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5 Things I Learned about Marketing from Making a Documentary


Conducting interviews teaches you to listen.

When I graduated from art school, I was pretty sure that marketing was evil. Isn’t marketing all about making people feel inadequate so that they buy more stuff?

Well, some of it is, and that type of marketing is pretty evil. But then Seth Godin comes along and says this:

What is marketing? If marketing is the act of overcoming fear, telling stories, doing work that matters and engaging with a world that’s going through revolutionary change, then sure, I’m flattered to be a marketing expert. My job, I think, is to highlight things we already sense, and to help people push themselves to do the work they know they ought to be doing.


So how does an art student end up in marketing? It’s a long story. I started blogging as an English teacher. Then I made a documentary. I was, as Seth pointed out, telling stories and doing work that mattered. And that naturally led to a job in… marketing. So without further ado, here are five things I learned about marketing from making a documentary:

1. Listen

Want to know the secret to getting more engagement on social media and blog posts? Stop talking/writing/tweeting and start listening. When my friends and I set out to shoot Tracking Patagonia, we knew we were outsiders so we didn’t try to write the story ourselves. We had a completely open attitude: we just let the camera roll and listened. We listened even when the camera wasn’t rolling. We listened all the time. We were collecting stories. This had two important results. First, people were more open with us when they realized that we were actually listening. Second, we got to know our audience, so we were able to create something that actually spoke to that audience.

Good marketing is about 98% listening and 2% putting something back out into the conversation.

2. Forget your brilliant ideas

Guess what? You probably don’t have anything new to say about the human condition. The big important things have been said. What you bring to the table is your unique perspective and the way you connect the dots. So set your ideas aside. See what others are saying and doing. Then take what resonates and shine a spotlight on it. The reason I loved making a documentary is that I got to see people shine. It feels magical to watch someone share their most profound and important truth on camera. I felt that my job as a filmmaker was to reveal the beauty in human nature. In marketing, it’s really the same. Reveal the beauty and potential in human nature– this is what excites us, motivates us, and brings us together.

3. Push the scary button

One of my college art professors once said, “If you have an idea for a piece that scares you and makes you feel uncomfortable, go there.” My documentary centers around a controversial proposal to dam two rivers in Chile. But the question of to dam or not to dam isn’t really what the film is about. It’s about progress and development and poverty. It’s about each one of us being complicit in our usage and dependence on natural resources. It’s about beauty, suffering, and life. These are big, scary topics. And these topics resonate, because this is what you and I lose sleep over at the end of the day. Change is uncomfortable. And good marketing is the business of inspiring change.


It’s hard not to be inspired riding a bike through this landscape.


4. Chase inspiration

You aren’t going to create anything good if you aren’t inspired. For Tracking Patagonia, my friends and I decided to make the film traveling by bicycle and raft. Why? We were out in the sun, sweating and struggling up hills on unpaved roads all day. We were sleeping under the most starry skies I have ever seen in my life. We were desperately inhaling the home-baked bread and butter that kind strangers offered us. We were sitting on a raft in the cold rain passing around a bottle of whisky. The point of all of this was inspiration. Our camera work, the way we interacted in interviews, the memories we had when we sat down to edit… all of this was infused with inspiration from the journey. We were able to craft a moving story because we lived that story– and were moved by it ourselves. The best kind of expression is born from authentic experience.

5. Connect

Why are we even on social media? Why does marketing work? Why do we watch movies? Why make a documentary? I think about these things a lot, and for me it comes down to the human desire to connect. We all want to feel connected to something. We want to share our experience with others because it helps us to make just a tiny bit of sense out of our own lives. The thing is, some of the things that we do in our efforts to connect actually make us more disconnected. It took me about two years to finish editing my documentary. During that time, I pushed my friends and family as far away as possible. I didn’t want to be burdened or distracted by anyone. I ignored those who were closest, nearest, and dearest to me while working on an epic video love-letter to people in another part of the world.

How often do we throw a movie on Netflix to numb something else out? How often do we ignore the person next to us while we post something on our phones? If we want to create work that is truly relevant and meaningful, we have to stay connected. To real human beings. So part of good marketing or filmmaking or anything for that matter, is knowing when to put down the tools and pay attention.


So those are a few lessons I learned about life, ahem marketing, from making a documentary. And here’s the thing: Marketing is a powerful force in the world. It is responsible for a lot of bad things like low self-esteem, over-consumption, addictions, and stereotyping, to name a few. So we need more people to take back marketing. We need people to tell important stories, to do meaningful work, and to inspire change. Who’s with me?

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