Marketing Needs Geeks, Not Gurus

by Chris Kenton on April 3, 2007

Someone introduced me the other day as a marketing "guru". It was one of those moments where you drift off mentally and start watching the discussion like a detached observer. You could almost see the thought bubbles popping out my head. "Hmmmm. Guru…"  It was someone I respect, so I was kind of flattered. Guru. Someone with answers. A man with a plan. But the more I started to think about it, the more I started to suspect my sense of flattery was misguided. I mean, how many words do we have to describe someone who spends too much time thinking and then pontificates about the most grinding minutiae? Like, what "guru" really means. The only other title I can think of that’s equally vague on the professional value I provide to the world is "consultant". And who wants to introduce a consultant when you can introduce a guru?

A few hours after basking in the afterglow of misplaced flattery, I got schooled on how tenuous the domain of gurudom can be. I submitted an article to a friend’s newsletter on Marketing ROI, in which I took my usual stance of flogging marketers for flaunting buzzwords and failing to grasp deeper meanings. That’s kind of like an old baseball mitt for me. Fits nice, usually does the job. Except this time I got called on it. Jim Lenskold, who publishes mROI Insights, sent back my draft with some very diplomatic editorial comments. Translated into the vernacular, he said "Dude. You’re beating a straw man. Add some substance." That started the very beginnings of a useful conversation about the current state of Marketing ROI thought, and demonstrated how deeply many individual threads of marketing thought are being mined by people like Lenskold. How could I be a guru when there’s such a vast amount of knowledge I don’t know?

And that’s when a lightbulb went off. Why do marketers focus so much on elevating gurus? And why don’t we have more geeks? A guru is always supposed to have an answer, while a geek is just someone who’s really really interested in finding out how to make things work. The irony, of course, is that the single most ancient rule of Guruhood is that it’s not having the answers that matters, but getting the questions right.

But gurus don’t ask questions–at least not the kind they really want answers to. If I’m a guru, I can’t let Jim know that I may need to be brought up to speed on the latest in Marketing ROI. I Must Know All. On the other hand, if I’m a geek, I can just say "Cool. So how do you do that? What else do you know?" In a business world that is changing so blindingly fast, with a constant flood of new technologies, new ideas and new opportunities how long can any one guru conceivably last before they’re obsolete? And how long before we notice they’re obsolete and stop listening to their pointless babble? You don’t have that problem with geeks, because geeks are always focused on learning–well, at least as much as they like to show off–and are always interested in gathering with other geeks to learn. Everyone wins. Well, everyone except the marketer who thinks an answer from a guru will save him from getting his ass kicked at the next board meeting.

I know it will be really hard to shed this deeply engrained need for the certainty that comes with the spouting of pundits. But what marketing really needs today is more geeks, not gurus. Everyone can be a marketing geek, while marketing gurus, if there really are any, are bound to look stupid in the long run. Why run the risk of having them take you along for the ride?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Lenskold April 3, 2007 at 2:46 pm

It was interesting to read what was going through your mind as we exchanged information. Guru, consultant or any other label, the important lesson everyone should take away from your message is that we all need to be asking more questions. I learned so much from your article and it opened up new questions that we have yet to discuss.

There’s an old saying, “Smart people learn from their experiences. Wise people learn from the experience of others.” To me, the term guru is much more of a wise person than a smart person.

In the area of marketing ROI and accountability, you and I both serve as advocates for improving discipline. And while we can share expertise, we also need continuous learning to accelerate adoption and success across the industry.

Don’t downplay your guru status. It’s a term that defined by the perceptions of others so accept it with pride…and keep asking questions.

Alana Stanton January 9, 2009 at 6:04 am

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