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Ad land guru says brand purpose is over

Outspoken marketing mind Mark Ritson is this week’s Inside Marketing podcast guest

Mark Ritson: ’Marketers have been utterly useless at marketing their marketing’

Mark Ritson: ’Marketers have been utterly useless at marketing their marketing’

This week on the Inside Marketing podcast I had the pleasure of meeting marketing professor, brand consultant and brilliant Marketing Week columnist, Mark Ritson.
Marketing is often accused of self indulgence, an industry drunk on its own hype, fuelling an echo chamber of opinion that rarely ripples outside the tent. One of the symptoms of our industry is the fear of saying what you really think.

This week legendary marketing expert, professor and brand consultant, Mark Ritson joins us for a wide-ranging, very frank and unabashedly honest discussion on all things marketing. Listen now: 

Points of view are painfully percolated to minimise unpopularity, and expertise is too often heralded only with the safety of hindsight. For anyone familiar with Ritson, you know that’s not him. His character is one of refreshing honesty, amusingly self-deprecating in his inimitable “take-it-or-leave-it” style. Drawing on his many years of experience working with some of the world’s biggest brands, he is not afraid to have his own opinion. With a brief of “ask me anything”, I knew this podcast would be interesting.
The first topic for discussion was the advertising industry itself. Ad land has lost its clout in the boardroom and its swagger in culture. Is it time for the ad industry to rebrand itself?

Permeate culture

“If you ask people what their favourite ad is they’ll struggle to give you one from today, they’re more likely to recall ads from 10 or 20 years ago,” Mark Ritson points out. “We don’t have those Tango ads that permeate culture the way they used to.”
He warns it’s too simplistic to blame quality of creative as the sole reason, and it could be due to the proliferation of media. “We have more targeting capabilities today, more streamlined media so we don’t need to drop an atomic bomb hitting everybody with huge frequency like before”. Fair point. More discreet targeting is “a positive thing”, he says, but the consequence is you get “fewer campaigns cutting through en masse”.
Another tension point in ad land is the great divide between digital/non-digital media, a divide Ritson argues is artificially engineered and unashamedly self-serving.
“One of the things people in digital media did well was label everything they were not responsible for as traditional or legacy advertising. The whole idea of labelling media as new-versus-old is incredibly stupid,” he says.
“Clients and agencies need to be media neutral, treat everything with an equal level of suspicion, asking how it’s going to deliver for your brand.” He makes a great point, asking why we even have “digital” in job titles anymore as most media – TV, radio and even outdoor – is largely digitally distributed today, “so the idea of digital is an antiquated concept that’s completely irrelevant”.

Pornography of change 

Another industry failing is our obsession with new. “We’re biased towards the trendy stuff, guilty of this pornography of change where anything new with a cool title is instantly better than anything that came before, regardless of the fact that these methods have been proven over decades, that’s fundamentally stupid.”
We got to talking about how, despite an undeniable amount of evidence in favour of long-term advertising, the long versus short-term debate still rages. The easy answer is to point to the big, bad, finance wolf who doesn’t understand advertising.
But Ritson doesn’t subscribe to that; “I don’t think we can simply blame the chief financial officer (CFO); we create this bête noire of a CFO forcing the company to be short-term and I don’t think that’s true, the more likely truth is that marketers have been utterly useless at marketing their marketing.” 
He agrees some of it is symptomatic of our short-cycle business culture. “When you’re wedded to monthly and quarterly cycles, three years is a lifetime, but that’s what we mean by long term. The long term is fundamentally not the stitching together of lots and lots of short-term horizons, you have to stretch it out and look at it over a period of typically three years, that’s when it starts to actualise.”
“If you take the three-year approach and split budget 60/40 (long/short term) over that period you will certainly not make more money in year one than had you only deployed short-term tactics, but after three years, on average, you make significantly more money,” Ritson says.
“Marketing has not been able to demonstrate that case effectively and as a result shorttermism dominates our thinking, but I wouldn’t blame CFOs, I’d blame marketeers who aren’t capable of marketing their marketing to those who need convincing.”
Binet & Field’s evidence-based work suggests a 60/40 split is optimum, but Ritson advises caution, serving up some common sense. “If 60/40 makes you uncomfortable, then find a figure that works, even if that’s 30 per cent, but commit to it for the long term. It’s better to have 30 per cent consistently invested in long-term brand building for three years than put 60 per cent in the first year then get cold feet and pull the whole thing, that won’t work.”
Marketing involves risk, business culture seeks to minimise risk, so he reminds us to ”find a sustainable amount you are prepared to put away for longer-term brand building that leaves sufficient funds to deliver the budget in short-term marketing because there is no long if you don’t deliver on the short”. 
On the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, Ritson has some thoughts. “They’ve performed a great service to marketing, but it was never meant to be taken literally, people who don’t understand the nuances of their work have taken it too far,” he says.
“When you consider Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time, that makes perfect sense here, it’s the ability to understand that mass marketing works but at the same time niche targeting also works. It’s not a case of either/or, but most people aren’t smart enough to understand its nuance so they crudely apply it as a blunt instrument.”
Marketing is lost and Ritson believes part of the problem is we’ve forgotten what we are about. We try to make it overly complicated. “We’ve stopped talking about great marketing and started talking about how it’s a science, but the minute we start over intellectualising it we’re in deep trouble because most people don’t understand science, they think they do, and that’s a real problem,” he says.
Marketing is still a great profession, particularly for those who have a mixture of talents
Maybe this explains why the industry got so caught up with brand purpose in the last five years. It’s fair to say Ritson is not a fan. That’s not to say that he doesn’t think there are exceptions: “the point of purpose is that it should cost you something, the challenge of purpose is that you don’t make as much money, but you do the right thing. There are a handful of exceptions, but in those instances, purpose didn’t come from marketing, it came from a company wanting to do things differently, it was baked into their DNA”.
It’s hard to disagree. Modern day purpose is the brainchild of the marketing department, and it’s mostly contrived.
“Marketing is overthinking purpose and completely overestimating the value which consumers attach to that purpose,” he believes.
Ritson refers to ad contrarian, Bob Hoffman, to illustrate this. “There’s an exercise called Hoffman’s refrigerator, open your refrigerator and behold all the products you consume in that refrigerator. Then ask yourself for how many of those products are you aware of the purpose behind the brands – never mind how many of those purposes you ascribe to.” It’s an interesting and enlightening undertaking.
The irony is that marketing is losing its sense of purpose. Ritson argues this overcomplication and the irresistible urge to swim upstream has happened because, “most marketers are just uncomfortable selling stuff, simple as that. I don’t know when we stopped being proud of marketing good products that won’t destroy the planet, to happy customers for a premium price, delivering a profit to a company that creates significant and fair employment in our economy.

Bulls**t marketing

“When did we become ashamed of great marketing doing exactly that, and why do we pretend marketing has to do more than that,” he asks. “Thankfully, we’re entering a postpurpose era, but never underestimate the amount of bulls**t marketing is prepared to produce about itself.”
Despite his cynicism, Ritson is passionate about marketing. He just doesn’t think enough people are good at it. “Marketing is still a great profession, particularly for those who have a mixture of talents. It has always been a career for decathletes, it’s not a specialist career,” he says. 
As a marketing professor his mini-MBA marketing course will train 10,000 marketers in 40 countries this year. “We’ve got a good Irish following, we’re seeing more and more people from Ireland every year,” Ritson says.
For anyone looking to invest in their career or staff, the €1,620 fee is money well spent: full disclosure, a member of my team recently finished the course and gave it a glowing review, as do most who enrol. “We have a net promoter score of +75, the feedback looks fishy, it’s so good, but it’s all genuine,” he laughs.
Mark Ritson’s mini-MBA in Marketing takes place in September and April, the next semester starts on September 14th, more details can be found at
Dave Winterlich: chief strategy officer at dentsu Ireland
Dave Winterlich, chief strategy officer at dentsu Ireland

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing. For more information, visit