All of us experience marketing all day long, almost everywhere we look. Surprisingly, this causes most people think they understand the marketing game.

That’s like eating a nice meal at a restaurant and proclaiming you can cook it yourself and run the restaurant. “I’m an expert at Mexican food. I eat it all the time!”

Most don’t understand how the creation of marketing really works at a deep enough level to do it effectively themselves. This includes most people in business, including many startup founders and CEOs–and many marketers. I used to be surprised by this, but now I understand it.

Marketing is not misunderstood because people aren’t smart or it’s a black art that can only be understood by “born marketing geniuses.”

Confusion exists because marketing is kind of a magic trick, where companies (or politicians or job-seekers) don’t show you their whole picture with all the details, or how they painstakingly designed their products and crafted their messages.

We never see how the marketing magic happens inside a company. We don’t see all the brainstorms and debates, all the ideas, features and executions. Or the hard decisions that were made behind the scenes.

We just see the simple end result. Just the final execution of perfect images, elegant copy, intuitive product designs, memorable news stories and beautiful packaging.

If you’ve ever been part of creating a great product, taking it to market, scaling up a business or becoming a market leader, you know that the world sees 1% of all the work you did. That’s if you did it right.

Which brings us to the biggest misconception about marketing:

Marketing Myth: Marketing is mostly creative

Yes, there is always creativity and artfulness in marketing. It’s visible when we experience powerful words, beautiful product experiences, and elegant graphic design.

Creative execution is just the last mile in a long journey that includes ideation, testing, debate and hard decision-making. Most of this journey is getting the strategy right to enable great execution.

Marketing is 80% strategy and 20% creative

Yesterday, the most experienced marketing creative director I know told me his chief marketing officer wanted a new home page for their global tech company. “Do you have a strategy doc that prioritizes specific goals, messages, and audiences?” “Nope, we just need a new homepage!” That’s the recipe for mediocre marketing, from the mouth of a CMO!

My creative friend and I agreed:

  • Great creative execution requires a focused strategy
  • Great strategy requires extreme discipline and explicit focus
  • Focus requires saying No to most things and Yes to just a few things
  • Most business leaders want great execution without saying No to anything

Let me be really clear. You have heard that “strategy is important” and all. This is different.

I’m saying that if you don’t put 80% of your effort into making hard strategic decisions for everything you do in marketing, the execution and results will either suck or be mediocre.

Apple’s memorable “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” TV ad worked so well because Steve Jobs and his team thought about it for a long time and decided to communicate something like, “We’re not for the 90% of PC owners who use Windows, we’re for the 10% who will go against the grain and be different. Just the creative ones, not the sheep.” That’s a hard strategic decision no other personal computer company ever made, which is why we can’t remember any of their ads, but everyone remembers “I’m a Mac.”

This was the secret of Steve Job’s success. Apple had great execution because they had the most disciplined and detailed strategic foundations. Steve Jobs was demanding and focused and he said No to everything else. We just say, “he was a genius” or “he had creative help.” He was really one of best strategic product and marketing leaders in the last 50 years.

When marketing is done right, it effectively communicates what the product is, who it is for, what it uniquely does and why someone should want it. There’s also an emotional connection created between the company and the buyer that creates attention and action.

If your marketing isn’t working, the problem is usually not in your creative execution, it’s in the underlying strategy of the promotion, product, or company.

The best creative executors (copywriters, product designers, software coders, graphic designers) will love you for doing the hard work to create a successful strategy that is clear and focused.