Like most people, I used to be wary of marketers. They sell useless stuff to people that don’t need it.

A marketing colleague pointed out to me that you can’t sell someone something they don’t want. But that was my point; marketers make people want stuff that they happen to have right there ready to sell to them. Granted, it’s a bit chicken and egg.

And like most people in the engineering department, I thought people in marketing were largely overhead, oblivious and even antagonistic to the real work involved in creating stuff that will solve problems.

But I changed my opinion. My mistake was to think too much in terms of sales — marketing people being sales people with an attitude. That’s just one side of the equation, and that becomes clearer when I think of the market and what it is, as opposed to the marketing.

Take the stock market. It doesn’t exist independently, waiting for buyers and sellers to show up. It exists because of the people who create it, who are known, appropriately enough, as market makers. They create the space between stuff that’s for sale and people who are looking to buy it. That’s the market. The market is where buyers and sellers meet, and the space between buyer and seller — sometimes called the spread — is created and occupied by the market makers. They’re not necessarily buying or selling themselves, they’re just brokering deals between buyers and sellers.

They’re making something out of nothing, and calling it the market much as Seinfeld made something out of nothing and called it Seinfeld.

And that seems like what marketers do.  Or at least it makes it easier to see where marketing adds essential value to any other engineering, creative, or financial activity involving producers and consumers.

Say you have a new widget. Who might use it? Where do we sell it? Where do they go to buy it? What’s its value? How much can we charge for it? What will they pay? How does it compare? Where does it win? Marketers will help with all that, and in the process they’ll create a market for your widget.

They make it look easy, and we are tempted to think so. But there’s another way it can be dangerous to underestimate the power of marketing.

It’s when we grant the market a life of its own, consider it an almost sentient individual operating under its own volition with causes and effects that are beyond our control. A force of nature, we may get tossed around by it at times, but we might still think it’s a good idea to “let the market decide”.

And that’s something marketing does — almost can’t help doing — it renders itself invisible such that we see only the market and not the market making. That’s why it’s so easy to undervalue marketing both as buyers and sellers; it’s hard to see it, so we take whatever it is for granted. That’s very misleading, because it means we’re ignoring the effort to create the spread between buyer and seller that created the market in the first place.

The market is that spread between producer and consumer, it’s where marketing lives, and that’s why I was so mistaken to think of marketers as overhead.