when and how frequently this ever-so-important action will happen, we have lost our case. We can be wildly creative and drive our potential customers mad with desire, but we still need the discipline to remember that our ability to measure the incremental gains and the ultimate scalability of our efforts spell the difference between a self-absorbed expense and a game-changing campaign.

Creativity without discipline is a hobby. Therefore, marketing is a science.

Advantages: marketing as science companies tend to be internally predictable. Yes, you will be working for a CEO who believes marketing is black magic and will treat you as someone to be carefully watched, but at least you have them painted into the corner of your own choosing. You test and measure well and it’s hard to turn you down when you ask to scale intelligently.

Pitfalls: you will spend far more time managing internally than externally in a “marketing as science” culture. We all have a desire to go through our own pre-game arming sequence, strapping on high-impact programs and launching campaigns at will, and in this type of company this will remain an unfulfilled fantasy. Take solace in the fact that you can prove your worth easily and shame your colleagues in finance into supporting you when the math is on your side.

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The role of a professional marketer is to create desire and drive action in a predicable, scalable manner. Your CEO wants to know what one more dollar spent in marketing will give the company. So does everyone else at the board room table. Forget for the moment that no one at that same table could answer this same question posed to them about any other functional group in your organization, but this is no excuse for you not to have an answer. Everyone demands that marketing answer this imponderable question because marketing is the one function that everyone thinks they intuitively get and no one fully comprehends. So test often, measure everything, heavily borrow from other successful companies (especially those who believe marketing is an art, because they make the best case studies) and ask for more money with the facts on your side.

Marketing demands creativity and discipline, much like architecture, medicine, physics, sports, parenting and everything else. You can decide whether this makes it an art or a science.