What I learned from an hour with Mark Ritson – Robin Charney

04 Mar 2018

Forget AI, VR, 3D printing, blockchain and all the other new technologies that marketing commentators tell you are going to change marketing. The only future marketers need to worry about right now is next year. 2018 planning and strategy should be done and dusted by now.

That was one of the key points made by professor, consultant and marketing fundamentalist Mark Ritson in his lecture for the Marketing Academy Foundation.  AAR were lucky enough to co-sponsor the event.

And Ritson argued the way to succeed in that future is by navigating between competing ideas of purpose and distinctiveness, mass and micro-targeting, traditional and digital. That, and getting some training in what marketing actually involves.

Ritson’s basic premise was that marketing – and marketers – are ‘f*cked’. Not necessarily damned forever, he said, but certainly a bit ‘f*cked’ right now. And he suggested five reasons for that: an obsession with new technology; a pre-occupation with the death of everything from brand to marketing as a whole; a belief that marketing training is unnecessary; the rise of brand purpose creating unrealistic expectations of brands; and a fixation with being “digital-first”. In fact, if you’ve got “digital” in your job title you’re on borrowed time and should be thinking about how you get out of the digital silo, fast.

He also railed against what he called the communification and tactification of marketing, driven, he argued, by our obsession with digital. So, I also got to learn some new words in his deliciously sweary presentation.

“There are always three steps in thinking about marketing; diagnosis, strategy and tactics,” he said. The problem is that the rise of digital has caused marketers to focus on tactics at the expense of research and strategy, and within tactics to focus on communications to the detriment of distribution, product and pricing. The result is that clients don’t have strategies – all they have is tactics. Unfortunately, I’ve seen far too many marketers fall into this trap too many times.

The way to find out whether you have this problem is to apply what Ritson calls “The Four-Beer Test” to your agency. Ask them what they think about your strategy (when they’re sober) and they’ll tell you how clear and impressive it is. Ply them with huge amounts of alcohol and after about four pints they’ll be telling you your strategy is either non-existent, or a joke.

So he also shared some advice about briefing agencies. You need three things, he said: a strategy, a knowledge that your tactical ideas are shit, and training in briefing agencies properly.  Amen!

“‘I’ve got £400k’ is NOT a strategy.”

Enough of the middle finger, here’s the middle way

Ritson’s path out of “the f*ck stuff” is a middle path: for our development, our positioning, our targeting, our tactics, and our focus as marketers.

He reiterated his belief that training in marketing makes you a better marketer although, he said, 57% of marketers disagree.

“You need to learn about our discipline. It needs to be respected and studied, and then updated. But we seem to be proud of not being trained.”

Don’t worry about whether you should focus on brand purpose or distinctiveness, he said; they’re both wrong. Concentrate instead on brand meaning; what do you stand for and what do you deliver?

Equally, don’t think you need to make a choice between mass-marketing or micro-targeting, the siren calls of Professor Byron Sharp and the Google/Facebook duopoly respectively. You need to do both – sophisticated mass-market campaigns that then focus in on tight targeting for individual products.

And don’t think of traditional and digital marketing as separate; “It’s not a binary choice, they’re just tactics. There is a strategy and that should dictate the tools you use.”

Why, he asked, would you set yourself up as a client-side digital marketer?

“Agencies have to specialise, but as a client marketer, why tie one hand behind your back? Digital marketers are missing all the synergy effects. The more you spread your money across platforms the better the results.”

Perhaps most importantly, in a marketing world drowning in predictions both positive and negative, he argued against spending too much time thinking about the past or the future. The only way to do marketing, he said, is one year at a time.

It was the best hour I’ve spent in 2018 so far and I suspect I’ll still be saying that in December. Now I’m off to change my job title.

The slide deck from Mark’s talk can be downloaded below.

Slide deck

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Robin Charney


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