My speech to the (marketing) graduates: A guest post by Neil Young

Good afternoon.

The first thing I want to say to you, the marketing graduates of 2021, is that I really shouldn’t be here right now.

I mean, have you ever listened to my voice before? I really shouldn’t be a musician at all, let alone one of the most famous rock stars of all time.

Think about it. If you were to identify the person who’s best at each of the individual categories that make up a rock star, I probably wouldn’t be first in any of them. In fact, I would probably be middle-bottom.

If you had wanted someone who was good at singing, you would have invited Phil Collins. If you wanted someone who was good at guitar, you would have invited Eric Clapton. If you wanted a brilliant lyricist, you would have invited Bob Dylan. I mean, you’ve heard “Welfare Mothers”, right?

But yet, here we are.

You have, for some reason, invited me to deliver this speech to you, the marketing graduates of 2021.

I’m not here to brag, but I AM one of the most famous rock stars of all time. My run of albums in the 1960s and 1970s is probably one of the best ever. I delivered some of rock music’s greatest hits and influenced a generation of musicians. Hell, I’ve released more than 10 albums even since I survived a brain aneurysm more than 15 years ago.

[Waits for response]

No? Doesn’t ring a bell?

[Holds hand up to mic as he mouths to someone sitting off-stage “how old are these little shits anyways?”]

OK you know the harmonics on Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth? The song that Public Enemy sampled in their song “He Got Game”?

[Nods appreciatively as he sees flickers or recognition on the faces in front of him]

Yeah, that was me!

But anyways, those aren’t the only reasons I shouldn’t be here.

I don’t know anything about marketing. In fact, you could broaden that out to say that I really don’t know anything at all about business.

In my 70+ years I’ve accumulated a decent number of business failures. I failed to develop a new and better version of the MP3 (remember those?). In fact, I’ve sold off a stake in most of the songs I’ve created. That’s why I spend most of my time these days building model trains (and still release new albums pretty frequently).

So yeah, the question I am here to answer today is: Why am I here?

I’ve spent the past few weeks, since my agent reached out with this opportunity, searching for answers to this subject. I am sad to report that I have actually come up with nothing.

But, as I stand at this lectern looking out at your youthful faces, a thought is occurring to me.

I guess if there were one piece of wisdom I could share with you from my years of being a rock star, it’s this: Don’t compromise. Don’t try to be someone else. Embrace what you have to offer and share it, as much as you can, with the world.

I mean, I’m assuming this happens in the marketing world too. Right? You’ve got a client who wants their brand to be known for environmentalism even though they don’t have anything to do with environmentalism. You’ve got a boss who sees a bunch of Apple ads on TV and wants your ads to look just like that too. You’ve got a co-worker who is sure that the way you’re doing your job is wrong and that you should be doing it their way instead.

The closest thing I can think of is…have you ever seen one of those Old Spice ads? You know, the ones with the muscle-y man doing weird things like riding a horse backwards? Swimming through a fishtank? Pulling open the back of a dragon to find some ice cream? Now there’s a brand that knows what it is! It’s not trying to out-perform SpeedStick on comfort or smell. They’re leaning into what makes them different.

[Leans in closer to hear someone in the crowd shouting that it was one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time].

Because that’s the thing: In life, you get absolutely nowhere by trying to be someone else. How else to explain how I, a person with next to no conventional talent as a lyricist, guitar player or singer, could become one of the greatest musicians of all time?

There’s always something you can grasp onto, whether it’s as a person or as a brand, that makes you who you are. There’s always something that defines what makes you different from all the other brands out there. And once you can grasp it, you shouldn’t hide it away. You should shine a light on it and never, ever let it dim.

I mean, isn’t that what marketing is? Shining a light on things?

[Pauses to wait for the audience to respond.]

Anyways. So if there’s one piece of advice I want to leave you with, it’s this. You gotta be you. If you try to be someone else, you’re going to fail. If you try to be yourself, you might not become one of the most famous musicians of all time but you might succeed at something you’re in the middle-bottom of too.

But if you try to be someone else, you never, ever will become all that you could be – in marketing or in life.

Thank you!

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