Marketers: How the Liberal Arts Can Help Us Find Relevance

Marketers: How the Liberal Arts Can Help Us Find Relevance
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Last week I came across the post “English Lit & The Disposability Trap” by Rob Fields, whom I met last spring at a marketing conference in New York. Fields describes himself as a cultural strategist and marketer who is a contributor to PSFK, founded and runs the magazine Bold As Love, and writes on his own blog. While I was and remain largely unfamiliar with the professor and the story that prompted Fields’s post, I became interested in his discussion of relevance. I decided I wanted to talk with him to find out more about the concept of relevance and the liberal arts from his perspective as a marketing professional.

As soon as we started talking, it became clear to me that Fields was a fire hose of information and ideas. For the purposes of this piece, I’ve decided to focus on just three main questions that Fields addressed. Here’s a snapshot into our conversation.

What is relevance?

“Relevance” is one of those terms commonly used in marketing circles that often remains undefined. Maybe the reason it isn’t defined is that the term’s meaning seems obvious to those using it. I can only speculate on that front, but I do know that when the subject of relevance comes up I’m frequently left wondering if it actually is that obvious to everyone using it – and to everyone hearing it.

So, I decided to begin my conversation with Fields with a basic question: How do you define relevance?

Fields offered this take: “Given what the landscape is now, we are all fighting for attention and engagement and all those other marketing terms. It all comes down to [how] what you know can be made interesting to someone else.”

So, relevance is about turning communication into a connection, Fields seemed to be saying. Simple and different from the notion of keeping up with what’s current, which, I think, is frequently what people mean when they remind others to “stay relevant.” Many reality shows are current now, but I certainly wouldn’t consider them relevant to me.

Which brings me to Fields’s next point.

“The thing about relevance is, what are my blind spots? What are my biases? What are my assumptions?” According to Fields, “You’ve got to get out of your own way.”

It’s a great point. I would add that identifying one’s blind spots applies to relevance as well as to just about everything else in life. Recently, I wrote about the irony of seeing an otherwise rationally-minded person completely unaware of his biases and assumptions. In that context, as Fields pointed out, people end up missing much of the big picture and getting in their own way. In the context of relevance, failing to understand one’s biases and assumptions can mean missing a connection or connecting with the wrong thing.

Can the liberal arts help us find relevance?

I asked Fields about the liberal arts and whether he thought they could help professionals of various kinds – including marketers– to find relevance. In a word, yes.

“For any public-facing role that you might consider, and that’s a whole lot of jobs…. I think the value of a liberal arts background is incredible because what it provides you is a broad foundation.”

I’ve heard that a lot, and some people might ask, a foundation for what? I – and, I suspect, Fields – would say that the liberal arts provides a foundation for finding and making those connections we’ve been discussing.

Fields continued: “You’re going to be dealing with a lot of different types of people – people who have different interests, different backgrounds, different experiences – and you want to have a broad wealth of experience to draw upon when you’re trying to connect with them. And not trying to, you know, pitch them on your business or anything – but just trying to connect.”

Have you ever had an instance where someone completely missed where you were coming from? Was it jarring? Did you ever wish you were more knowledgeable or open to people’s different experiences?

“If a guy’s like, ‘I’m from Romania, and I do x,’ and you have no idea what that means, you can’t even fathom what his situation is because all you were doing was studying [PR leaders and] PR techniques, then you’ve lost an opportunity to connect on a human level,” Fields said. “And so much of business is really about human connections and personal relationships. That’s what it’s all really about. Yes, you’ve gotta be good at what you do, but really, it’s like, how well do you relate to other people, and how well do they relate to you?”

The liberal arts – whether studied formally or informally – Fields believes, can help people do that: have a greater awareness of and understanding of other cultures, traditions, etc., which can make it easier to connect.

Whose responsibility is it to show that something is relevant?

When marketers try to connect with their customers, most of us would probably say that it is those marketers’ responsibility to communicate how the product or service they are marketing is relevant to their customers. What about in other environments?

When I spoke with Fields, he discussed this issue in the context of his recent blog post.

“[If] you’re a 60-year-old academic… you have a whole different kind of matrix of meaning around your life than, say, somebody who’s 19, 20, 21, 22,” he said. “The two groups see things differently, they have very different – vastly different – experiences, so there is going to be a generational disconnect just naturally.”

Likewise, Fields said that in his own life, “I often find myself with people in their 20s who are doing amazing things, so it’s up to me to try to figure out how to engage them and see where there can be some common ground. I’ve got to do that work.”

I agree—and can imagine how frustrating it must be to have a lifetime of knowledge and experience that others don’t understand or see as relevant. But without that knowledge and experience, how could they? In such a situation, the burden of initiating the connection falls on those of us who are drawing from the bigger reservoir of knowledge and experience.

If we have something that is worth sharing, something that is relevant to others, then it’s up to us to communicate it, to make that connection, to “do that work,” as Fields said, and to help others to understand.

Is there something you struggled to communicate as a marketer that you’re willing to share? Leave a comment below, or drop me a line if you’d like to share your story with me in more detail on Rock On Ink.

Rob Fields describes himself as a cultural strategist and marketer. He is “very much invested in helping brands understand how to leverage contemporary culture,” and his point of view is based on a deep immersion in a “community of creators and curators” who cover areas across music, theater, literature, and more. His work with brands focuses on helping them navigate a landscape filled with daily disruption, as he describes it. In that context, Fields says that he uses culture to inform how people are finding their meaning today rather than culture in terms of the specifics of music, literature, etc. Fields runs his own blog at, created and runs the magazine Bold As Love, and developed the New Black Imagination Festival. He has also appeared on NPR and written for PSFK, the Huffington Post,, and others. You can reach him directly on Twitter @RobFields.

*Photo of Rob Fields by Ed Marshall Photography NYC. Originally in the bio section of Fields’s site. Used with permission.

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