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SFDC custom objects are read only in Marketo unfortunately. You need to populate the data in SFDC and then you can reference those records in smart lists and email scripts etc. as you've already said.
You don't need to create two custom objects for leads and contacts - you could potentially have both a lead and a contact lookup on the same custom object in SFDC, for example. (This point apparently not true, per Greg's comment below.) The main constraint is just that you can't write to these objects within Marketo itself.
The best thing you can do as a work-around is update a field on the lead/contact in Marketo, sync it to SFDC that way, and then use some automation in SFDC to copy that data into a custom object field.
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There is another, annoying, limitation: seen from Marketo, as lead and contact are the same custom object, there will be 2 possible custom objects with the same name. But one will only be allowed to sync one of the 2. I bumped into this soon after the custom objects were made possible in Marketo, and I have not heard the limitation has been removed so far.
Greg - that is indeed annoying. Now that you mention it I recall hearing of this limitation before and I may have just assumed otherwise in my comment above. I corrected it.
Exactly what I needed to make my way through this