There’s never been a better time to punk Marketing and go DIY

The best way to thrive in the current digital landscape is to make like the Buzzcocks and learn to do things yourself

February 20, 2018

DIY marketing

There’s never been a better time to punk Marketing and go DIY
When you think of punk what do you think of? Extreme haircuts? Piercings? Sticking two fingers up to authority? Sid Vicious? God Save the Queen? I’m willing to bet that one concept that doesn’t spring to mind is DIY. And that’s a real pity. Because that was the potentially world-changing idea behind the punk movement. It was quickly distorted, then forgotten, but it’s now well overdue a revival – particularly if you work in marketing.

Punk music was, above all else, DIY music. Not DIY in the sense of putting up some shelves, changing a lightbulb or rewiring a plug – but in the sense of taking hands-on, practical control of the creative process. Punk was about being your own studio and your own record label. It wasn’t a noun for a teenager wearing his or her attitude on their sleeve, smashing up bars and scaring parents and the police. It was a verb – a verb that meant doing things under your own steam, without others’ assistance or permission. This same DIY ethic is crucial for empowering marketers today.

This is why the band that most embodied the spirit of punk wasn’t the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Jam and (I really hate to admit this, given how much of an inspiration they are to me), The Clash. It was a far less well-known London outfit called Desperate Bicycles. In May 1977, a few months after The Buzzcocks released the UK’s first homemade record (the Spiral Scratch EP), Desperate Bicycles took things a step further when they used the lyrics of their singles to exhort others to do the same – and then printed the instructions for doing so on the record sleeves. “The medium was tedium,” they proclaimed, “but it’s changing fast.” They explained how long it took them to record a single and how much it cost (£153). “Now it’s your turn…”

What punk really means – and the real reason it’s scary
To punk something is to cut out the middle man, free yourself of your dependence of others and take control of what you’re doing like never before. It peels away the filters and the friction that get between the ideas that you have, and what emerges at the other end of the creative process. It removes the need to play by others’ rules. In Marxist terms, it gives you control of the means of production.

For people with a commercial stake in the status quo, that’s actually a far scarier proposition than a load of guys and girls with spiky haircuts. The established recording industry responded by rapidly co-opting punk and redefining it on their own terms. That’s why every major punk act you’ve ever heard of was signed up to a big record label. The Sex Pistols had already released Anarchy in the UK on EMI, and the publicity around them quickly redefined the punk ethos as ‘anybody can be in a band – even if they’re not particularly talented’. This was a heck of a lot less threatening than ‘anybody can make a record – which means talented musicians don’t need record labels at all.’

How punk unleashes creativity and independence
Music may have lost touch with what punk really meant back in the 1970s, but the DIY ethos has survived elsewhere. It’s a significant movement within cycling culture, where it encourages people to fix and customise their own bikes and keep control of the ability to get around, and skateboarding, where it led to an explosion of creativity in the form of unofficial skate parks designed and built by skaters themselves. There’s an underground DIY movement within children’s toys as well. Experts like the Pulitzer-Prize winning anthropologist and writer Jared Diamond have argued that traditional societies, where children make their own toys, raise people that are far more inherently creative and capable of innovative thinking. DIY creativity isn’t a trendy new concept of the late 20th century – it’s a fundamental part of human existence.

But Marketing? Could an idea that rejects commercialism have something to contribute to the most commercial creative endeavour of all? You bet it could. In fact, ‘punking’ marketing might just be what’s needed to save it.

Why now could be the moment for punk marketing
The digital media landscape ought to bring marketers’ closer to their audiences – but it can often feel like the opposite is happening. More and more filters, barriers and dependencies keep being put in the way.

There’s always a new technology that you’re being told to invest in, always a new type of specialist agency or data platform that you must rely on to get your message in front of people. To compete in today’s marketing landscape, you’re told that you need data scientists (to tell your creatives what to do), ad tech platforms (to put your ads in front of the right audience), Artificial Intelligence systems (to do everything from delivering more intuitive customer experiences to buying your media for you). You need film directors to help meet the demand for video content, and Virtual Reality agencies to bring your brand experience to life inside a geeky-looking headset. It can feel like creativity is becoming more complicated and compartmentalised by the minute. If you’re a marketer trying to do things with a conventional-sized budget, you’re left wondering what an earth it’s actually good for.

What would a punk marketer do in this situation? They wouldn’t be trying to balance on the cutting edge and spending money just to try and keep up with their peers. They’d see that as a trap that leaves you permanently dependent on others – and never in control. Instead, they’d see all of the marketers rushing towards the next trendy technology as an opportunity – because of the huge space for DIY creativity that it leaves behind. When everybody’s rushing to use technology they don’t understand, you can produce far more urgent and impactful marketing by developing new ways to express yourself with the technology they’ve taken for granted. And by doing it yourself rather than relying on big agencies to do it for you.

That’s exactly what happened with punk music. Those DIY recordings by bands like The Buzzcocks and Desperate Bicycles were a direct result of major record labels investing heavily in a new wave of recording technology – and selling off all of their old equipment on the cheap. This led to a lot of tiny, independent recording studios charging peanuts an hour for bands to make their own singles. In convincing themselves that established technologies had far less value than new ones, the big labels unwittingly democratised the recording process. They handed the means of production to artists themselves.

A Punk Marketing Manifesto
Could these same principles apply to marketing today? Yes they can… here’s a few principles to start applying to take control of your marketing in a way that you can never do if you’re always rushing to invest in the next big thing: The Punk Marketing Manifesto.

Start with the technology you know how to use
And don’t let anyone tell you that no such technology exists. As a marketer in possession of a smartphone, you can film a video. As a marketer capable of following step-by-step instructions you can upload that video to LinkedIn (I’m using this example, by the way, because it really is incredibly simple and it’s fresh in my mind at the moment – not because DIY marketing is exclusive to our platform). Imagery? You may not be a photojournalist or an artist but you’ve got an 8-megapixel camera in your pocket, you can experiment with shooting colleagues around the office from different angles to create original imagery (there are some great tips in my Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast interview with Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto). You can sketch illustrations and snap those. Limiting yourself to the technology you use every day is a creative constraint that leads to innovation and stand-out.

Then teach yourself the skills to use it better
It’s incredible how quickly you can build out your basic skills of using technology with online courses that equip you to look under the bonnet and take a degree of extra control. When it comes to the internet, try learning the fundamentals of coding languages like HTML or CSS (set aside a weekend and you can do this). It will help you understand what can be done visually with a website or email newsletter, which helps with briefing agencies. It will also equip you to start experimenting with doing updates, amends and basic designs yourself. You’re quickly on your way to becoming more nimble and agile in the way you use technology.

Teaching yourself basic video editing skills and investing in some simple equipment to go with them can transform the scope of what you do. Try downloading a free version of Camtasia and watching the tutorials to get a grasp of basic editing and give you control of length and the ability to sharpen your message. Once you get started, you’ll be able to upgrade to more advanced packages and do more. This DIY stuff is addictive, after all. To create your own mashed-up still images, start experimenting with Photoshop – you’ll discover it’s easier than you thought.

And don’t forget one of the easiest of content marketing skills to develop – your ability to write. You don’t need any advanced technological skills to put more compelling copy together – just a grasp of the principles of how people read and the confidence to experiment with different ways of expressing yourself. Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes is a great place to start.

Use your power to experiment creatively
The more means of content production you put into your own hands, the more scope for creative experimentation you have. The great advantage that you’re giving yourself with a DIY approach to marketing is the ability to put something out there without running up significant costs. When you don’t have to pay an agency to shoot and edit video, write a blog post or put together some visuals, you can take more risks, take a slightly more rough-and-ready approach and then put more budget behind what you’re doing later if you find the engagement is there.

Choose partners who buy into your ethos
Being a punk marketer doesn’t mean doing away with agency partners altogether – but it does mean choosing partners who buy into the DIY ethos and the idea of empowering you to bring your ideas to life. Try to find people with an appetite for genuinely collaborative working, and whom you can learn from as well as commission work from. This applies to the tech side of digital marketing as well as the creative side. If you’re buying B2B display ads programmatically, for example, try to work with platforms and buying agencies that are willing and able to tell you exactly what you’re buying and why.

Free yourself from constraints – but not from responsibility
Remember how the mainstream record labels co-opted punk by persuading people that it equated to people with no skill making music? Don't fall into that same trap. DIY marketing isn’t about putting shoddy marketing content out there just because you can. It’s about the power to deliver the exact message that you want without being constrained by the rules that others put in place. As a marketer, you still have the responsibility to put something meaningful out there. In fact punk marketing puts more emphasis on the inherent quality and value of your ideas than slick content produced entirely by external agencies. You’re not relying on format or presentation to wow people – you’re relying on raw creativity and originality.

That’s why punk marketing seems such an exciting concept to me today. It’s about stripping the business of marketing down to the essentials; using technology that empowers you rather than intimidates you; keeping everything simple, and keeping everything human. If that seems to fly in the face of how marketing is developing, then all the more reason for adopting it.