Q&A: Marketing Guru Seth Godin on How to Be a Better Marketer

'The cost of being wrong is lower than ever before'

Seth Godin runs the altMBA program. Getty Images
Headshot of Ko Im

Key insight:

Seth Godin is a bestselling author and entrepreneur. He also runs an online course that helps marketers learn by doing, which has resonated with many industry professionals over the years.

Godin joined us on a bonus episode of Adweek’s Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad podcast to talk about how marketers can do their jobs better.

This Q&A has been edited for length. Listen to the full interview in the podcast embedded below.

I’m curious about your process and what’s top of mind now?
Godin:
My process has always been the same. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I think that everything happens, and then we make up a reason; but in the marketplace, in our culture, there tends to be reliable reasons, causes, effects that we can predict based on how something works or doesn’t work.

So if I see something in the world and I don’t understand why it’s working, I need to come up with another way to explain culture. Like, why is it that people are waiting in line to buy a Supreme hoodie for $250? If I can’t explain it, then I’m walking around thinking that everything is just magical. And it’s not. What we have is the sum total of how human beings behave. And our job as marketers is to help figure that out.

How does one learn to ride a bike in the marketing world? 
So the altMBA is our flagship; there’s no videos in it. All it is: small groups of people, five are at a time in a cohort of 120, with alumni coaches taking them through 14 prompts. And in the course of a month, they’ll give and get hundreds of pieces of feedback, more feedback than they’ve gotten in their entire career.

And what you do when you work through a prompt is you practice making assertions. You learn to make decisions, you learn to go faster, you learn to see and be seen. And that’s a deep emotional shift for most people who have a job because it is not about compliance. It’s about leadership. And leadership isn’t the same as management. Leadership is voluntary. Leadership involves pathfinding, figuring out where to go next.

But the reason it works is because then we say, ‘Alright, take this idea and apply it to your work,’ what happens is that people start workshopping their marketing in front of their peers. And too often, we hesitate to do that because we’re afraid. And so you’ve got all the people on Madison Avenue, who have a lot of bluster because they’re afraid to talk about why a campaign might or might not work. So they simply pretend it’s magic.

But it’s not magic. It’s an intentional act, designed to get under the skin of a few people and cause a change to happen. And if you can’t articulate it, then you’re a little bit of a charlatan, like we would never go to a doctor if she couldn’t articulate why a stent is going to make our heart work better. Well, I don’t think you should hire an ad agency that can’t articulate why an ad campaign is going to work.

It’s really about communication and practice when the opportunity comes up at your job.  
That didn’t used to be the case. What you were supposed to do in your job in the old days was what your boss wanted. And this hierarchical industrial approach goes all the way back to the magic of Mad Men and Bewitched and all the things that we think we’re supposed to do as marketers or people at agencies, etc.


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@koimtv ko.im@adweek.com Ko Im is the community editor at Adweek and co-host of Adweek's podcast Yeah, That's Probably an Ad.