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Optimism is the heart of great marketing

There’s a toxic cynicism haunting the marketing community these days, but to be any good at this job, you need to believe

Designer Jeremy Scott wearing a yellow coat with a large happy face on it

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

“With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

That’s the timeless punchline to one of Ronald Reagan’s favourite jokes. It says a lot about the Great Communicator’s regard for optimism. Politics aside, you can’t dismiss the Gipper’s bona fides: With a little help from legendary adman Hal Riney, that optimism—“It’s morning again in America” began Reagan’s paradigm-shaking campaign ad—carried him to a second term in a landslide. It’s a great lesson about what sets ordinary people and great marketers apart: To be any good at this job, it’s not enough to be smart. To tear down walls, you have to believe.

That can be a challenge for those who toil in marketing’s vineyard, given how rich it is with the scent of manure right now. Silicon Valley wants to turn the job into digital Whac-A-Mole. Attention has become so difficult to win that companies sacrifice anything—including the dignity of their brands—for crumbs of it. And consumers have made a belligerent point of claiming to be beyond its reach. Ponies are hard to come by in these strange times, and you don’t want to seem foolish for looking. Sometimes, it’s just easier to pretend there never was a pony in the first place.

In the marketing community, the plague of cynicism sometimes seems on the verge of epidemic. It hasn’t reached critical mass, not yet, but the self-loathing is still starting to feel toxic. You see it in marketing’s weirdly anti-corporate Twitter rants, bitterly nostalgic LinkedIn discussions and facepalming kvetches in Starbucks lineups. It’s a sense that people in this game are distancing themselves from what they do. It’s hard to tell whether it’s misplaced guilt, or a fear of social opprobrium, or some vain need to feel more savvy than consumers, but it’s there, this grim layer of doubt.

Psychologists tell us that cynicism is a strategy for protecting ourselves emotionally, usually because we’ve been disappointed by something. The antidote, they say, is compassion. Get outside your own head, your own view of the world, think about making someone else’s life better, and they promise yours will soon start feeling that way too. It’s mawkish, maybe, but no more mawkish than the “sunny ways” that won our dewy-eyed prime minister the last election—an episode which itself offers a vital lesson in the strategic limits of brutal pragmatism and snark.

The truth is, a compassionate view of marketing is as simple to summon as it is hopelessly unfashionable. When we do our jobs, people work. When we put a great product into someone’s hands, their lives get a little bit better. When we bring a brand into the world, we tip the scales of corporate power by giving consumers choice. When we help enterprises grow, everybody’s prospects get a little brighter. By any rational measure, the principled practice of marketing is a common good, just like they told you it was in business school. Back when you still believed.

Based on the evidence, believing still seems like a pretty good idea if you want to make something good happen beyond eking out the next fiscal quarter. I believe Apple’s Tim Cook believes. I believe Starbucks’ Howard Schultz believes. And GM’s Mary Barra. And Patagonia’s Rose Marcario. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg makes a good show of it these days, not to mention an entire generation of as-yet uncontaminated young idealists. When you look at what’s possible by taking the sunny side of the street, it’s hard to think of cynicism as anything other than an alibi for being out of ideas.

If you’re too worldly for this work, maybe you should find something else to do, and not just because it might be easier on your soul. The fact is, the viability of any business depends on the resilience of your faith in it, sometimes against all reason, and even if it makes you look like a fool. No consumer is ever going to be more passionate about a brand than that brand is about itself, or more loyal. In marketing, as in life, we’re often asked to choose between looking smart and being hopeful. And as in life, it usually turns out that the latter is how you win the long game.