It's become a thing...a bit I do at the start of most marketing meetings. In a professorial voice, I stroke my beard and ask "What IS marketing?" I started it as a throw away ice-breaker and it has kind of stuck. But sometimes asking ourselves even the most basic questions that effect our lives (and forcing ourselves to answer) can be a constructive exercise.
So here is my answer: Marketing is the crafting and dissemination of a message.
I think that all too often, however, marketers clearly see their job as the latter and they fail to acknowledge the importance of the former. The process is familiar. Survey the tools at your disposal. Analyze them for their level of efficiency. Test various methods. Execute on those with the most valuable results. Survey...analyze...test...execute. Yes, marketing has its measurable side and these skills are hugely important to marketers if they are to provide value to their company. While this dissemination part of the job is certainly not simple to master, it is straight forward.
I do believe, though, that marketers worth their salt must understand their role in the message crafting process. At the moment a product or service is first conceived, its marketing (good or bad) begins. "What words do we use to discuss it?" "How do we explain it?" "What questions will we be asked about it and how will we answer the questions?" The skills needed for this part of the job are far different then those of the analytical side. To internalize the importance of these questions, a marketer must keep the 'bigger picture' clearly in mind, even before the bigger picture comes into focus. And the marketer must also be able to 'sell' that vision internally within the company. I can't say how many fantastic 'new directions' I have seen die in their tracks just because there was no clearly articulated way for a team to discuss it amongst themselves. Ideas are fragile things, especially when they are young. I believe that as much as an idea needs a plan in place as to how it will be delivered to the outside world, it needs first to be cultivated and crafted. While it is easy to think past these early steps, I believe marketers do so at their own peril. Marketing, after all, begins at conception.