Marketing Is Comedy, Not Engineering


There are very, very, very few good marketers left.

But why is that?

Most people in “marketing”, are young folks who went and got a marketing “degree” from some college and then go into business.

And then there’s the occasional person who gets hired because he/she has amassed a following (although such people are usually hired as a freelancer, not an employee).

What such people do is basically paint by numbers marketing

E.g. treating marketing like engineering.

Follow these steps to build a bridge.

Follow these steps to architect a marketing campaign.

But the reason why there can’t be a formula for marketing is that its efficacy is dependent upon its uniqueness.

There are anti-network effects at play here, while discoveries made in an engineering-based system operate under neutral network effects.

You can read more about that concept in Network Effects, Neutral Network Effects, and Anti-Network Effects.

In Marketing Is Sex, Not Manufacturing, we study another disconnect between marketing and other fields. In it, we look at the correlation coefficient (r) between an increase in efficiency and effectiveness in manufacturing (where r is high) and in marketing (where r is low). Good marketing is often marketing that’s very inconvenient and inefficient because that actually (non-verbally) communicates value.

It’s the difference between driving 4 hours to get your wife cupcakes from the place where you first met her vs. sending your assistant to do it.

You can get great cupcakes anywhere. But the inconvenience of getting them from that place coupled with the inefficiency of getting them yourself is what counts for most if not all of the value.*1

This creates all the bad marketing that’s so prevalent right now.

The minuscule set of marketers who aren’t absolute shit can be divided into two subsets:

  1. Marketers who can spread something that’s already popular, faster. Such people are usually hired by startups as growth hackers.

  2. Marketers who can create demand where there is none.*2 I expand on this point at the bottom of the post.

Why are there virtually no good marketers?

Because marketing is much more like comedy than it is like engineering.

The first person to create a bit which makes an audience laugh is an artist, the second one (who steals that exact bit) is an intellectually dishonest and plagiarizing thief.

Long-time Youngling & Feynman readers know I deeply love comedians. Not so much for the jokes but rather because the process is so incredibly similar to entrepreneurship.

You sit down at your desk and diligently write material that you think is good.

Then you go to your local (and small) comedy club to test your bits.

The audience will give you live, instant feedback by laughing or the absence of laughing.

Repeat this process for many, many shows and by the end, you have a final bullet-proof performance which is the result of ‘’human, real-world filtering’’, that you can now do in front of many people in a large venue.

But that’s not how you start. Ordinality matters.

Comedians from Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld all confirmed that this is how you do it.

So while there are guiding principles, there’s no plug and play formula because each bit has to be unique.

Marketing works the exact same way.

So why don’t schools teach that?

Because schools don’t exist to make you successful. If that were the case they would offer refunds to all those students who’re heavily in debt with a useless degree, unable to get work.

Their job is to lure students in, in order to get your money and government grants.

Also, every degree just so happens to have the exact same 4 yr duration. From ancient fields such as mathematics to young fields such as the social sciences.

And then there’s the performance constrained which we talked about in: Performance Doesn’t Equal Learning, Growth Doesn’t Equal Good Business.

So this means you use tests as a proxy for learning, even though we don’t really care about learning and it’s all about your performance on these tests.

So they end up teaching you what worked years ago and things that fit neatly within the context of an exam.

Problem 1: Anti-network effects

Like I already stated, anti network effects are responsible for a copy/paste approach failing. A legion of “marketers” going out and doing TOMS one-for-one decreases its effectiveness.

Problem 2: Non-real-time marketing education

The second problem is that by the time the books are printed and distributed, you’re already years behind the curve.

By the time some textbook publishes how to do effective SEO, Google has had 14 updates. (Not literally but you catch my drift.)

It’s even worse for companies not benefitting off of the Lindy effect (Life expectancy in a technological environment is proportional to the duration you’ve already been alive. E.g. It’s more likely for a 20-month-old startup to be disrupted than a 20yr old company.)

So these companies include social media companies like Beme, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Perhaps by the time your textbook is published, the platform you talked about is gone and has been disrupted by a new up and coming one.

Problem 3: The expert problem.

The third problem is Nassim Taleb’s expert problem:

‘’ Empty suit problem (or “expert problem”): some members of professions have no differential abilities from the rest of the population, but, for some reason, and against their empirical record, are believed to be experts: clinical psychologists, academic economists, risk experts, statisticians, political analysts, financial experts, military analysts, CEOs. etc. They dress up their expertise in beautiful language, jargon, mathematics, and often wear expensive suits.’’

(Taleb, 2010). The Black Swan.

There are no fake pilots because if you can’t fly you die.

There are however fake marketers.

These people are often in academia or in brand marketing departments/agencies. Their theories don’t have to be tested against this pesky thing called reality.

They just need to impress their peers enough so they can get published, resulting in a ton of junk because there’s no mechanism in place which filters out nonsense.

You see this same phenomenon occur in literary and gender studies. Or in brand marketing where it (if done wrong) it can be impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.

The Sokal Affair (1996) comes to mind in which physicist Alan Sokal submitted a nonsensical paper to an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies to test the intellectual rigor of the editors and the mechanisms in place. It got published and the hoax wasn’t revealed until Professor Sokal revealed it. Needless to say, many people were not amused. Me, personally… I laughed my ass off.

Marketing and the fight game

It’s 2019. We’ve come so far with regards to technology, our knowledge of mathematics, physics, and the scientific process in general.

Yet who’re the experts in human hand to hand combat?

Even though we have all of the above, it’s still the fighters and trainers.

Not the academics.*2

Why? Because the fighters and trainers have skin in the game. They get beat up or get fired, respectively.

This creates a Darwinian forcing function which filters out bullshit “martial arts” such as Aikido, Wing Chun, Tai Chi and many more, which only work in a fake environment with a cooperating opponent. But they fail when applied against a non-cooperating opponent.

This is why MMA provides such a good framework for determining which martial arts are actually useful and which are nonsense.

So what’s the best way to learn marketing?

Same as the pilots and the fighters, have a forcing function that filters out bullshit.

That forcing function is ‘did you accomplish your goal?’

If your goal is to create demand, did your method succeed?

If your goal is to attract more paying customers, did your method succeed?

Because marketing is now basically synonymous with bullshit copycat, interchangeable campaigns I’ve stopped using the word altogether.

It has such a negative connotation created by people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing that it’s beyond repair.

I’ve argued many times that the future will be pragmatic behavioral psychology:

Behavioral psychology means understanding how humans behave and how you can influence that.

Pragmatic means that it’s non-theoretical, directly applied to the real world, measured, and most importantly judged on its effectiveness. (This avoids the expert problem.)

This (making people want something they don’t want) is the most complex domain.

How do you make people want something they don’t want?

There are so few people left who can do this that many wise people erroneously believe it’s impossible.

In Silicon Valley, you will almost constantly hear how it’s impossible to do that and instead, you should ‘find something people want first and then use marketing to scale it’.

It’s good advice, but generalized it’s taken as: it’s impossible to change the person, you can only change the product.

But getting a culture to stop poaching endangered animals in order to sell useless potions: The Chinese appetite is making American turtles extinct,

or stopping people from overfishing: The most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century,

or being a big business sitting on a ton of assets that have low demand: Conjuring Up Value: Why You Want An Engagement Ring,

are marketing problems… Or to use my definition, pragmatic behavioral, psychological problems.

You can’t fix this with an app. And you can’t fix this with an SEO campaign and some Facebook ads band-aids.


*1 This is one thing I dislike so much about our current facade of applied logic. I can post-rationalize pretty much everything. This is hindsight bias in a nutshell. It’s not hard to ‘predict’ the past after it has already unfolded. But the power of a good framework lies in its predictive power of events that haven’t yet unfolded. In this context, it becomes much more apparent that humans display a lot of behavior which doesn’t qualify as logical and which we Younglings refer to as counter-logical.

*2 The point is not that academia can’t offer any insight whatsoever. But rather that there needs to be some intellectually, rigorous mechanism that serves as a forcing function to filter out false theories. In flying it’s plane crashes. In fighting it’s getting beaten up and losing. This filters out pseudo-scientific ideas.


Taleb, N. (2010). The Black Swan (2nd ed., p. 302). New York: Random House Publishing Group.

RJ Youngling