Here’s Some Marketing Advice: Your Thing Sucks

June 11, 2013 — 44 Comments

For whatever reason, in my writing I seem to have assumed the role of the guy who says the things that no one else will say. But in my actual business life as a marketer, I’ve been struggling with that. Namely, I seem to get paid a lot of money to specifically not say this one thing.

Because of my successes in marketing working for bestselling authors like Tucker Max, Tim Ferriss and Robert Greene, in working on the marketing at American Apparel for a number of years, people see that success and they come to me and they ask me to work on their projects. They say, “I love the risks that you take and I love all the ridiculous media stunts that you’ve done/ I’ll do whatever you say, let’s just do something crazy.”

They say everything is on the table but really it isn’t. The one thing they don’t want to hear from me is that their product sucks. Like itreally sucks.

It’s not worth talking about, it’s not interesting, I can’t get excited about. I don’t think deep down they are even excited about it but they see the success other people have and they want it. And even though they’re paying thousands of dollars for my advice, they blow off the most important advice that I have.

See, if I contributed anything to the massive projects I’ve been a part of it was in adding velocity something that already had its own momentum or I concentrated an organic process that would have happened already into a smaller period of time.

It should go without saying that to have marketing success like that you need to have a truly remarkable amazing product. But doesn’t go without saying. Not at all. Like I say it over and over and over again and people still don’t hear me.

What happens is an author will come to me and they clearly phoned in this book or worse they went off into the writers cave for a year not thinking about who this book was for or how they were intending to reach them. They just think there is this mythical audience of smart people out there who buy books that marketers put in front of them.

Or people who have never done anything newsworthy in their life come to me and ask me to put them in the news like reporters are just sitting around trying to do favors or will just print whatever I say which of course is not the case either.

Or companies come to me and I’ll say “Hey what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish with this launch?” And they’ll look me straight in the eye and say “Oh I want featured in Vanity Fair, I want to be profiled in Fast Company or the New York Times,” and of course why or what for has not crossed their mind. What is their angle here? Why is their thing worth talking about. This is a thing that they think they outsource to marketers and thats not how it works.

I’ve dealt with a few old school publicists and marketers myself and look occasionally they’ll surprise me with the ability to call up some old friend and place some story and I’ll think, “Wow I wish I had that power,” but I don’t. I don’t think many people do anymore.

That’s not how my clients have been successful, thats not how I’ve seen marketing evolve in my years of doing it now. Increasingly it is the product that does all the heavy lifting and it is the marketer’s job is simply, the communication or facilitation of the relationship of the idea to the influencers that spread messages. We are the accelerant, but rarely the cause of the fire.

The three variables my clients have in common they all did these three things.

They did something totally new.

They did something provocative and controversial in some way.

Finally they knew exactly who they were doing it for and where those people were located.

And I know you think you are probably doing these things and look, this audience is better than most, but I’ve done enough of these events that what inevitably happens is I get off stage (or check my email) and having a bunch of people come up to me and tell me about their project and I pretend to be interested and immediately forget about it. Because there is nothing there.

I’m not saying their project will have no success, it might even have a decent amount of success but it’s not going to spread and it doesn’t matter how much work or effort I put behind it when people read it they’re disappointed or see it they’re disappointed or try it they are disappointed.

Those of you who understand the online marketing space know this concept as “bounce rate.” Most of the projects people pitch me are destined for a high bounce rate. You can get people to it and they don’t stick and so it doesn’t matter how good a marketer you are. It doesn’t matter what relationships I bring to the table, how hard I go to bat for you or how hard any publicist goes to bat for you.

Part of the problem with marketing, of course, is that publicists don’t care because their job is to bring media to you but not ultimately results. We are not usually partners in the outcome of your product so we don’t really care.

One of the best pieces of marketing advice I’ve ever heard actually came from Paul Graham who is the founder of Y Combinator (the angel investor behind AirBnB, Looped, Reddit, many of the web services that have become integral to our lives). Startups come in and they are like how “Ok how can we get people to talk about our product?” And he just says, “Make stuff that people want.”

And it seems simple and we nod and think, “ Oh yeah people want this,” but we don’t actually want to hear if they want it or not and we are deaf to that feedback. We will not let anyone tell us otherwise.

The process of creation goes something like: I’m going to make this thing, then it’s done and now I’m going to talk to a marketer and start marketing as though these are two distinct phases when they are not.

I’m seeing marketing become this sort of fluid spectrum. In this Silicon Valley they’ve started to describe this concept as “Growth Hacking.” The term is not all that important, but the results are. To see people with no experience or no traditional background in marketing turn an unknown web service into something with a million or 100 million users really rapidly.

And how do they do that? It’s a set of distinct phases, the first of which is Product-Market fit, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of, which is you make something that people actually want or need and the marketing can happen on a much smaller scale. You only need to reach a few 100 or 1000 people because they actually want this, and when you build in features to help spread the product, you watch 1 user become 2 users become 3 users become 4 users the product spreads itself and you don’t need marketing.

And finally there is this process of optimization, improvements and iterative refinements of the product itself. All of that is made possible by the simple understanding that I started with which is, chances are the first version of your idea sucks and it’s not that interesting and it’s not worth marketing. We put the cart before the horse and then we wonder why our efforts don’t build the kind of products, or the kind of successes, or ground swell support that we were hoping for, that we saw in other people.

I think if I could close with one thought it would be, don’t spend your money on marketing, don’t give it to me even though obviously I would be glad to take it, but spend it on going back to the lab and making something that’s really special, that’s provocative and interesting and unlike other things out there and it’s actually meant for a specific person that you can almost reach out and touch rather than for this vague idea of success and massive appeal that far too many people aim at and never end up hitting.

The above material is adapted out of a short talk I gave at Mastermind Toronto with Tim Ferriss, James Altucher, Marc Ecko and Derek Halpern. It was a little more awkward to deliver this message in person to a room full of the people I was in some ways criticizing. But the upside was I got pitched a lot less afterwards. In the last 24 hours, already emailed the post to a handful of people who wrote me to pitch their products. 

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

44 responses to Here’s Some Marketing Advice: Your Thing Sucks

  1. Hey Ryan. I’m glad to see you returning to your blog after a couple months of hiatus. I know you’ve been busy with getting Breather launched and I’m excited to see how that grows here in LA.

    I first discovered you on an episode of Chase Jarvis Live and have since subscribed to your blog. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your knowledge with us man. Good luck with everything.

  2. Ryan great post! Tim Ferriss also touched on this and finding your market in the 4 Hour Work Week.

  3. It seems like these people are falling victim to some combination of surivorship bias and a total lack of self-awareness.

    They see the success of a Tucker Max, Robert Greene, Tim Ferriss, etc., and think that if they hire someone who worked for those guys, that their project will suddenly become a runaway success.

    Meanwhile, they haven’t done any of the actual work of creating something great, or even useful for a real customer. As you said, they know they’re supposed to “make stuff people want,” but then they proceed to ignore that when it comes to their own projects. It ties into what you’ve said before: Most ideas aren’t good and should probably be squashed.

  4. Well said. It’s repeated every time someone puts more money or time into promoting their product when it fails to make a splash, instead of going back home and studying harder and practicing better to improve it.

    It reminds of a musician (John Mayer maybe?) who said ‘the world doesn’t need another musician who’s good on Twitter.’

  5. Loved this. Not something people want to hear but definitely something that needs to be said. You nailed it.

  6. Hey Ryan,

    Great article, with a strong point. It is of course difficult to be objective about a project or idea once you’ve become involved/ closely invested to it.

    Is there a process you utilize to check if your (or your clients’) product idea matches what consumers actually want?

    I am aware Tim Ferriss suggests using Google ads to test before creating a product. I like this method, but question it’s current accuracy as click-through rates of Google ads have plummeted.


  7. What do you do when someone comes to you with a product they want you to sell and you just can’t get behind it?

    I’m sure you can’t just come out and say “your thing sucks” as bluntly as you put it in this post. But at the same time if you “pretend to be interested and immediately forget about it,” this has to have negative consequences too. How do you handle it tactfully?

    (I guess the answer is probably ‘it depends’, and too complicated for a meagre blog comment… still, it intrigues me; It’s not something I have much experience with myself.)

  8. Have any of the people you emailed this to in the last 24 hours replied back? Curious to know how they’d react (positively or negatively).

  9. Holy shit.

    I can’t wait until the piece on marketing your cooking up comes out.

  10. I needed this today. I have this “mission” and this “message” that I want to share, but sometimes I get too caught up in how to get the message heard and don’t spend enough time making it worth listening to.

  11. “But the upside was I got pitched a lot less afterwards.” = class

    Happy Birthday by the way.

  12. We say ‘your thing sucks’ about 40% of the time, but we would be a better company if we had half the clients.

  13. Ryan,
    Can we do a quick case study on a thing that sucks? the SUV.
    it’s a shitty product. Heavier, less efficient, more dangerous, more expensive.
    Yet marketers made it a must-have item for Americans, thanks to emotional manipulation.
    “You’re safer”
    “You’re richer”
    etc it’s all illusory emotional marketing.
    SUVs are proof that a shitty product can be come highly sought-after thanks to brainwashing.
    I use this example because I think it’s important to say, “make your product better” and ALSO admit that sometimes a really shitty product is a huge success because of emotional & psychological manipulation.
    It really breaks down to how you see the world. If you see sales = proof that people legitimately love something, then your intellectual framework holds together. If, on the other hand, you believe that humans are fallible and can be duped, then you can admit that some people buy things that are directly against their own self-interest (and the interests of their neighbors).

    • Why do you think that SUVs are not safer? If I was involved in a head-on collision with a Honda Accord, I’d rather be sitting in a Toyota Highlander than in a Honda Accord.

    • I’m with you here, Andrew.

      People choose to buy most often driven by what they WANT and not what they NEED, so maybe a small ecological car should be better, but their egos want the SUV…
      And since the marketing companies building any SUV’s image rarely stress on that type of car being friendly to the environment (most of the times they couldn’t, anyway) people do not compare the two, so the small car never stands a chance there.
      Just like the SUV never stands a chance in front of a market segment made of ecologists, right?

      It is all in the way the products are ‘tailored’ for a very specific market and how the marketing focuses on that ideal market, per se…

      Steve ✉ Master eMailSmith ✉ Lorenzo
      Chief Editor, eMail Tips Daily Newsletter

  14. So as a marketer, you can lead people to a product, but you can’t make them buy it or recommend it to a friend unless it’s an actual product that would be able to stand on its own merit.

  15. Amnah Wajahat June 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I get your point Ryan but I’m there with Andrew Ross, what about coke? or diamonds?

  16. Ryan, I want and trust I’ll get your honest opinion on this. 10% of the world’s male population is colorblind. When these guys drop into Amercian Apparel to buy a light blue t-shirt and walk out of the store with a pink one something has been lost in translation. Better had they have bought both, but that’s not the point here. The point is, there is a whole sexy, fun, graphically charged and beautiful marketing campaign for American Apparel based on the brilliant creation of a Portuguese graphic designer Miguel Neiva. It’s called ColorADD. It’s a simple, sophisticated color coding system that has yet to be introduced to the North American apparel industry. I’m determined that fellow Canadian, socially responsible and general mensch Dov Charney be the first to introduce it. It would make a great marketing story that can be juiced up to be sexy, fun and beautiful that levels the playing field for the color challenged.

    Check out

    Dream in color,
    Leisa Hirtz

  17. Loved the article, all true.
    I’m not familiar will all the ins and outs of American Apparel, but how much relates to it? What did it do that was totally new?

  18. hi Ryan. I’ve got your book, loved it. I got it for free though. as I was walking through the shelves of my local library ( London, City of Westminster Library) , there was your book, just waiting for me to spot it. spent about 10 mints reading it on the spot than decided this is my new friend.
    but seriously, your book disclosures only a fraction of the `unethical manipulations` that goes-on in the media(internet,papers, TV) today. there are much greater manipulations and more dangerous than the once you’ve probably done that are happening (all-the-time) within the pharmaceutical industry. Ben Goldacre, mentions some of it in his book `bad science`. and also `On the Take` by Jerome P. Kassirer. they also talk about manipulations, it’s dangerous, deadly yet it’s completely legal practice (it’s a multi-billion industry) .

    anyway, nice discovering your book and will be reading more of your writings.

  19. Make a new, fresh, unique, and “valuable” stuff, or “Make stuff that people want” (as you mention). Which is better?

  20. This post is my life. People constantly ask me to build them a new website because their current completely fine website just isn’t performing. They’ve been writing for 3 months and have 10 blog posts that don’t even grab attention, much less teach anything or provide any real value to a reader.

  21. I get your point Ryan but I’m there with Andrew Ross, what about coke? or diamonds?

  22. Being a marketer, we need to sell what we are paid to sell, no matter how good (or bad) the product is. What an irony.

  23. So as a marketer, you can lead people to a product, but you can’t make them buy it or recommend it to a friend unless it’s an actual product that would be able to stand on its own merit.
    This is what marketing means , you have to be a good social Engineer to Play with your consumer /customer mind.

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