Marketer’s Curse

I was having a passionate argument with my colleagues about the intricacies of our landing page. What inspires a click more, a picture of people smiling and laughing, or a picture of a graph?

Here’s the cruel joke: You become a marketer, or are drawn to marketing in some shape or form, because you love ideas.

We’re going to test this. My instinct tells me that “people smiling and laughing” is actually always going to perform the worst. There are a couple of good ol’ David Ogilvy quotes that confirm my suspicions about this:

“What do work are photographs which arouse the reader’s curiosity. He glances at the photograph and says to himself, “What goes on here?” Then he reads your copy to find out. This is the trap to set.

Harold Rudolph called this magic element “story appeal,”and demonstrated that the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements. […]

Knowing from Rudolph that a strong dose of “story appeal” would make readers stop and take notice, I concocted eighteen different ways to inject this magic ingredient. The eighteenth was the eye patch. At first we rejected it in favor of a more obvious idea, but on the way to the studio I ducked into a drugstore and bought an eye patch for $1.50. Exactly why it turned out to be so successful, I shall never know. It put Hathaway on the map after 116 years of relative obscurity. Seldom, if ever, has a national brand been created so fast, or at such low cost. Articles were written about it in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Scores of other manufacturers stole it for their own advertising–I have seen five copies from Denmark alone. What struck me as a moderate good idea for a wet Tuesday morning made me famous. I could have wished for fame to come for a more serious achievement.”

Ira Glass has talked about something similar– he called it The Gap.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

That’s the curse, in essence. That you get into marketing because you have a refined taste about what good marketing is, but then struggle to relate to the ‘average consumer’- because you care about things that others don’t.

There seem to be a few different approaches to this. One is to be Steve Jobs and say that you know better. Another is to eat humble pie and reconfigure your tastes.

Historical events that affected Singapore

I think people get very passionate about Great Humans and find it hard to separate their emotional connection with what they have seen with the silent evidence of what they have not seen.

At its heart, the great man fallacy is this– we do not know who would have risen to the occasion. Her biography is not written. Her amazing decisions were never tested. It’s not that “Lee Kuan Yew Is Not Special”.

Yes, SG might have failed without LKY. Or it might have succeeded still, or even succeeded better. It’s far more likely that the outcome of Singapore has been affected more by external events beyond LKY’s control than anything LKY has done.

I was doing some reviews of the Discovery Channel’s documentary of SG, and it becomes painfully clear that this is so. Here are some snippets of historical events that no Singaporean had control over:

  • Suez Canal opened in 1869. Instantly transformed how goods were transported. Used to sail around Cape of Good Hope. 50% increase in trade in SG in 5 years. Main means of getting to Asia. Singapore suddenly rose in prominence in the entire region, not just as a stopover between India/China. Singapore had become SEA hub. First port of call for Western ships wanting to operate in the region.
  • 1877: 6 small trees were smuggled out of brazil and sent to the botanical gardens in SG. Scottish botanist, Henry Ridley- recognized that they were rubber trees. Told all the planters (local and british), “You plant rubber.” He’d supposedly take some rubber seeds and put into everybody’s pockets wherever he went. He devised a system of tapping latex from rubber trees- cut in a v-shape. At that time it was white gold in Southeast Asia. Brought in tonnes of money.
  • Not enough land in SG, so businesmen in SG made rubber estates in Malaya. Boom in Malayan tin mining- popularity for canned food (which was because of war, IIRC). Tin and rubber were exported to the factories of Europe and America. Idea of Malaya as SG hinterland started here already. SG too important to be left to the EIC. Island was turned into a Crown Colony- subsidized by the British Govt in London. Given a facelift, befitting important colony- new roads, new public buildings, police station, law courts, post office?
  • Japan / China, Japanese Occupation, Sook Ching – 12 august 1945. Hundreds of people welcomed the British. “bakeyaro”- huge crowds shouting at the Japanese. Convicted of war crimes, most deported, not executed. Incensed Chinese community- they felt the Japanese spilling so much Chinese blood on the island gave them a moral claim to the island that didn’t exist before.
  • LKY on Lim Chin Siong: “Modest, Soft Spoken, Quiet. Powerful hokkien speaker. Charismatic. Women loved him. “I was not the crowd puller, nor my English educated friends. He was.” – LKY.
  • British Navy leaving – Military base was the largest employer in SG, generated 1/6th of the economy. Provisonshops, dry cleaners, bars, etc. “We were in a pickle! Lo and behold, we were helped by the Chinese cultural revolution.” – LKY
  • Cultural revolution -> investors prefered SG to HK and Taiwan. SO OFTEN as in Singapore’s history, events beyond her shores played a decisive role. Outburst of evolutionary fever in China scared off western companies from investing in hong kong and taiwan. Late 60s- electronics companies set up assembly line in SG. 70s sillicon chips. 80s- consumer electronics. (?) Everybody treat MNCs as evil- SG welcome. Set up your factories, full freedom. 100%.

The point I’m trying to make here is that history is VASTLY more complex and complicated than individuals, and that our human psychology is wired to focus on individuals. So we have to consider that whatever the role indviduals play on history, our perception of it is DEFINITELY inflated. However great LKY might be, bless him.


  1. Everything about reality is arbitrarily configured, and can be reconfigured. Your life does not have to be an ugly mess.
  2. You can change your entire life in an instant if you wanted to. You might not currently have the power to make DRAMATIC changes, but even just deciding that you’re going to change something makes a difference.
  3. Everything is a strange loop. I’m seeing you seeing me seeing you. We’re thinking about thinking.
  4. Life is one big long lazy afternoon. We’re all just walking each other home. You know that scene near the end of Toy Story 3? That’s actually our reality. Hold hands.
  5. Our problems are petty and trivial in the grand scheme of things and we can choose not to identify by them.
  6. There is a lot of power inside the human body and mind, we just aren’t tapped into it most of the time, maybe because of the drudgery of everyday life.
  7. Love and laughter are the only good responses to an indifferent universe.
  8. You don’t need to be guilty, ashamed, resentful, sorry.
  9. You don’t need to be tense, afraid, overwhelmed, confused.
  10. Existence is magnificent and wonderous and beautiful– sometimes ugly and horrific and chaotic, but either way it isn’t mundane and boring.
  11. Be around people you love and love them.
  12. This moment is the only moment and it is precious.
  13. You have to destroy your old self in order to become who you are, or who you’re supposed to be.
  14. You are a pattern in space-time, a sort of cosmic dance, a waveform. Just like rainbows are and mountains are, just vibrating at different frequencies/wavelengths. You’re IT.
  15. It’s so amazing and beautiful that millions of people get on YouTube to teach other people how to do things – how to unclog a toilet, how to play guitar. We have love to share.
  16. Your parents and teachers and all the people who raised you may have tried their best, or they may not, but either way you would have almost definitely had some sort of suboptimal experience. this is okay.
  17. “It’s nobody’s fault and nobody’s to blame”. (I don’t mean to use this to excuse bad behavior– for human systems to function, people have to be held accountable for their actions. But why do people act in suboptimal ways? Why are they scared, weak, ignorant, etc? They inherited a shitty hand in life themselves. Hate the sin, not the sinner.)
  18. We can do better. We can love more whole-heartedly. We can be kinder and more compassionate.
  19. Everything is a massive fractal of possibilities and perspectives.
  20. Love. LOVE. Love. Love. Love.
  21. There is grace and beauty in little things.
  22. A lot of the things– maybe ALL things– that we feel obliged to live up to– are really just wispy assumptions that we ought to examine more closely.
  23. We don’t need a lot of the things that we obsess about.
  24. We all want to be loved, even as we express that in different ways.

Best marketing campaigns


  • How Warby Parker hijacked New York Fashion Week
  • How Red Bull completely sponsors entire sporting events and does crazy stunts like the Stratos jump
  • How Tesla pretends it doesn’t do any marketing while actually facilitating a massive word-of-mouth campaign, encouraging user-generated content and doing lots of interviews and such (big fan here both as a consumer and a marketer)
  • Steve Jobs’ epic product launches, of course. “One more thing…”
  • Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show– they managed to grow it into such an epic event, they actually make huge profits from tickets and advertising WITHOUT selling any product
  • Dropbox’s and PayPal’s referral programs. Ridiculously successful, and effectively launched both of those scrappy startups into billion dollar co’s.
  • TOMS, for the way they bake the social/storytelling aspect into their business model: “buy a pair, give a pair”. People are instantly willing to spend more because they get to feel good doing it
  • GoPro – “Be A Hero”. Creating user-generated content and framing it as something aspirational. (Their competitor Contour had arguably a better product when they were starting out, but the marketing wasn’t as powerful. Contour’s founder actually said so!)
  • Tinder – they had a chicken or egg problem when they were starting out, like all matching/marketplace type services do. The founders would go to sororities to give talks, and then get all the girls to sign up. Then they’d go to the boys and show them all these girls… bingo. Also they’d host parties where you had to download the app to get in.
  • CrossFit – the genius is in how it’s franchised out, allowing people to form their own little cults and clans all around the world. And there are all these little details that add to it– the workout of the day, which makes people feel like they have to keep up, and the annual games, which adds a competitive/aspirational streak
  • Gmail, Facebook – it’s easy to forget that both of these services were actually pretty hard to get into in the early days– they were exclusive and you had to get invites or have the right email address
  • BlendTec – have you seen the videos? You’ve seen the videos.
  • PornHub – PornHub just keeps churning out one genius marketing campaign after another. They’ve mastered the art of making newsworthy announcements (ie “Give America Wood” – for every X amount of views on a certain category, they’ll plant 100 trees, etc)

Different scales of marketing

  • There are several scales of marketing, so it’s actually pretty disingenuous and unfair to talk about marketing as if it’s one big homogenous thing.
  • Marketing a startup is different from marketing a publicly-listed company. It’s literally a completely different game.
  • Ants have to worry about surface tension, elephants have to worry about gravity. Similarly, a startup marketer on day 1 has very different concerns and limitations compared to the CMO of a Fortune 500 company.

It all begins with product-market fit


  1. If you ask successful people why they’re successful, they might not actually know the truth. (Spray Tan Fallacy.) They’ll tell you what they did that felt good and right. But others might do the same things and fail. When you evaluate the difference, it’s typically product/market fit.
  2. Identify a fundamental human behavior and remove steps.

Read Andreessen’s essay and other people’s responses to it.