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Ideas > events > people: marketing lessons from Robert Caro

By Beneath

Robert A Caro is widely recognized as the greatest living biographer – a winner of two Pulitzers for his tomes about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.

In Working, Caro gives us a glimpse into his research and writing process. “Thorough” doesn’t come close. We’re with him on the field trips and in the libraries and record rooms where he follows the advice of an old editor, advice that became his working mantra: “Turn every page.”

His need for detail is all-consuming. But it was something else that struck me about Caro. Something that felt counter-intuitive at first.

It was the fact that Caro isn’t really interested in people – and that’s what makes him a brilliant biographer.

This isn’t to say he doesn’t care about people – on the contrary, his compassion is apparent, and empathy is something he cultivates as a professional skill.

He’s just less interested in people than other things. But what other things?

Beyond people

When Caro writes a biography of a man who transformed the lives of many, his real subject isn’t the man or the many. Nor is it the things that happened.

His subject is power. How it’s created. How it’s maintained. Everything else is an illustration of that truth.

Caro writes about people, so he can write about events, so he can write about ideas. The thing, the concept, the Big IdeaTM is at the top of his pyramid. His peculiar genius is his ability to build the whole damn structure that gets him there.

Caro said, “You have to write not only about the man who wields the sword, but also about the people on whom it is wielded.” In fact, Caro covers it all: the wielded upon, the wielder, the wielding, and the sword.

(It reminded me of the little aphorism that’s sometimes attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but predates her: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”)

The big idea

Marketers today often claim to be focussed on the customer. Some even claim, frighteningly, to be customer-obsessed.

Of course, this is a good instinct in principle. You want to understand the ‘You’ you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them.

But with so much effort expended on Powerpoint-by-numbers slides about how to contextualise this or that message for this or that persona, we can forget about what it is we’re trying to say.

In other words, we neglect the Big Idea.

Learn to see through your customers

Yes, the most effective way to introduce a story (or your company’s positioning) might be to describe how it affects people, taking into account their needs and pain points.

But remember you should really be looking through people at something bigger – the abstracted idea. This is your guiding light. It’s what keeps you honest when you need to create ‘real’, practical stuff, like a message or advert for a particular persona.

If you don’t have that unifying (albeit abstract) idea, every persona deck and templatised framework you throw at the problem will crumble under the slightest pressure.

A big idea in action

Here’s an example. I once worked with a business called Entrepreneur First. EF brings together talented individuals and puts them through company-building bootcamp where they can find a co-founder, develop an idea, start a company and pitch for funding.

Framed one way, EF’s story is about creating a new kind of venture model that invests in talented individuals and gives them the best chance of starting a VC-backed company.

But if we reframe the story, we see that it’s not about talented individuals, or the EF process – it’s about ambition. Traditionally, the default path for a certain kind of talented, ambitious individual was to begin a career in finance or management consulting or, more recently, to work for a big tech company. This is what professional prestige looked like.

EF’s mission is to re-direct this ambition somewhere new, on a path that offers far greater potential for making an impact on the world: starting a deep tech company. So yes, EF is where you can start a company, but it’s really where you can flex world-changing ambition and raise capital, not eyebrows.

Your story

I’m not here to give you tips on getting to your Big Idea faster, or to make it a Bigger, Better Idea when you get there. None that I’m sharing for free, anyway.

Except maybe this one. Be more like Caro. Understand that people (whether they’re powerless or powerful, paupers or presidents, B2B sellers or B2B buyers) aren’t the be-all and end-all. There’s no story without them, of course, but your real subject is what drives them, the things they’re trying to change or achieve.

Caro studied powerful politicians not so he could write their life stories but so he could help his readers understand political power.

What story are you really trying to tell?


(I’ll always be grateful to George Tannenbaum for putting me on to Caro. Rule of thumb: if George learned from somebody, you probably want to learn from them too.)