Seth Godin on Optimism at Crunch-time

RJ Thomson talks exclusively to one of the world’s leading business minds, Seth Godin, about his challenging new book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, and why life ain’t so shitty after all

Feature by RJ Thomson | 11 Feb 2009
  • Seth Godin

Estate agents and lawyers don't have a particularly good rep (and bankers aren't too popular these days), but when comedian Bill Hicks famously ranted 'if anyone here is in advertising or marketing... kill yourself... you are Satan's little helpers', the crowd cheered. And it's fair to say, he knew the crowd would take the line.

Now, Seth Godin is possibly the most famous marketing expert in the world, and it's pretty safe to say he'd look Hicks in the eye on this one. While Hicks identifies marketers as 'ruining everything that's good', anyone who has read any of Godin's stuff (and lots of people have, his is the most widely read marketing blog in the world, and one of the biggest business blogs in general (1)) will know that he leads with a strongly ethical standpoint: responsibility, creativity, sticking with what you know to be remarkable, marketing by actually being good. It wouldn't be a million miles off to identify 'no sell out' principles in Godin’s marketing point of view. It's quite reassuring to know his voice is so influential.(2)

Yet Godin seems to be in on the joke too. Among the bestselling books he's written, one was called All Marketers Are Liars. His point of view has long been that most of what we do, most human behaviour, is marketing in some shape or form. Despite this, Godin is also distinctly capitalist, albeit with a more open mind than the widely-perceived archetypal fatcat.

It's a bit of a risk for a UK-based alternative arts mag to run an interview with an American businessman, even if he is also a writer, and even in these (partially) optimistic post-inauguration times. Marketing can be optimistic, it can be ethical, but it's still some way off being cool. But when it's a question of worldview, Seth Godin is clearly a man with a lot to teach.

One of the reasons to speak to him this month is because of the very shakiness of global capitalism just now: an outspoken believer in creative entrepreneurship and 'heretical' approaches to your career, he sees the 'Credit Crunch' as the dawning of a new age of opportunity, particularly for those open to new initiatives. And, as the debacle surrounding the bid to set up 'Creative Scotland' continues messy, this is a particularly appropriate time for artists and creatives alike to look to the opportunities they can create for themselves. Godin is an encouraging voice, and one who speaks with authority.

He also has a book out on the merits of taking the risk of creative leadership - Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us - which contains a mix of inspiring case-studies and hard-line yet unorthodox ways of looking at common problems. It comes recommended, not least because it fits with the original ethos of the magazine you're reading: believe in your own ideas, and make them real.

RT: This a time when many around the world are filled with a sense of financial foreboding, yet you see it as a time of great opportunity. What are the main avenues there?

SG: I think there are at least three. The best people are under-engaged. Not just the best employees, but the best investors and the best customers. They can focus. Markets are quieter and it's easier to make a splash. It's cheaper than ever to launch a new venture, which means you can walk into a quiet market with great people and make an impact for not a lot of money.

What are you most looking forward to in 2009?

This is the year that the internet is everywhere, when hope returns and when big ideas make a resurgence.

Your profession is as a marketer, yet you're frequently to be found taking on ideas like imagination, fundamentalism and even religion. To what extent do you think this is a reflection on 'marketing' and how it's perceived, and how much is it a result of your personality?

Marketing has changed from a one-note (buy ads!) craft into a far-ranging profession, something that requires real understanding of how things work and how we got here. That and I'm fascinated by this stuff.

When I spoke to Charles Leadbeater about his concept of 'We-Think'(3), he said recognition was one of the main motivators for people to act. In Tribes, you make the formula that 'initiative = happiness'. Why do you think taking the initiative feels so fulfilling?

I think people enjoy taking initiative for a few reasons. It implies a level of control, certainly. It also is a bit like Christmas, because there are presents, unexpected ones, every morning!

You use the example of the recent failure of the music industry in Tribes, but also demonstrate how good the Grateful Dead were at inspiring their tribe of fans. Why do you think an industry like that, which would seem to lend itself to tribal leadership so naturally, went so far wrong?

Big difference between the 'music' part and the 'industry' part. The industry folks want control and cash. Those are two things you don't get right away from a tribe, so they missed it. I think we're beginning to see a whole generation of artists who don't dream of record deals. That means that the creativity in spreading a message and making a living is going to be astounding.

When I spoke to Mel Young of the Homeless World Cup, he suggested that social responsibility had moved from the church, to the state, to the charity sector, and was now moving in the direction of business. To what extent do you think this is the case, and if so what do you think are the big questions around that shift?

I totally agree. It's a good place for it to be, but it's awfully sad that the other sectors failed at this. The thing is, as cycles get shorter, businesses are understanding that they are responsible for the side effects of their actions.

Tribes seems to be as much about leadership as it is about marketing, but also suggests that leadership can't always be for everyone. What is the distinction between the two, and does this mean that there are some people who don't deserve to be heard?

I think the most effective form of marketing is no longer advertising, it's leadership. Every organization that wants to grow must lead. Every employee doesn't have to, but the happy and productive and profitable ones will. I think it's a learnable skill.

What bores you?

Meetings.

You've argued in the past that people are now so attuned to marketing messages that marketers now need to earn the right to speak to them about things that are of genuine benefit. For decades now, some thinkers have worried that we're living in an age of inescapable self-awareness, heightened by advertising; do you think permission-based business may indicate a way out of that vicious circle?

I think people have been self-aware and focused since Narcissus. It's not going away, no way. It's going to get worse.

Do you distinguish business from art?

Artists can do business, most don't. Businesses can make art, most don't.

(1) Godin's blog is at: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/ - recent posts cover stretching your creativity, making what you do something other people will love, and Martin Luther King Day. He is also a reknowned speaker. You can view a recent TED Conference speech, at which Godin appeared alongside the likes of environmentalist Al Gore, sociologist Malcolm Gladwell and Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, here.

(2) In truth Hicks and Godin could probably come to some kind of agreement. Hicks’ main beef is with the placing of a dollar sign on everything; Godin argues in his new book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Penguin) that you’ll never market most effectively if you put money first.

(3) With ‘We-Think’ Leadbeater suggests that the most effective way for people to work efficiently is to collaborate, particularly in an online world, with such options as open-source creativity (link to our interview with Charles Leadbeater).