More Tea Vicar?

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I’ve always thought of a curate as the Vicar’s assistant, in fact I am pretty sure that is exactly what a curate is. A curator on the other hand is someone who works in a museum or art gallery who, to use the precise dictionary definition, “is in charge of arranging, selecting and presenting material to the general public”. Art galleries and museums always have far more stuff than they have space to exhibit so someone has to decide what stays in the basement and what goes on the walls and in the cabinets.

Worthy professions both, the clergyman or museum administrator. Which is why the digital people and now the marketers have nicked the word. Am I alone in noticing that everything these days seems to involve curation? Web sites, content and now brands are not merely managed, they are curated in much the same way that fine goods are not sold, they are purveyed.

This is not the first time that marketing has latched on to some lofty term to add an air of professionalism to what we do. Many moons ago the notion of Brand Stewardship was added to our lexicon (by one of the ad agencies I think, or purveyors of fine communications as I probably should say). Also some while back, people introduced the term “brand equity” although with various explanations of what equity actually meant now that it meant more than the ordinary shares held in a company. Some used it to refer to the unique gizmos and logos and ‘ownable properties’ a distinctive brand possesses. Others used it to mean the sum total of all the brand’s reputation and associations. Others used it in strictly financial terms to mean the value of the brand (with various ways of calculating this). Whichever way you take your brand equity, to be the person managing it sounded cool. Indeed there seemed to be a lot of people who really cared about brand equity. Any time something unpopular or commercial was suggested, the accusation that it would ‘undermine our brand equity’ was enough to put the kibosh on it.

There grew to be a non- uniformed army of Brand Guardians, whose soldiers were to be found in design agencies and ad agencies, especially the planning departments. Their mission was to protect the brand equity against the foolish short-term decisions of the owners of the brand and their appointed managers. I remember as a client finding this an amusing concept, the idea that the bloke in the design agency cared more about my brand than I did.

The introduction of some new terms like stewardship and brand equity is not a bad thing when the motive is to make one think differently and more deeply about brands. They are valuable, they are also complex, it is a long game, it requires thoughtful management and planned development. The idea of curation is quite a good one I think – there is always more that you could say about a brand or do with it than there is budget, so the idea that brand management is about “arranging, selecting and presenting of material to the general public” seems very apt. I doubt it will be long before it goes out of fashion and some new term gets nicked from some other walk of life, but let it have its day.

We don’t sell, we purvey, we don’t grow brands, we build the brand equity, we don’t make consistent choices (or deliberately inconsistent ones), we curate.

What does come across as lame is the underlying desire to make marketing seem more professional by dressing up what we do in posh sounding terms borrowed from the real professions or other occupations that are more socially acceptable.

Marketing is not a profession – I am not saying it is not important or beastly hard, just that it is not a profession. We are not curators in the British Museum, we are paid exaggerators, purveyors of hyperbole in an effort to make more people pay more money, more often for our brands. We have a Society but we do not have a Professional Body with clearly defined rules to ensure we discharge our duties with integrity, nor is there a Professional Qualification that gives some reassurance that this is done with minimum standards of competence. However poorly we behave or perform we cannot be struck off.

We are not a profession and frankly we ain’t that noble. No amount of terms like stewardship, guardianship, equity building or curation can hide the fact that our prime purpose is to make money for shareholders. It is not ignoble to make money for shareholders but it is not public service nor a calling from God.

Increasingly we talk about CSR, sustainability, triple bottom lines and that cannot be a bad thing. I know that some senior marketers and business leaders are quite sincere about this but let’s be honest, in todays peer reviewed, transparent, global world it is just good business.

What we do is fun, it creates wealth and employment, it drives research and progress (of a sort) but lets not get ahead of ourselves. We’re not vicars and we don’t display art.

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