Marketers: no brains, just reactions

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 20 April 2016
Mark Ritson.

This article first appeared in AdNews in-print. Click here to subscribe to the AdNews magazine or read the iPad edition here.

Marketers are following some kind of McCarthyist thinking around digital, blindly accepting that digital and social media are more useful than radio or TV without challenging the facts, according to Mark Ritson associate professsor of marketing at Melbourne Business School.

Marketers have forgotten the fundamentals of marketing and thanks to a misplaced focus on digital, the discipline has become reactive and tactical, rather than strategic, he said.

Ritson, an outspoken academic and global brand consultant who is speaking at a series of lectures in partnership with MCN and AANA this year, is calling for a return to marketing basics that have been forgotten by Australian marketers – or never learned in the first place.

“There is a general malaise,” he said. “We’re overpresenting the value of digital and overlooking the so-called traditional channels. The digital industry is bullshitting without anyone challenging it. Clients should be challenging it.

“There is a new breed of digital marketers coming through and doing great things, but they are also ripping up the last 100 years of progress that marketing has made as a discipline. There’s a lot of bullshit out there; it’s well intentioned but marketing has not changed as much as everyone would have you believe.”

The divide between digital and otherwise, is “artificial and unhelpful” for brands’ objectives and for budgets and has “dumbed us down” he argued, insofar as it has stopped marketers looking at the big picture. Good marketing should still start with objectives and adopt the tools and channels that best lead to those outcomes, Ritson believes.

“We don’t have strategy anymore – we just have tools and tactics,” he said. “I have no problem with digital execution, it brings amazing opportunities, but the strategic game of marketing has not changed. Digital provides execution, it’s fundamentally tactical. Here’s the analogy: digital has made marketers like a sea anemone – it’s the only living creature that does not have a brain, all it does is react.”

One of Ritson’s well publicised gripes is with social media – not so much the channel itself, but the way marketers “have stopped questioning” whether it is effective for the objectives they need to achieve. Data around social media is, he said, “deliberately misrepresented” to make a stronger case – and marketers aren’t asking questions.

Weak clients, strong agencies

While Ritson might have concerns around marketers’ fundamental strategic skills, for agencies though, clients’ reticence to question what they’re being told about emerging channels has meant more strategic thinking.

“It’s a story of weak clients and strong agencies,” Ritson said of the unique situation in Australia that has seen agencies go further upstream into strategy for clients than they do in the UK, US or Europe.

“In Australia – agencies have become stronger and more dominant. It’s great news for agencies, but it’s not how it should be.

You want the client to have done their strategy before they talk to an agency.

“Clients in Australia need to reclaim the strategic high ground.”

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