Ritson and Sharp reveal their marketing heroes and the biggest challenges facing the industry

Marketing Week asked two of the leading marketing thinkers, professors Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp, who they admire most in the world of business and what is wrong with the way today’s marketers are trained.

mark ritson byron sharp

Which marketing company do you most admire and why?

Ritson: P&G. It was so far ahead of everyone else in creating brand management at its company in the pre-war years and with Marc Pritchard that spirit of being in the vanguard of stewarding best practice in marketing is continuing.

Sharp: I meet many impressive marketers in impressive companies. These companies have much to be proud of, as the modern market economy is just amazing. For example, step into a Whole Foods Market and the choices available are astonishing; it’s a wonderland.

That said, I hate this sort of question. I’m not going to put any one company on a pedestal. I don’t want to make the mistake of all those rubbish books that identify ‘excellent companies’ and the one secret to their success. Instead, I strongly recommend reading the book ‘The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers’ by Professor Phil Rosenzweig.

By the way, all companies are marketing companies. The only reason companies exist is because they have customers.

What is the single most impressive marketing achievement you have seen first-hand?

Ritson: Easy – keeping Louis Vuitton at the pinnacle of luxury for the past quarter-century. There are certainly more boutique, uber-luxe brands out there but to be so big, so successful and so prestigious for so long is an astonishing achievement. Everyone and their dad has predicted Louis Vuitton is over-exposed but its sales and attraction continue.

Sharp: Maintaining a brand over decades. Often these are only minor incremental improvements, not seismic shifts. We don’t give anywhere near enough credit to those who inherited great brands and kept them great. Also, taking a local brand and making it global. These are truly impressive feats.

Who is your marketing hero?

mark ritson

Ritson: Tim Ambler [academic and former marketing director of International Distillers and Vintners]. He is a great marketer. A great writer. A great academic (sort of). And amazing company after 6pm.

Sharp: I thank Phil Kotler for getting me interested in marketing. I know that sounds strange because I criticise the Kotlerian view of marketing for being incompatible with research, but credit where credit is due – Kotler only set out to write a textbook, describing what marketing departments do and providing some useful checklists. And he successfully conveyed the enormity and importance of the marketing challenge, doing so in an appealing and aspirational way.

What are the biggest challenges marketers face?

Ritson: The biggest one is ‘tactification’. We are obsessed with execution and specifically communication. Too many marketers are not just strategically negligent, they don’t know the difference between tactical execution and strategic planning.

Sharp: Comparing the many options they have to spend their marketing budget and working out if their efforts are improving the long-term prospects of their brand. Marketing mix modelling, ROI, brand equity metrics: all these things have failed to answer this question.

What is the most important attribute a great marketer must have?

Ritson: To listen. Before you can come up with a successful marketing strategy you need to work out, from the consumer, what is going on. That means the ability to listen; both to qualitative and quantitative data, and to those around you.

Too many marketers are not just strategically negligent, they don’t know the difference between tactical execution and strategic planning.

Mark Ritson

Sharp: Two attributes: open-mindedness and scepticism. These sound contradictory but they aren’t. A proper sceptic demands logic and evidence, even for things they themselves believe. And they are willing to change their mind in light of evidence.

Everyone likes to think they are open-minded, but people go out of their way to avoid evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Open-mindedness also means constantly looking for alternative views. Without a sense of wonder it is difficult to be a great marketer.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give a young marketer wanting to become a CMO?

Ritson: You probably still need to get significant, formative amounts of time at one of the great marketing companies – Unilever, P&G, Diageo. I say ‘probably’, because this may change by the time young marketers mature. The new list by then might be Google, Facebook and Amazon, so I guess you have to make that call now.

Sharp: Any marketer with reasonable talents can be CMO, so the main advice I would give is to think carefully whether you want to be a CMO. It’s a very different job than working in a marketing department.

A good CMO spends very little time on campaigns. Their job isn’t to come up with creative new strategies. Their job is to create and develop marketing capability throughout the business. So it’s about leadership, education, and constantly re-evaluating existing systems, procedures, policies and metrics. Understandably, a lot of marketers don’t want to acquire these skills or do this job.

Which marketing concept is the most overrated?

Ritson: Digital. It will cease to exist as a separate prefix to marketing in the next few years. Either you will get marketers continuing to flog the dead digital horse or they will realise they need the digital tactical skills but also to augment them with a full marketing awareness and ability.

byron sharp

Sharp: Targeting. Who could argue with the idea of sending the ‘right’ message at the ‘right’ time to the ‘right’ person? But the wrong ideas that last the longest are those that sound logical or plausible, such as the sun goes around the earth.

What is the biggest error you ever made in your professional life?

Ritson: I turned down a faculty position at Harvard Business School.

Sharp: From a professional perspective, probably living in Australia (it’s good for Qantas Airways though). But personally, I love living in Adelaide.

How well are marketers trained today, and what would you improve about their knowledge?

Ritson: They are trained incredibly badly. I despair at the way marketing is being taught at university. The degree to which marketing professors are out of touch with the world of marketing (which is changing so fast) is shocking and the subsequent education they provide young marketers is terrifyingly bad. So this is a bit of a cop-out but I would change everything about the way marketing is taught and the knowledge that is passed on.

Sharp: Strategically, not well. Analytically, not well. University marketing degrees teach a lot of myths and they teach nothing about big areas like media, but that said, on average I would rather employ someone with a marketing degree than without.

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute masters and PhD students I teach who have prior degrees in something other than marketing find it much more difficult. So there is definitely value in a proper marketing degree, but yes, they could be made vastly better.

One of the most important things that a future manager should learn is how to do proper controlled experiments. Business degrees are woeful at imparting this knowledge. They don’t teach people how to think rigorously, how to be properly sceptical.

What makes marketing an exciting, and frustrating, profession to be in?

Ritson: There are no actual rules or laws for success, despite what some (ahem) would have you believe. So I love the fact that a strategy that might work for one brand will not work for another. Unlike accounting or operations, we don’t have a one-size-fits-all model for marketing and I love that. Anyone who starts talking about brands in general does not understand that each brand is, literally, unique.

University marketing degrees teach a lot of myths and they teach nothing about big areas like media.

Byron Sharp

Sharp: It’s in the real world, dealing with real people, making real decisions in their real lives, which is a strange but wonderful place that over and over shows our armchair theorising to be wrong.

What marketing concept do you wish you had invented?

Ritson: Net promoter score. Every over-trained marketing academic despises it because it is so simple and is used by pretty much every major company. Its simplicity and its difficulty and its centrality make it fantastic. And because academics hate it, I love it more.

Sharp: I wish I had thought of testing brand personality theory on rocks. That was brilliant, wickedly so. [See the Ig Nobel prize-winning article ‘The brand personality of rocks’, published by Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Ferguson in the journal Marketing Theory in December 2016.]

Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp are going head-to-head at the Festival of Marketing, which this year is taking place on 4 and 5 October at Tobacco Dock. To find out more information, including how to book tickets, visit www.festivalofmarketing.com

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