38 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started In Marketing

Ian Lurie

Ah, youth. 13 years ago I started my company with a spare room in my house, a credit card (limit: $1500) and a computer (Pentium 75 mhz, Windows 95).

I was out of my ##@!)(@#$*[email protected]@ mind.

If I’d known then what I know now, would I have gone into this business? I don’t know. But here’s some wisdom I wish I had back then:

  1. No one has a clue how to market anything. We are all winging it. It’s just that some are better at winging it than others.
  2. Corollary: Seth Godin, et al are brilliant about the high-level stuff. But on a tactical level, everyone fails, most of the time. Learn from it.
  3. That which you doubt becomes a trend. When I started, I hedged my bets that this internet thing was a fad by writing copy for print pieces, too. Cough.
  4. Today’s hot trend vanishes like a fart in the wind. The flip side of doubt is that the hottest trends often die so fast the universe forgets they ever existed. Remember ‘push technology’? Wired does. In 1997 they were shouting how push would replace the web browser. 11 years later, RSS adoption is around 3-8% depending on who you ask. Don’t jump on every new thing. The trick, of course, is knowing what to jump on, and what to jump over.
  5. Get a bookkeeper. My wife is a Chartered Accountant (a Canadian CPA+). She did our books for about 2 years. After two years of her harassing me for receipts I knew I’d lost and me driving her crazy with my squirrelesque accounting practices, I hired a part-time bookkeeper. Best money I’ve ever spent.
  6. Get a retainer. Clients you think are the nicest folks in the world may have painfully slow accounts payable departments. Get 30%. Up front. No matter what.
  7. You are right. When in a discussion, assume you are right. If you waffle, there’s not much point in discussing anything.
  8. You are wrong. Don’t be so blockheaded that you can’t change your mind when you’re clearly wrong.
  9. Buy a really nice monitor. Definitely buy a humungous monitor. I love mine, and I’m far more productive for having it.
    My work desk
  10. Work with people you like. No matter how much someone’s paying you, if you dread talking to them the relationship won’t last.
  11. Marketing should not compromise your values.
  12. You can teach without being cruel.
  13. Speak your mind. Better to be too honest than too subtle. I have no problem with this, or so I’m told. Ahem.
  14. Speak simply.
  15. Marketing jargon is fun but distracting. There are enough synergies, monetizations, 2.0s and viruses in the world.
  16. There are no absolutes. Marketing isn’t about the 100% win or the 0% loss. It’s about piling up a lot of 55% successes and then using them to beat the crap out of your competition.
  17. There is no ‘industry specialization’. When someone asks me what industry we focus on, I want to yank on their nose so hard their feet retract. In marketing, industry specialization is a joke. Either you know how to tell and sell a compelling story, or you don’t.
  18. Metrics are one tool. They are not the risen savior of marketing.
  19. Marketing is really, really, really messy. It’s like painting your cat in peanut butter and then tying a bell to its tail. Stuff gets everywhere. That’s OK.
  20. David Ogilvy can still tell you 99% of what you need to know about marketing. Considering he’s dead, that’s pretty impressive.
  21. Build something that’ll last. Creating a business just to finance your lifestyle is fun and all, but if you want to really do something worth bragging about, build a business that has a chance of surviving after you leave. If that’s too Ayn Rand for you, it’s also totally OK to do the former. Just don’t complain when it evaporates.
  22. Build a team you like. Then trust them.
  23. Trust your instincts, too. If you think things are coming off the rails, they very well may be.
  24. See that little thing on your desk with a number pad and a handset? That’s a phone. Pick it up once in a while and speak to people. They love that.
  25. Outsourcing isn’t the answer to everything. Lots of internet marketing pundits will tell you to outsource, outsource, outsource. Having a trusted team that knows each other and enjoys working together is good, too. Plus I’ve never seen someone in Indonesia come up with the next great marketing message for an American company (nor have I ever seen the reverse).
  26. One documented ‘yes’ from the client is worth 1,000,000 undocumented ones.
  27. Yes, you are worth whatever you charge! Probably more.
  28. If you have no idea, then don’t say anything. You just end up sounding like an idiot.
  29. Everyone thinks you’re scum. They may say otherwise. But I suspect my family still wishes I’d gone into p0rn instead.
  30. But you are not scum. You wield a great deal of power: You convince people to buy things, vote for people, change their lifestyles and more. Use that power wisely.
  31. Firing people always sucks. It doesn’t get better.
  32. Being fired always sucks. It doesn’t get better, either.
  33. Make sure you savor your wins.
  34. You are not a commodity, or ‘headcount’, or ‘overhead’.
  35. The more someone threatens to fire you, the more they know they need you. Except when they really do fire you, of course, in which case they meant business.
  36. Use your clients’ products! If you don’t like them enough to use them, you can’t market them, either.
  37. Have some fun, and a sense of humor. As a marketer, ridiculous things will happen to you every day. You’re going to have to roll with it.
  38. Take a break, or your body may do it for you.


Did you know I just published an e-book? Well, I did: The Unscary, Real World Guide to SEO Copywriting. Have a look.


Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Ogilvy is king. Long live Ogilvy…
    Really enjoyed that list.
    I must be getting somewhere because I can relate to many of those points. Which is good, right?

  2. Nice post Ian. “You can teach without being cruel”? Now where did that come from? Working at Ogilvy I agree the guy was a genius. Wish more people read him around here though.

  3. @David Thanks. The not cruel line came from the recent Shel Israel/Loren Feldman crap. I respect both as professionals – really admire Loren’s work. But I am unclear on why it’s OK to relentlessly lampoon an individual AND hijack their name as a domain AND then profit for it.

  4. 26. One documented ‘yes’ from the client is worth 1,000,000 undocumented ones.
    After a lot of back and forth with a client the other day, they finally replied with “I now understand, you are right in suggesting this.” This victory was all I needed for the day. I’m going to keep that in my inbox and reference it from time to time.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m always right, however the clients don’t always recognize that.

  5. I love #21. I have been wishing that book would just go away for a while now. Every time someone quotes something from it, I like them a little less.
    Great list & site – just added your RSS feed!

  6. Hey Ian,
    Great list you’ve put together here. I’m sure things have changed drastically in the past 13 years – that in itself enables you to speak out on this and give insights that a lot of the new Internet marketers simply don’t have.

  7. Awesome post, Ian! I’m going to read this one a few times I’m sure, as well as send it around to some friends/colleagues.
    Also, I just love the phrase “vanishes like a fart in the wind.” Like Andy Duphresne from Shawshank Prison.

  8. Hey Ian:
    That was a *brilliant* post. Practical and funny at the same time. And I love the shot of your employees pulling each others hair.

  9. @Mark It’s funny. When I started reading The 4 Hour Workweek, the first story in there was about how he won the kickboxing championship. I was horrified.
    That said, the book has some amazing advice on managing and living your life…

  10. 38 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started In Marketing
    From the page: “If I’d known then what I know now, would I have gone into this business? I don’t know. But here’s some wisdom I wish I had back then”

  11. @Goodnewscowboy Thanks! They’re not my employees though 🙂
    I have to give credit here. Jade Ingmire, from my company, gave me the idea to write this. I wrote it (no ghostwriting here) but it was her brainchild.

  12. @MikeTek that must be where I got the expression. I know I didn’t make it up. I build on the shoulders of giants. Or something.

  13. #7 is right on. There’s nothing that will lose you business faster than an uncertain response to a client’s question. They need to know that you are in the pilot’s seat and flying the plane in the right direction.

  14. #16 made me laugh, if I had the nerve I’d print it out and dump it on my bosses desk, it’d probably double his knowledge of marketing overnight.

  15. Loved the ‘Metrics are one tool’ and the success percentages. There are enough people selling on the fear that clients won’t get 100% sales ratios. As if. 🙂

  16. Nice Post Ian, thanks. More evidence that experience is still the best teacher… and more efficient when it’s someone elses (though often we still insist on gaining it first-hand).

  17. Thanks Ian for the sharing. I don’t really understand on “there’s no industry specialization”. Do you mean a good marketer should know how to handle any products and market?

  18. Hi Ian,
    wow how long did it take you to write that master piece, it is fantastic. Wives are little darlings aren’t they, just a few of us fools have tried to work with them as well.
    The last word is even Tim the Tool man Taylor would be proud of that monitor buddy.

  19. Ian, Love the way you right. I read loads and loads online because of my Job. Most of the time I skim through articles, but I found myself reading from beginning too end.
    By the way, #37, I couldn’t of say it better myself. Thanks for a great read 🙂

  20. A great post.
    Some of the things you listed had me laughing out loud. I think my parents would have preferred me working in porn than marketing. 😉
    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  21. …and Business Start-ups!!!
    You read my mind on several of these numbers — and wow real difficult to narrow it to 38!!!!
    #9 has been nagging me for months now — just got to go out and buy one NOW.
    Thanks and keep moving the needle forward.

  22. Wow, what a post, 13 years is a long time.
    Being someone who is trying to sort out my digital files stored in multiple external hard disks at the moment (choosing to move as fast as I could on the marketing front at some point in time didn’t help in getting me organised I guess), I could not agree more on point 19, which is: “Marketing is really, really, really messy. It’s like painting your cat in peanut butter and then tying a bell to its tail. Stuff gets everywhere.”

  23. Ian, this is a(nother) great list from you. It makes very heartening reading for someone who got started in IM just 6 and a bit months ago.
    I really like that you’re so honest about stockpiling the 55% successes and then using them to beat the competition. People think that if they can’t get the 100% then they’ve failed, and it’s so untrue.
    Great blog. Very glad I found it and quite an inspiration to me.

  24. Hi There,
    Great list!! I agreed and laughed hard at some of the points..:-)
    And it is so true, you wish you knew them before you started.
    I think the trick is to be persistant and never give up, then as you say add up your small successes to a slightly better result. Keep at it!

  25. I loved your line about ‘savoring the wins.’ It’s REALLY easy to get down on yourself for not winning everything all of the time. It seems that even my greatest wins get negated with ‘could have been better.’ This is the curse of the over-achievers. The reason why we over-achieve is because we think nothing is ever good enough.

  26. Amazing! I seem to be on track with most of these … now if I can get the rest of the department to believe.

  27. I printed it out and “posted” it on my office wall. My favourite on the list is number 9, “Buy a really nice monitor”, in fact, I think you should get at least two!

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