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December 7, 2017

I Thought Marketers Were Evil… And Then I Became One

Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got older. I would go from marine biologist to race-car driver to nighttime security guard in the span of an hour. At any given moment in high school, I might have told you I either wanted to study sociology at UC Berkeley or drop out to find a berth on a cod-fishing vessel.

The only things I could never see myself doing were marketing and sales (might also throw air traffic control and law enforcement in there for posterity). I was passionate about social and environmental causes as a child, and my parents made sure that I hated Wal-Mart before I could even pronounce the name of that unholiest of places.

Some years, two major changes and one failed internship later, I’m on the verge of starting full time as a Paid Media Specialist at Nebo.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oliver, you self-righteous hypocrite.” How do I know you’re thinking that? Because I’m thinking the same exact thing (just replace self-righteous with something slightly more vulgar). In the quest to graduate college and get a job so I could fund my Polly Pocket obsession expensive lifestyle, I adjusted my moral compass to classify marketing as an acceptable profession.

This change in my life has forced me to ponder an existentially taxing question: am I evil?

I don’t mean evil as in obviously evil entities — serial killers, neo-Nazis, Jerry Jones, etc. As far as I’m aware, I’m not a serial killer, a neo-Nazi, or an aging, delusional, over-involved NFL owner.

I use evil a little more loosely here — the widely lauded companies that receive tax breaks for destroying the planet. The politicians we willingly elect who receive more from lobbyists in a night than most Americans will make in their whole lives. Essentially, the evils of the establishment. Legal evils, as I call them.

Marketing is something I would absolutely consider to be a “legal evil.” In one marketing course I took, we studied a case about marketing to impoverished, third-world countries. Rather than say, “Hey, these people make about a dollar a day, maybe we shouldn’t try to extract as much profit from them as possible,” the case argued that the best course of action was to lower overhead and make up for slimmer profit margins with higher volume.

Maybe this is just me, but selling people products they don’t need at prices they can’t afford doesn’t seem like an effective way to earn karma points. Neither does polluting as much as is legally allowed (and then some).

In fact, prior to quite recently, I thought marketing was just about the least socially aware thing I could do. Bill Hicks, a comedian I respect quite a lot, once told an audience that anyone in marketing or advertising should commit suicide.

Being told to kill yourself is rarely fun, but it’s especially bothersome when the person suggesting suicide is someone you like and respect.

What’s a boy man to do?

Alex, I’ll take “Work at Nebo” for $400.

Willfully suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine you were new to rural English wizarding schools and accidentally joined Slytherin. Sure, you’re cunning and smart and you have a cool common room in the dungeons, but you also have a soft side and you don’t like being the evil one.

Now imagine you were walking to class one day and you walked past a meeting of the “Slytherins for House Elf Welfare.” Maybe you said “Wow, you know what? I hate house elves and don’t care for their welfare” and walked right past to find your friends Crabbe and Goyle so you could all go push Ron Weasley down some stairs. If you said that, you probably aren’t the Nebo type and you should close this tab and Google “empathy training.”

If, on the other hand, you stopped to join in on the meeting, we are in the same boat. I actually experienced almost that exact scenario with Nebo, except it was incredibly different. I used to live across the train tracks from Nebo’s office (when it was just slightly less gentrified) and would walk by the office frequently. I saw young, cool-looking people and said, “Wow, I would like to work with those people,” not having any clue what in the fuck a “Nebo” was.

Three years later, here I am typing my first post for the Nebo blog. I also have a much better idea of what a “Nebo” is. Nebo, though not a singular object, can still be boiled down to one main idea — human-centered marketing.

Sounds like more industry jargon, right? An “innovative” agency trying to “disrupt” marketing. “Vertically aligned,” “data-focused” and “infinitely pivotable,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s really not. And I’m saying that as Richard Dawkins’ skeptical, atheist soulmate.

After working here for the last six months, I have a much better understanding of what human-centered means, and it’s certainly not the industry jargon it sounds like.

It’s an expression of what’s important to us (though it would really be “human-and-canine-centered marketing,” if we want to be syntactically correct). It means treating people like — gasp — people. It means viewing users as more than a conversion to be optimized for or a demographic to be pandered to.

It means creating a holistic experience for users that provides value from awareness to advocacy. It means treating your employees like humans with lives rather than mini-factories whose value depends solely on their output.

In essence, it means the difference between good marketing and evil marketing. And no, I don’t mean the difference between quality marketing and nonquality marketing. I literally mean the difference between good and evil. Bad people can make for great marketers, depending on how you gauge success.

Jimmy Swaggart, noted evil person, was a damn good marketer. He filled stadiums at an incredible rate before his eventual demise. On the other side of the proverbial coin, there are activists on almost every corner that never receive the recognition they deserve. My mom has fed the same colony of feral cats daily for the last 10 years and has spayed, neutered, and fostered over 20 cats without ever receiving anything more than a “Wow, that’s crazy that you do that!”

Nebo, though, has shown me that good marketers can also be good people. I’ve never seen an office or group of people that cared about social and environmental issues more than this office does.

More surprising than the fact that so many people care is the fact that people actually act in support of their values. If I polled my Facebook friends, they would overwhelmingly support the same things I do, but I guarantee they wouldn’t act on their values the way this company does. They wouldn’t form a Green Team to ensure that internal practices align with their values. Nebo did.

It would be a huge waste of time to explain all the ways in which Nebo is “human-centered” because people far smarter than I have already written blog posts on the subject (here and here and here).

Instead, I will say that Nebo is definitively not evil. No one that feeds me three Red Bulls and a bowl of Kashi Organic Berry Fruitful cereal every day could possibly be evil. Even a marketing agency.

In all seriousness, though, I have found a four-leafed clover, so to speak. I still think marketing is evil. The hire-and-fire culture, the arbitrary demographic segmentation, the pursuit of profits over purpose.

I just don’t see what we do as that type of marketing. Sure, we help people sell products, but we are selective about who we work with and we don’t compromise our values for clients. We aren’t just working with every fidget-spinning salesman that walks through the door.

The jury is still out on my goodness. I live 1.7 miles from the office, but still choose to drive. I frequently throw out recyclable goods because I don’t feel like rinsing the Thai food out of them. Sometimes, I take the HOV lane even if I don’t have a passenger (just kidding, THAT would be truly evil).

I’m still not sure if I’m inherently evil, though I’m not sure it really matters because we’re all going to be enveloped by a deadly, continent-sized cloud of ash that will turn day to night when the Yellowstone super-volcano erupts, anyway.

I am sure, however, that I am doing at least some good in an industry overwhelmingly filled with evil, and for that I am thankful.

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Written by
Oliver Brantley
Paid Media Specialist