How to keep your marketing skills sharp

We live in complex times as marketers. Every day brings new advances, new technologies, new ideas for us to incorporate in our work. How do we keep our skills sharp? How do we avoid becoming overwhelmed? We can look to one of the most complex martial arts systems for some answers.

Boston Martial Arts class

I’ve been practicing ninjutsu for over 20 years now; the system I practice is composed of 9 separate lineages. Each lineage has its own distinct techniques and methods. By some counts there are over 700 different techniques to learn.

The way my teachers keep the material organized and teachable is through three principles: refinement, patterns, and frameworks.


Refinement of the basics is the first strategy martial artists learn. We practice the basics endlessly: throwing thousands of punches and kicks, cutting the air with wooden swords, hitting the heavy bag until our hands are sore. With enough practice, we can execute the basics competently even under duress. While I may not be in the dojo every day any more, I practice my basics daily.

Consider as marketers the basics we have at our disposal. Fundamentally, we are…

  • Writers.
  • Problem solvers.
  • Mathematicians.
  • Coders.
  • Photographers.
  • Artists.

If we practice our basics as frequently as possible – even outside of work – we learn to use them in nearly any situation. One of the reasons I blog every day is to practice my writing and composition basics. What are your basics? How often do you practice them for practice’s sake?


Once we’ve become minimally competent in the basics, we start stitching them together. We learn combinations of basics, such as a lead jab, rear cross, and kick. We develop agility with our basics. As we assemble them in different ways, we begin to find that certain sequences solve different problems. We learn these patterns, these sequences, either from our own experiences or from our teachers, who learned them from their teachers, and so on stretching back to antiquity. The Japanese martial arts call these kata, or patterns. Kata are nothing more than previous winning solutions for a particular problem.

Consider as marketers the patterns we develop. We connect writing and coding together to create HTML, to build web pages and email newsletters. We connect illustration and statistics to create infographics. We connect video and audio to produce webinars. Begin to catalog the different patterns you execute on a regular basis and what problem each pattern solves.


Frameworks are how we group patterns together by function. Someone’s grabbing you with two hands? The various lineages have different but related techniques to deal with this situation. Someone’s got a knife / sword / spear? Again, different but related techniques address this problem.

Consider as marketers the problems we face. Facebook changed its algorithm again? What actual problem does this pose? It causes a decline in our ability to create awareness and capture attention. What kata, what patterns do we have at our disposal which solve this problem? We have techniques around advertising, public relations, and other social networks which solve for awareness and attention.

When we begin to classify our knowledge by what problems we can solve, the body of knowledge we have as marketers becomes much more manageable.


When we combine constant refinement of the basics, practice and development of our patterns, and organization of patterns into frameworks, our skills never dull. Every new piece of knowledge we gain fits into one of these three areas, either as a new basic, a pattern, or a framework. We evolve to create our own system of marketing.

As marketers, if we adopt the practices of the martial arts masters, we will never become overwhelmed. Instead, with time and practice, we’ll become marketing masters.

Special credit and thanks go to my teacher Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center, for his patience and instruction over the decades!

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Friday Fun: Recycled Seamless Lightbox

I take an inordinate amount of joy in reusing projects in new and different ways. Way back in the winter, I built parallel light arrays for an indoor greenhouse. Obviously at the height of summer, such a device isn’t necessary. So what can you do with a little indoor greenhouse to make use of it?

The answer: a seamless lightbox for macro/closeup photography!


  • 1 sheet of poster board
  • 2-4 clothespins
  • Indoor greenhouse
  • 2 LED light ballasts
  • 30 feet of 1/2” or 3/4” PVC
  • 4 corner joints
  • 8 T joints
  • 2 plain white bed sheets


  • Power drill with 1/8” bit
  • Patience


Assemble a standing rig for the light array as shown below:


The yellow represents the LED light ballast. The black are PVC pipes. The red are the intersections where you place corner or T joints.

Once you have one, build a second.

After you have both, set them up on opposite sides of the greenhouse.

In the greenhouse, lay the poster board down on a middle shelf, then bend it slightly (without creasing it) to clip the top to the adjacent shelf.


Finally, clip the sheets on the sides of the greenhouse.

When done, you should have a seamless backdrop, side-lit to showcase items for sale on sites like Etsy and eBay, or just a way to photograph objects close up:


Above, this image was before the sheets were put on. You can see mild shadow effects in the image that went away after I installed sheets.

Try this out if you have leftover gardening structures!

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Marketing Technology is More Than Just Vendors and Tools


I love the field, the practice of marketing technology. However, marketing technology has been regarded largely as a collection of tools and vendors. From Scott Brinker’s outstanding MarTech landscape to marketing technology stacks, marketers have come to see marketing technology as simply a box of tools, a myriad of packaged solutions.

This is a dangerously wrong view.

Why? Marketing technology is a mindset, a way of thinking. It’s what I called the Plus Path in Leading Innovation. When we use the Plus Path, we add things together, combining things together in ways that make something better, something greater than the sum of its parts.

We combine peanut butter and jelly.
We mix art and science.
We blend marketing and technology.

When we think of marketing technology as a mindset – how can I do more in my marketing with the technologies I have – we become more capable. We indulge in curiosity, we build things for the sake of building them, we explore what’s possible.

Compare that to the vendor mindset, where we are encouraged to just buy more pre-packaged tools. Vendors certainly want to encourage that version of marketing technology, because it selfishly serves their needs.

The difference is akin to learning a love of cooking versus buying more and more processed foods. The former, a mindset of curiosity, exploration, and eventual delight, takes time. Learning to cook takes effort. We make a lot of mistakes along the way, but when we look back at our journey, we see how far we’ve come and what we’re capable of. The latter is a literal recipe for disastrous physical and financial health.

Don’t fall for the vendor mindset. Embrace a love of marketing and technology together, a love of exploration and creation. When you escape the vendor mindset, you’ll find a whole universe of amazing opportunities just waiting for you.

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