Ritson versus Sharp: Who won the clash of the marketing titans?

Ritson and Sharp locked horns over some of marketing’s thorniest issues, such as science, creativity and targeting – but found common ground rejecting marketers’ feelings of shame about their profession.

mark ritson byron sharp

Marketing heavy weights Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson took to the stage yesterday evening (5 October) at the Festival of Marketing to go head-to-head on some of marketing’s biggest issues.

To kick off the debate, Ritson was given 10 minutes to criticise, question and playfully mock some of Sharp’s most well-known theories as presented in his hugely successful book ‘How Brands Grow’.

Admittedly, Ritson did start off his speech rather amicably. He admits he will likely be remembered as a “relatively small and fruity footnote” in the history of 21st century marketing, but believes Sharp will be recognised as one of the most influential marketing academics.

He recognised, however, that the audience did not show up to hear him make “sweet academic love” to his on-stage rival. “You came here for blood, so let me try and provide some,” he joked. And it seemingly paid off – the event finished with roughly 60% of the audience naming him the “winner” of the debate.

A ‘child-like’ focus on science

The first thing Ritson criticised was Sharp’s supposed “child-like focus on science”. He believes that marketing cannot be studied in the way that physics or geology can, and that science in the social sciences – to which marketing belongs – isn’t that simple.

“We don’t study rocks, we study people. We don’t study mountains, we study organisations, which are reflective,” he said.

[Marketing is] an important part of the real world so we can study it just like physicists, geologists and anyone else by simply getting out of our ivory towers.

Byron Sharp

“There are no general theories of brands. Brands are the opposites of a generic. Each brand is unique and each one has its own system and approach and meaning.”

Sharp retorted by defending his view on science, insisting scientists are simply people who have a sense of wonder and go into the world to take some data and see if they can find similarities.

“This idea that marketing can’t be science, as if marketing can’t work in the real world, but marketing is the real world. It’s an important part of the real world so we can study it just like physicists, geologists and anyone else by simply getting out of our ivory towers,” he said.

Sharp also believes science is crucial to creativity; without having a solid understanding of how some aspects of marketing work, marketers can never experiment and truly be creative. He pointed to Australian wine makers as an example, claiming they have only recently “truly” started to understand how it is made, and are now able to experiment – and improve – as a result.

“Wine has been made for thousands of years, but you’d put the grapes in there and sometimes it’d turn out okay and sometimes it didn’t. And because they had no idea of basic chemistry, there’s no room for creativity. When you make good wine one year, what do you do next year? You do everything exactly the same because you have no idea what matters and what doesn’t. It’s only when you understand how the chemistry works that you can then make a wine that is fault free and move on to being creative,” he explained.

Targeting versus ‘sophisticated mass marketing’

Ritson’s second bone of contention was around targeting. While Sharp believes targeting belongs in a “post-world model” and is predominantly a believer in sophisticated mass marketing, Ritson says targeting can be used for a myriad of reasons, such as to reach brand loyal consumers, to open doors to other segments or because brands are small and don’t have the budget to go after everyone.

“We target because we’ve already done sophisticated mass marketing. But you can do both. And that’s my point here. Not that mass marketing in a sophisticated way doesn’t have a place, but it’s not the only place. And targeting is an equally good and sometimes a better approach. And sometimes, they work best together,” he said.

As a result of Sharp not believing in targeting, Ritson claims he also doesn’t believe in positioning or differentiation. And as brands go after the mass market, they can’t position on anything.

It’s not gin versus tonic, I’m gin and tonic, Professor Sharp’s just tonic. In fact, I’m not even gin and tonic, I’m all the different drinks you want at the right time and in the right place.

Mark Ritson

“I’m not against sophisticated mass marketing, sometimes it works, but sometimes we should also do targeting. I’m not against salience, I think salience plus a bit of brand image is a wonderful thing. It’s not A against B, it’s A and B versus just B,” he explained.

“It’s not gin versus tonic, I’m gin and tonic, Professor Sharp’s just tonic. In fact, I’m not even gin and tonic, I’m all the different drinks you want at the right time and in the right place, but Professor Sharp is just tonic and you’re not allowed to drink it because it’s not scientifically allowed.”

Sharp responded to this criticism by saying Ritson’s argument is like “nailing jelly to the wall”, it just didn’t make sense. Sophisticated mass marketing is about trying to reach everyone in the marketplace while understanding people are different. So Spanish people are targeted with Spanish ads, while English people are targeted with English ads.

He explained: “People on the streets would be amazed at marketers writing plans to say they don’t want to talk to 80% of their customers. Marketing is all about wanting to sell to everyone. Well, that’s what builds successful brands, but unfortunately then theory got in the way and then marketers decided to it was fashionable to be highly efficient and only target a small part of the market – that’s targeting. Sophisticated mass marketing is understanding the differences but trying to reach all of the market.”

With the main bones of contention over, it was time for the audience to ask some questions. And perhaps surprisingly, there were three points they agreed on.

Ritson and Sharp on….

Brand purpose

Mark Ritson: Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s and those other brands, they were founded on purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – like ‘make today great’ – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit, they don’t want you to make lives better they just want you to manage their money.

The marketing profession

But Sharp and I have something in common, we both became marketing professors not because we wanted to become professors but because we like marketing. We are proud of marketing and what it does and how it works and I wish more marketers were, because it’s a great discipline. It’s not perfect but we are making the world better by giving people what they want. Byron is right on this one point. Brand purpose is the bullshit we tell ourselves because there is no honour in making good products and making our customers happy. I despise that.

Byron Sharp: They won’t stand up and say what a fantastic profession we belong to. Modern market economies are astonishing. If you really care about the world, and look at the data, almost every single important metric you can think of – childhood death, literacy, 200 years ago, about 12% of people on this planet could read and write. Some 200 years later there are 5 billion more of us and now only 12% can’t read and write. The marketing revolution is a huge part of this, free trading produced lots of this. Lots of marketers are like: Oh god, capitalism, I’m part of it, terrible!

[Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff. I think that’s terrible. If marketers don’t stand up for marketing, who will?

Advice to marketers that wasn’t necessary 10 years ago

Byron Sharp: Automation wasn’t really on the agenda five or 10 years ago, but it is now. But an awful lot of marketing is just the specialised parts of the process – someone has to make those brochures, someone has to get that stuff out. We’re part of the production process, well a lot of is going to get automated so you need to be upskilling.

The future is for marketers who will do more analysis and thinking and are good scientists. So I would advise people to learn how to do controlled experiments, that that’s an important skill to have, rather than knowing about how ink bleeds off the page.

Mark Ritson: Five or 10 years ago we were better at strategy than we are now. Most companies don’t have any strategy. The advice now that wasn’t necessary 10 years ago is to stop messing around with the tactical stuff, pull back, think about strategy. If you talk to agencies, especially after a few beers, about the pitches they’re getting in the UK now, they’re terrible. There’s no strategy in them, just a bunch of tactical requests. This isn’t how it always was. My advice would be – try and get strategy first before you start talking about TV, Facebook or anything.

Byron Sharp: Strategy used to be the sexy thing, not technology.

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Comments
  • James Gambrill 9 Oct 2017 at 9:28 am

    As a marketeer and physicist I find the relationship between science and marketing especial y industry! But have to say though I didn’t see the debate from this synopsis I have to side with Prof Ritson. Whilst there is no doubt marketing gan gain hugely from scientific process, especially testing, measurement and optimisation to try and measure and improve results from activity, the crucial difference is in science the exact result must be replicable to prove a theory. 0.001% of a sample that doesn’t agree with the theory results in the theory being rejected as it simply musty hold true in each and every case to be considered a law. In social sciences we are dealing in percentages, if something mostly works, and when replicated mostly works again, it’s valid because it’s useful. In science if it only mostly works, we miss the moon…and again on targeting I must agree with Prof Ritson. The idea that marketeers want to sell everything to everyone is clearly absurd beyond mass products. Many companies, especially luxury brands, actively don’t want everyone buying their products as it destroys the very in the exclusivity that forms much of their value in the first place. And before someone says Apple manage it, aren’t 80%+ of smartphones now non apple even though they pretty much invented that market? I actually see the biggest mistake many companies, especially smaller ones, make is trying to sell to everyone and becoming lost in the noise, rather than being focused on where they can stand out. Horses for courses, if you have the product and the means to sell to everyone sure it’s a valid strategy but most companies don’t…great debate though well done MW for bringing these two together, I hope to catch the rematch!

    • Mathieu Manson 11 Oct 2017 at 8:22 am

      Your point about science is true, however do we need to get hung up on that? Indeed, we’re talking about a social science and for Prof. Byron Sharp to talk about scientific laws of marketing is a short-cut to get the point across that unlike what most marketeer (used to?) think, there are patterns and ‘laws’ that check out in the vast majority of cases. And that’s useful. So if we’re attacking Prof. Sharp on the word ‘law’ it feels like we’re criticizing a technicality, not the substance. Meaning his content is right.
      On your point about “The idea that marketeers want to sell everything to everyone is clearly absurd beyond mass products. ” we need to set things straight: Prof. Byron Sharp never said target everyone — but everyone in the market. That’s an important nuance. So for nappies, target parents (not students) but all parents, not just parents who live in a 3 bedroom house, have a dog and enjoy karaoke. Try to sell to all parents if you can, you’ll just be more successful. This works in B-to-B too: if you sell built-in navigation devices for car manufacturers, try to sell to all of them. Why wouldn’t you?
      Finally, “Many companies, especially luxury brands, actively don’t want everyone buying their products as it destroys the very in the exclusivity that forms much of their value in the first place. ” How Brands Grow part II looks at this and shows that actually the luxury brands that have highest share (hence sell the most) and are most well known to the public, including the average Joe are the ones with highest equity. So I’m actually not sure that’s true and apart from purely financial issues of cross-country sells, I doubt many luxury brands purposefully try to stop certain people giving them money. They might pretend they do for PR but I doubt they actually do.

  • Melody Pattison Mehta 10 Oct 2017 at 5:01 am

    “Marketing” usually covers all pertinent segments and “advertising” is simply developed and released to suit the segments if that is what the specific objectives require. There does seem to be a mishmash here of terminology conflating “marketing” and “advertising” which are two specific things, one of which is contained within the other as a tool. A plus B are always on the marketing table given sufficient budget and the appropriate brand and objectives. I get the sense that these chaps don’t spend much time with brands that have tight or minimal budgets, or at least that’s the impression given by the debate.

  • Pete Austin 11 Oct 2017 at 10:35 am

    Re: “Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk”.

    Nope. It’s virtue signalling. If people get offended, you want to be able to point to it and say, “That bad thing you think we did; it was just a mistake. Our brand purpose proves we are good guys”.

  • James Gambrill 11 Oct 2017 at 5:06 pm

    My first point in relation to marketing as science was really about this comment:

    Sharp retorted by defending his view on science, insisting scientists are simply people who have a sense of wonder and go into the world to take some data and see if they can find similarities.

    “This idea that marketing can’t be science, as if marketing can’t work in the real world, but marketing is the real world. It’s an important part of the real world so we can study it just like physicists, geologists and anyone else by simply getting out of our ivory towers,” he said.

    Scientists don’t ‘go into the world to take some data and see if they can find similarities’, they test hypotheses until they fail, and if they don’t fail they become a law unless someone else finds a scenario where they do fail (Newton and Einstein for example)

    The point being that you can’t approach marketing like physicists approach the real world and apply the same thinking because the natural laws that physicists seek to discover and define are absolute – not just in the sense they remain constant in every scenario but also in the sense they work across time from the creation to the end of the universe. Marketing like any social science is very much affected by the timeframe in which it is observed , so patterns and ‘laws’ that hold true now didn’t apply before and may not apply in the future. I agree the basic point of looking for patterns and systems that work most of the time is totally valid, but it’s something good marketeers already too and implying marketing is a science that can be studied like physics just doesn’t stack up.

    Mass marketing, agreed that’s an important differentiation. But I would still argue there is vey much a place for targeting within a market not least due to resources. Yes of course many companies want to sell to everyone within a market, but by doing so they open themselves up to more and more competition. If they focus on an area where they have core competencies they can take a bigger share of that part of the market, rather than fighting battles on all fronts which as any losing general knows is often a rapid path to defeat without overwhelming resources. I think the main issue in Prof Sharp’s argument is it seems to ignore competition, not all brands can dominate a market, by definition only one can so does every company strive to dominate their market knowing there is a good chance they will fail, or do they focus more efforts on dominating a segment of the market? I totally agree that overly defined targeting is a mistake that many companies make, but the root of that is poor segmentation, they haven’t defined their segments sensibly and if the segmentation is wrong the targeting can only ever be wrong.

    I haven’t yet read How Brands Grow Part 2 but certainly will and interested to see that analysis on luxury brands. For me it’s the economics of scarcity, in general the more scarce the product the more you can charge (assuming it’s something somebody wants in the first place) so if you start producing far more units to sell to more people you will inevitably reduce the profit. At the extreme end I’m thinking of the likes of Ferrari who certainly do limit their production and for many models only allow previous and invited owners to purchase those cars – which does create more demand for their less restricted models to my mind – and ensures those limited editions are always sold out as they know the demand will exceed the supply. Are they wrong in this approach? Would Ferrari do better if they made as many cars as possible and sold to everyone who wanted one? Possibly so. Would they risk it? Possibly not!

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