Five marketing lessons from Seth Godin's 'The Icarus Deception'

6th Feb 2013

In this series of Smart Insights Best Practice Advice, Danyl Bosomworth of shares tips on best practice to get better results from digital marketing. This month Danyl examines marketing guru Seth Godin's latest book, and what it can teach us about the need for risk-taking and creativity in marketing.

I recently attended Seth Godin’s presentation around his new book, the The Icarus Deception, a ‘Penguin Live’ event.

I’ve been meaning to sit down and consider what I learned from it so that I could share it, so here are my key learnings from the man himself…

Icarus who?

If you don’t know the reason for the name, The Icarus Deception, it centres around the myth of Icarus. You will know he ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun, resulting in his home-made wings over-heating and ultimately in a fatal crash into the sea. Icarus, flew to close to the sun, he got burned, simple, that’s the part everyone knows.

The less known part of the myth is that Icarus was also warned about getting too close to the sea, about flying too low. This is the angle that Seth takes on the myth, that there aren’t enough people prepared to stand up and fly higher, and that settling for too little is “a far more common failing” than flying high and getting burned. Something I’d have to agree, even if I only look around me day-to-day.

“[We've] created a culture where we constantly remind one another about the dangers of standing up, standing out, and making a ruckus.”

Seth Godin

The core story in Seth’s book is this; We all have the potential to be artists and to do great work (he calls great work, “Art”). However to do so, we need to leave our comfort zones and fly closer to the sun.

This in turn requires us to take bigger risks and create new things. To try, turn up and do the work, to take the pain involved in the creative process, to manage and answer difficult people who don’t share you view, who want to keep low and keep you low, and to remember that you’ll need to be open to possible failure and criticism. In fact, you will fail time and again, and that’s a great signal of progress.

“Picasso painted thousands of paintings, but only 200 were among the greatest of all time.

If he said ‘I failed most of the time’, you would say, ‘no’”

Seth Godin

What can marketers learn?

Here are my top five take-aways from Seth and The Icarus Deception (I’ve had to limit it just to 5 to keep it simple, there are more…).

  1. Marketing is definitely Art. And it’s great art at that. In fact there are few jobs that allow art on this scale. Given most people accept marketing is no longer limited to advertising and campaigns, we can open up to the wider potential to tell stories around our products and services, create content and to put our focus on people, which is what marketing is actually about and should have remained about. Real people, not tactics, data and channels – they’re just tools to communicate. As Seth says, we’re in the Connection Economy now. So how might you leverage that?
  2. Marketing can create a value in itself, it can help a brand earn trust, it can communicate keepable promises and set expectations. But more importantly it can create a tangible value through enabling education, inspiration, entertainment and the building of connections to other people by virtue of your creativity in the marketing process. Seth talks a lot about the ‘connection economy’ – what could you do to be more valuable to your market by helping people to connect with each other and new information? Well, you will need…
  3. Imagination and creativity. These are the real skills of our time. Making great web applications is a given, the tools and people are there. It’s the same for content. Yet we need marketers, creatives, designers, software engineers and data analysts to focus their imagination around the consumer, to try make things that matter to that consumer, things that they are likely to value aside from the product itself. Remember Red Bull’s Stratos, Old Spice Guy and more recently Lynx’s Astronaut campaign? Three FMCG examples straight away.
  4. Failure is progress. Who wants to fail, not me I’m a perfectionist. And this is possibly my biggest learning, speaking personally. Freeing yourself to try, and accept possible failure is pretty liberating. Of course you don’t want to bet and loose big on one idea, be sensible of course, and still try something new. There will not be data to back up everything that you do (only 10 years ago there was very little data at all!), there is no map for you, accept that you’re going to tread new ground, this opens lots of space to ask different questions and unleash your imagination. And, look on the bright side, your competitors are less likely to be doing what your doing.
  5. Product quality. Whatever it is that you’re a part of selling or promoting, Seth urges us to accept that high quality and premium as product features are a given. Don’t make more average stuff for average people (and average marketing for average people). It’s easier for the little guys to compete more than ever, the bar is higher and it is the product that ultimately matters, make sure that yours is magical.

Danyl is co-founder of Smart Insights and a digital marketing contractor. His experience spans brand development, direct marketing and digital marketing, with roles both agency and client side over the last 12 years. 

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