Mark Ritson: Tactics without strategy is dumbing down our discipline

If marketers want to be taken seriously they must end their preoccupation with tactics and tools and focus on their strategy, devised by throroughly researching, segmenting and targeting their market.

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There is no easy way to start this week’s column without sounding like a wanker, but I am genuinely worried about the state of our discipline. We’ve never been regarded as the most strategic part of the organisation but in the last few years marketing seems to be devolving into a base tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking.

To understand my point, you have to realise the distinction between strategy and tactics. Marketing strategy is where we play and how we win in the market. Tactics are how we then deliver on the strategy and execute for success. In traditional military strategy, the generals of old would gather, survey the battlefield in depth, review the enemy’s forces and then decide exactly where to attack, at what time and with which forces. Strategy agreed, the orders would be sent down to the various battalions who then concerned themselves with the tactical business of executing their respective objectives. A troop charged with taking a hill, for example, might deploy its archers and then send in the infantry to finish off the enemy.

In the traditional world of marketing we follow a similar systematic process. First we build a map of the market from research in the form of a decent segmentation. From there we can decide which segments to go after and how to position our brand for optimum success. Finally we devise clear strategic objectives for each target segment specifying the goal we will achieve. Only then – with clarity on who, what and when – do we start to think about tactical execution and which specific tools we might apply.

But that last paragraph now describes an approach in apparent decay. The last decade has seen marketing deluged with a sea of new tools and techniques. The concept of real-time rather than long-term planning has added fuel to the fire. Finally, a new breed of marketer who prefaces their title with the tactical term ‘digital’ has inundated our discipline with under-trained, overly tactical managers who have already selected their mode of execution long before any research or strategy has been even countenanced. They already have their crossbow drawn with no clue where, who or what they are attacking.

Over on the other side of town, Marketing magazine – the long standing rival of Marketing Week – has just been retired and subsumed into a tactical title called Campaign. The editorial team behind the move talk about “creativity”, a “new breed” and “breaking down silos”. But if the exit plan is to move from silos to a giant tactical ghetto where does that leave our discipline?

There used to be a section in every marketing and retail magazine that featured hundreds of promotional gifts and freebies. Golf balls, frisbees and branded pens – you know the kind of thing. There is a very real danger that Campaign and then the rest of British marketing goes this way over the next few years. All this talk of social media platforms, virtual reality and 3D fucking printing is missing the point – the strategic point – of marketing. Our discipline must be founded on understanding consumers and then coming up with the strategy that helps our organisation win in the market. All the tactical mish-mash and creative hoo-haa that follows is an important part of the marketing plan, but it’s not the starting point and it’s certainly not the most important bit.

A general manager at a client I advise recently asked me to chat with a marketing manager about his 2016-17 marketing plan. The GM was worried it was all “bells and whistles”. Sure enough when we went through the plan there was a surfeit of digital tactics for the year ahead but when I asked him about his targeting, positioning and objectives the look on his face astonished me. It wasn’t that he was unsure of his answer, it was his abject confusion that such questions were even appropriate any more. I used to battle against the executives from finance and accounting who sneeringly referred to marketing as the “colouring-in department”.  As time goes on I fear they might have a point.

As the greatest strategist of them all, Sun Tzu, observed more than two millennia ago: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I hope so. Because we need an urgent re-centering of marketing back towards strategic fundamentals before it’s too late.

If you disagree with me get over to Campaign and sign up for their shiny new publication – the website’s front-page stories this week are on millennials, Snapchat, billboard hijacking and digital dating. For anyone else, I recommend climbing back up the disciplinary ladder to a higher place. It’s called marketing. We cover it weekly.​

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Comments
  • Andy 12 May 2016 at 8:39 am

    Spot on as ever Mark Ritson.
    It feels as if marketeers are no longer capable of or at the very least inclined towards exercising their critical faculties on structured analysis of markets, identification of underlying needs and prioritisation of core segments. It probably merely reflects the low attention span, sound bite centric society that marketers recently entering the profession have grown up in. Marketing has always been a blend of art and science and healthy experimentation should be encouraged , but it’s useful to know what a successful outcome would be and that’s impossible to answer properly without a strategic framework in place.

  • leftoverlondoner 12 May 2016 at 8:51 am

    Love the pay-off.

  • Zbiggy 12 May 2016 at 9:00 am

    Especially love this weeks post, as one of my business heroes Sir John Harvey Jones stated he always knew when he was getting somewhere in board meetings when people started to get angry.

    Not only love the fact even more than usual you are clearly truly pissed, but the strategic message you send is critical. Which ever dickhead stated that implementation was more important than strategy was either working for a monopoly, obsessed with their year end bonus or trying to justify an undeserved position.

    I have always been fascinated by studying military history unlike business you can truly see the unequivocal evidence of the role strategy played in either winning or losing a battle or war. I’m with you Mark, the bigger picture will always be the most important.

  • Nick Barthram 12 May 2016 at 11:31 am

    It’s amazing how many executional meetings can be cut-short with “What’s the strategy?”, swiftly followed by “Ok… what’s the objective?” followed by silence

    • CommentsOverTheWire 20 May 2016 at 9:24 am

      “meetings can be cut-short with “What’s the strategy?/ What’s the objective?”

      Oh, that’s my world. And, in that same world of mine, whatever new tools & processes that appear, real-time NEVER trumps planning

  • Scouserphil 12 May 2016 at 3:28 pm

    You can’t be a wanker if you speak the truth. We need more people spreading this word more often, in more places. As a Brit living in NYC, I’m stunned to hear the news re: Campaign and Marketing. Now, talking about wankers…..

  • Bob Loblaw 15 May 2016 at 11:52 pm

    I know I’m supposed to feel frustrated by this, and I do; however I primarily feel relieved and justified as when I share these arguments with my organisation I am told we have done OK without strategy up until now, and why mess with a ‘successful’ formula. Thank you Mark for arguing so succinctly and expertly.

  • Mmmmarketing 16 May 2016 at 8:59 am

    There is another outcome of this focus on lala and tactics over strategy – getting a job. I’m a successful senior marketer, quite adept and knowledgeable of digital channels. But when digital question comes up in interviews, as soon as you say, “Well I focus on strategy first and then work out what needs to be done – digital may not always be appropriate or necessary…”, you can see the digital hope fade in their eyes as they mentally twitter away….

  • Keith Horwood 16 May 2016 at 9:40 am

    This article raises some great points. Having spent the majority of my time in tactical digital roles which are more technical in nature, I ended up going ‘back to school’ after moving in-house to get a greater knowledge of the field. Helps when not working in such relatively narrow digital silos such as in a search agency (strategy may already be devised by the brand you are working for). I think there is room for both sets of skills to dovetail, but this should be recognised by the marketers themselves as well as the companies.

  • Claire 16 May 2016 at 10:32 am

    Yes!! Awesome article. We do fairly well with strategy in our organisation, but I’m often fighting against sudden ‘ooh let’s do this tomorrow’ type conversations with our Head of area (even the CEO!). Quite amazing that someone could do a marketing degree then 10 years later become so distracted by the quick win mentality that they forget to focus on the foundations from which everything must be built. I always respond that if it doesn’t link back to the strategy and business objectives, why would we do it? It’s the responsibility of all of us to raise this in debate at every conference and event, and push back within our own organisations. If there’s not a strategy behind it, and it’s not clear how it’ll get our organisation where it wants to go, we ain’t doing it suh.

  • closertobrands 16 May 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Once again, Mark, you’re handing out a much-needed reminder on the basic principles of marketing strategy – segment/target/position, who/what/when/where/why, strategy first/execution second. I’d add a reminder about the importance of understanding people. We do seem to be spending less and less time asking why. It’s almost like the Insight world has also become more executional than strategic. But marketing is still about people’s needs – identifying, anticipating and satisfying them – and making money from that. So the best kind of insight will always be a NEED insight.

  • Justin Lines 16 May 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Interesting article.

    The British (and numerous other) Army, introduced the command style of Mission Command in the second half of the 20th Century. Whereby the ground troops are given even greater autonomy.

    Should Senior Marketers be looking to follow suit and take even further steps back from the actionable tactics, and facilitate an environment for the Junior Marketers to make and be accountable for all the tactical decisions?

  • Ashley Friedlein 16 May 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I entirely get the point about strategy. But is there also validity in a tactical approach to executing that strategy which is more experimental/test and learn?

    There has been a sense, perhaps stereotypically, to date that whatever the marketing strategy the marketing tactical answer was ‘(TV) advertising’. Or it was something that was going to take a long time to do, cost a lot of money, can’t really be changed once underway, and then might still fail.

    The ‘digital’ approach is more iterative, test/optimise, fewer big bang campaigns and more ‘always on’ stuff (like content, social). And the learnings from these tests can, and should, inform strategy. Digital ‘tactics’ can help give you insights that might change the way you think about your strategy? For example, your data/analytics might unearth customer segments (globally) that you had not considered or, incorrectly, deprioritised.

    • RossRobertsonHoward 17 May 2016 at 9:40 am

      I think this is a good point Ashley, I too think we need to marry strategic understanding with a ‘test and learn’ approach to tactics. However what I find interesting is that is the same relationship as before, (research, segment, plan, deliver) it is just much faster due to the amount of information provided by analytics in near real-time.

    • Patrick Fletcher 23 May 2016 at 1:07 pm

      If we’re going to mention the military in the context of strategy or tactics it might be worth reflecting on Helmuth von Moltke who, it’s alleged, said: ‘No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy’. The iterative approach was what they deployed on the first day of the battle of the Somme and for about a year and half onwards. Not till 1918 did they get to a position where they understood and deployed new strategies and tactics which made the most of the new technologies of killing. To put it in a marketing/comms environment, maybe we’re still to learn the strategy of digital because we’ve been distracted by the excitement of the potential tactical advantages it offers. The big wins will come when strategic use of digital is better understood.

  • Natalija Neimane 21 Aug 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Thank you. I’m still just starting in my career of Marketeer. But I am already experiencing this frustration. My professors that taught me my Marketing Degree at Middlesex, always put great stress on strategy and analysis before making any kind of claim on what tactics should be used. This is the kind of mentality I graduated with and I felt great pleasure in being able to understand what the numbers are trying to tell me about the next logical step that needs to be taken. And unfortunately now I work in a company with 0 strategic foundation, we don’t even have insights department, nobody is doing this job and people without any educational background in marketing are making tactical decisions (not backed with any data) which might very soon turn into a disaster. My contract soon comes to an end and I really hope that my next employer will have more old-school throughout approach to marketing because it’s this blend of science and art is what makes me proud of being a marketer (although still young and inexperienced).

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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