“The thing I hate most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists.”
Depending on who you are and how you see yourself, this quote could make you nod with smug approval or sink into a deep depression at the state of the world. But, what interested me most about it was that the author, the world’s most famous street artist and global question mark, Banksy, seems to occupy both worlds simultaneously. While the artistic side of Banksy is easy to see—it’s stenciled, wheat pasted and tagged on walls around the globe, his relevance to advertising is a little more veiled.
How does an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist crusader relate to marketing? He singlehandedly makes himself into one of the biggest brands in the world. In 2007, Banksy’s painting Space Girl and Bird sold for over $500,000 US. He’s launched some of the most notorious publicity stunts in recent history—tagging the West Bank barrier in 2005—and in the process created an Oscar-nominated documentary and captured the attention of the entire world. Despite his underground origins, Banksy is virtually a household name.
So, what can we learn from Banksy? Well, along with a number of other lessons to be taken from his work, here are three things Banksy can teach us about marketing:
1. Never compromise—when it comes to brand values, at least.
Every brand is built around a core value or a set of core values. Nike – Victory. Pepsi – Youth. BMW – Luxury. For Banksy, it’s Mystery. The thing that separates Banksy from all the other talented street artists out there is mystery. He’s not more technically skilled than other artists. His work isn’t smarter. But, it is more interesting—and it’s his enigmatic persona that gives it that little extra edge over the rest. The most amazing thing about that mystery is how committed he is to protecting it. No matter how much money or fame his work garners, he has never stepped into the spotlight. Not once. No matter how tempting.
As professional marketers, we need to follow his lead. It can be tough to say no to a great idea or to a new direction, but if it doesn’t stick to the core values of the brand—even if it just slightly bends them—it sacrifices the integrity of the entire thing and it’s our responsibility to preserve it.
2. People are smarter than you think.
A lot of Banksy’s work has an element of social commentary, political messaging, symbolism, homage or all of the above. He doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. The people the message is designed for get it, and anyone who doesn’t is either left in the dark or struggling to figure it out. By assuming intelligence instead of apathy in his viewers, Banksy creates artwork that people want to understand and connect with. It’s a club that people want to be a part of. They want to get it, and in challenging them, he’s captivated them and created a deeper more meaningful connection with them.
All too often smart ideas are dismissed as being too smart or too subtle for people to understand. We need to get over our focus on egalitarian messaging—it’s ok if a portion of the population doesn’t like it or doesn’t get it, as long it connects with a target audience that does. The more we can challenge our audience, customers and clients, the more our messaging will connect with people. It will be less approachable, but it will be more appreciated.
3. Be a master in a few mediums instead of mediocre in many.
With so many mediums at our disposal, the tendency is to try to be in all of them, all the time. The more exposure, the better. But, that’s not necessarily true. Banksy started on walls, and only after mastering that craft did he move on to galleries and eventually film. He’s not on Facebook or Twitter—unless you count all the people posing as him—and he doesn’t have a blog. Instead, he uses a handful of mediums that work best for his brand and that he can confidently deliver great content in.
If you have the resources to deliver great content/messaging in all mediums, you’re either dreaming or working for Crispin. But, most campaigns, due to do budget, time or other limitations, don’t have the resources to do everything and do it well. Why make an appearance at five parties when you can be the life of one? Outstanding work in one medium beats a middle-of-the-road performance in five any day.
When you look at Banksy’s success as an artist and as a marketer, it becomes apparent that both sides of the equation can learn a lot from him. There’s skill in creativity and skill in marketing, but it’s walking the fine line between the two that is the true art.