The History of Marketing

An Ancient Art & Science

Originally considered as strictly an art, then also as a social science over time, the technical definition for “marketing” has evolved over the years, and fairly frequently, just as marketing itself does. It is at this ‘speed of marketing’ that you will learn a slice of its history, starting from the development of its latest forms and ending on its earliest.

The term ‘digital marketing’ hadn’t become vocabulary until the 1990’s, but digital marketing has been in development since as far back as the 1980’s. Back then, businesses employed ‘database marketing’, using databases and analysis to track customer information and send potentially relevant promotional materials. This could be by email, telephone, or physical material.

Both during and before the digital age and computers, the primary method of marketing was ‘direct marketing’. Born in 1920, advertising executive Lester Wunderman is considered the “father of direct marketing”, having defined it in 1967.

Having said this, direct marketing as a practice has existed since at least as far back as the 15th century, typically in the form of catalogues, sent by mail. Starting in the late 1660’s, mail order catalogues became a popular form of advertising, and were commonly used by merchants to advertise lists of available seeds and their prices to farmers.

Still in use to this day, there are many sub-categories that fall under direct marketing, including telemarketing, email marketing, newspaper, radio, and television.

One particularly notable example that dates even further back is that of a catalogue of books, printed by Aldine Press founder Aldus Manutius (also the creator of the italics typeface), mailed out in 1498. This is also called ‘print marketing’, or ‘print advertising’. Print is possibly the oldest known form of non-verbal marketing.

The oldest known marketing campaign came from a time when the art of writing was considered divine. Sometime in ancient Egypt, a fabrics seller hired a scribe to send out papyrus offering a reward of one gold piece to anyone who would return his escaped slave to him. In this papyrus, he included a decidedly favourable description of his wares.

Below is a translation of this papyrus, by James Playstead Wood.

“The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoined to help return him.

He is a Hittite, short, of ruddy complexion and brown eyes. For news of his whereabouts, half a gold coin is offered. And for his return to the shop of Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires, a whole gold coin is offered.” — Hapu

While the slave was apparently never found (probably a good thing), this clever- albeit archaic- marketing campaign was enough to secure the success of the fabric seller who was able to expand their business.

That was over 5,000 years ago, the papyrus itself dating back to 3,000 BC.

Marketing may be young in name, but it is quite ancient as a practice. For as long as there has been a need or want, there is marketing; ready to lead consumers and businesses alike to the right place, the right product, the right people, and at the right time.