Marketing as Art: A Reflection on Ken Millman

This week, I got to meet Ken Millman, owner and sole employee of Burlington’s Spike Advertising. Ken, who has taught marketing at the college level, returned to Champlain College for a nice meet-and-greet.

“Be different or don’t bother.”

This is Ken’s motto, and one that embraces the reality of modern advertising. With the abundance of branding we see in everyday life, it takes something truly exceptional, something truly insightful, to grab our attention. Even the widely-lampooned launch of the first iPhone had a magical spark. Whether it was the now-dated Coldplay track, the personal face that Steve Jobs brought to the presentation, or the feeling of tingling excitement as he build up the features until unveiling the product, there is a striking originality to the charade.

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This is Ken, taken from spikeadvertising.com

Ken defines the exceptionality that Spike Advertising offers by saying that “the difference between a horse and a unicorn is the spike.” But this passion, this spark, is not something that is manufactured.

Ken shared that he had once reached a point where he was tired of his work. At the time, Spike had a handful of employees, and numerous local projects in the works. Ken owned and operated the whole company, trying to balance logistical management with the creative whimsy. Still, he found himself exhausted emotionally. Where had the passion gone? What happened to the dream?

Questions like this take a lot of introspection, and come with no easy answers. After tracking his work schedule, he found out that the operations of a business were taking away all of the time for his projects. Even the ones that he had time to work on weren’t those he was interested in; they were a means to keep the business going. After all the work to establish a functioning marketing firm, he had forgotten the key component: inspiration. And with that, Spike had become a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.

Following this revelation, Ken overhauled the business. He turned it back into a one-man-show, scaling it down so that he could be in charge of the clients he took and take point on their cases. Spike Advertising is now more successful than ever, and the work shows the passion that Ken pours into it. He takes what interests him, and makes it his own while listening to the clients. A big part of his company policy, actually, is listening. This is very much in line with Inbound marketing, and most modern schools of thought. It’s about asking what the client needs and providing the tools, not about telling the client what they need.

In many respects, it’s clear that Ken is an artist moreso than a businessperson. I put myself in the same boat. Marketing is a passion, a passion for understanding people and expressing a brand’s personality. A lack of this passion is apparent in a marketer’s work; this is why it is an industry not well suited for those who are only in it for the money.

I’ve been struggling with how to proceed myself. I enjoy earning money, yes, but only to be able to do the things that matter to me. I want to create art, both for a company, and for myself. I want to make music, images, ideas, and friendships. I was never keen on entering the rat race, and I had wondered, after seeing my classmates go off to big cities for impressive companies, if I had a place in marketing.

Talking with Ken assured me that there is a place for me. In many regards, passion for marketing itself, and not the perceived success it can bring, is the key. After all, advertising is an art.

I’ve decided to pursue these thoughts further, and will be getting to talk with Ken one-on-one later this week. I feel like he may have some guidance to offer me on my journey.

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