Talent and Vendors: A Response to Seth Godin

I want to expand on a discussion I joined yesterday on LinkedIn. A colleague shared a link to a post on Seth Godin’s blog entitled Talent and Vendors. The subject ought to be near and dear to anyone who works with designers, writers, illustrators or any of the other folks who create marketing campaigns.

Here’s how Godin starts:

“You may be purchasing services from people with magical talents (artists) and it’s a mistake to confuse them with vendors.

As we get more and more service oriented, it’s an easy mistake to make. …sometimes the person you’re working with is a vendor, and sometimes they’re not–they’re an artist, “the talent.”

A vendor is someone who exists to sell you something. It doesn’t always matter to the vendor what’s being sold, as long as it’s being sold and paid for.”

I love a dichotomy as much as the next guy but once again we’ve strayed into the arena of logical fallacies; Godin has proposed a false dichotomy. True dichotomies–think male/female, cleric/layman, one-time buyer/repeat customer–are mutually exclusive.  That suggests a question: does an advertising agency exist to sell the talents of its staff or does it exist so the people with ‘magical talents’ know where they are supposed to gather?

You probably see my point. In a commercial society everyone is selling something. I understand the appeal of this outlook–especially to the Creative Department–but I truly believe it lies at the root of all agency/client dysfunction. An honest accounting requires we admit there are bad agencies and fabulous vendors. Is the pressman who saved your brochure with a blanket adjustment any less creative than the art director who conceived it? Printers always fall into the category of vendor and yet that sort of thing happens. Patrick Fultz was closer to the truth when he said everything is creative. (He’s still saying it.)

The larger point Godin makes–that you’ll get better work from people if you treat them well–is important and always bears repeating but it’s hardly new. Emotional intelligence. Everything I need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Kant’s categorical imperative. The Gospels. Pick your poison: it’s all do unto others.

Why then the poor logic and the appeal to ‘magic?’ On the logical front Godin’s in good company; arguing the false alternative is a favorite rhetorical trope of President Obama. Presidential use, however, doesn’t make the construct any more logical and it always sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it strikes the users as persuasive, it always makes me look for the weakness in the argument.

In this case that’s magic. Sergio Zyman famously said,  “Marketing is not magic, and marketers do themselves no favor when they pretend that it is. There’s nothing mysterious about it.” Count me in that camp. I think you’ll find a host of familiar names there, none of whom I recall speaking of magic, including  John Caples, Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves and James Webb Young.

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