Written by Tom O’Keefe

Having recently participated in a marketing summit themed around the role of art in the age of content marketing, brand publishing and native advertising, I come away with this thought—there’s art and then there’s art—and while the two couldn’t be more different, as an industry we’ve been treating them the same. And because of this, our art is killing our art.

First, there’s art—the stuff of inspiration, beauty, timing and luck. Creativity that comes in a flash, then inspires forever after. Shakespeare, Picasso, Dylan. And every once in a while, if we’re at it long enough and the stars align at just the right time, an advertising message moves us just as effortlessly and completely as any song or sonnet. We’ve seen it happen before, which is why we keep coming back again.

Then there’s “art”—the clever and crafty ability to maneuver on one’s own behalf. The Art of the Deal. The Art of War. The Art of a Better Shave. These are not things that conjure emotion as much as processes that manipulate thought. Sure-fire, tried-and-true, died-in-the-wool tricks to live by.

And somehow, lately, we seem to be confusing the two, all in the name of modern marketing. We’re mistaking the art of making our advertisements look like editorial content with “art in native advertising,” the art of turning our brands over to others with “art in consumer-generated content” and the art of managing to staying in the conversation with “art in social media.”

Saying there’s an art to something is different than saying there’s art in something. Or that something is, in fact, art. And while there’s need for both in the new marketing world, we can’t give equal importance to the two. Art, in its truest form, not only remains the most important element a brand’s messaging can aspire to, it’s also the most difficult to achieve. There’s no “get rich quick” way to create an artful piece of communication, which is why it doesn’t happen every day. And that may be part of the problem—with all these channels available to feed, it’s just easier to rally around a content process than to go through the pains of creating something that will stir someone’s soul.

Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying eighty-percent of life is “just showing up,” and to some degree, this is what’s happening here. The art of quantity has allowed us to get credit by just showing up. The “art of” marketing to today’s consumer has proven to help build business short term, but it can’t compare with the lasting results of creating something that artfully connects a brand to a consumer in its most visceral and magnificent way. And I don’t need analytics or big data to back me; I’ll go out on a limb here: when it comes to ROI, art will always be better than art.

For content marketing and other new forms of digital communications to find their greatness, we have to help them find their art. They too should tell stories with an emotional arc, have a point that tugs at the heart and a personality that shows compassion and insight. And they should surprise. Every time, with every post and update pushed out—b-to-c, b-to-b and all points in between. Otherwise, the future we’re building toward as marketers can be many things, but it definitely can’t be called art.

Art Vs. ROI