Mark Ritson: Understanding customers is marketers’ most misunderstood mission

A lot has changed since Marketing Week was first published in 1978, but the search for differentiation, the need to understand customers and the battle for brand supremacy will always be marketers’ key challenges.


Forty. Bloody hell! It’s an interesting milestone. Unlike other anniversaries such as your 18th or 21st that are largely ceremonial, you feel your 40th marching up the hill about six months before it arrives. It’s a proper thing. A line in the sand.

For Marketing Week it is a very important achievement. The world of marketing has changed so much in the past four decades that any brand that was created in 1978 to serve marketers and is still standing deserves a pat on the back, and then probably a sit down and a mug of cocoa.

If you look at the ancient editions of Marketing Week you get a glimpse into the glorious (and not-so-glorious) history of British marketing. The first impression of our older editions is that the world of marketing has changed massively.

Where once the battle was TV versus print, today it is digital against traditional. Credit cards were once the hot new technology for monitoring customers; now we have little spy robots perched on our mantelpieces that we talk to while they listen to us. We used to worry about the relationships between clients and agencies; now the digital duopoly is bigger than any agency, and every client.

But scratch a little deeper and, actually, the main themes of marketing remain the same today as they were in 1978. The search for differentiation. The need to understand a changing customer. The battle for brand supremacy against your fellow marketer. The need to stay ahead.

In truth, marketers should review the past 40 years in three very different sections, each with its own metabolism. Seen this way, I think the last four decades of marketing – and the whole life of Marketing Week – makes a lot more sense and seems a lot less transitory.

READ MORE: Ritson: How ‘influencers’ made my arse a work of art

The three bands of marketing

I see marketing as a spinning wheel with three bands. On the outer ring is the tactical band spinning at a dizzying rate of change. In the middle ring, spinning at a much more sedentary pace, is the strategic band. Finally, at the centre of the wheel, is the bullseye, hardly moving at all – the need for market orientation.

The tactical band is, of course, the one we all love to talk about and the one that, as the decades have unfolded, has become more and more the focus for marketers. I call it ‘tactification’ and it is there for all to see. Most marketers think marketing is just the way we communicate with customers and they obsess about outbound marketing, content and social media as if they are the only things that matter. While this stuff is all part of our discipline, it is tangential stuff and merely the execution of strategy.

But it is constantly changing. And if you believe marketing is just the technology of promotion then it is easy to see how the past, with its paper-based view of the world and ‘broadcast’ model taken from an ancient farming metaphor, is so quickly dismissed by young, untrained marketers. Forty years ago we were worrying about how to write newspaper ad copy; today we work on VR headsets as if our lives depend upon it. The two activities are so different, it would be hard not to conclude marketing has clearly changed. And changed completely.

But move further towards the centre of the wheel, to the strategy band, and it is quickly apparent that things are actually not that different now compared to 1978. We still face the eternal challenge of segmenting our markets into smaller, more actionable groups of consumers. Then, like now, the debate about mass marketing and targeted marketing rages on. We still have to select segments through targeting and we still need to position those targets. The holy trinity of marketing – segment, target and position – was well entrenched in 1978 and it remains that way today. At least for those who know what they are doing.


As soon as you step back from the tactical ‘Sturm und Drang’ and look at the strategic challenge that marketers face, it’s readily apparent that while the nature of the challenge might have shifted, the fundamental strategic marketing questions of who we want to target and how we want to position to these targets remain just as big now as they were back in 1978.

And then to the centre of the wheel of marketing. No matter what they might tell you at conferences, the bullseye is not tech or digital or content marketing. The centre of our wheel is the customer, just as it was in 1978. The biggest challenge and ultimately the biggest contribution we marketers can make to our organisations is becoming the link between the firm and the market. No one else does that in a company, and that makes understanding customers and bringing that understanding into the decision-making process of our employers the prime directive.

Of course, that customer has changed a lot in 40 years. But not quite as much as many would have you believe. It might be cool to think that millennials are a tribe somehow distinct from anything that has come our way before, but the reality is that younger demographics have been with us since the invention of marketing. Most, if not all, of their traits are attributable not to some incredible new theme in society but rather the more eternal and reassuring phenomenon known as ‘youth’.

But my bigger point is that, while customers are always changing, always surprising us, the USP of our profession, our centre point, is understanding these customers; not speaking for them or assuming their opinion but going out, getting their perspective and using it as a means to help drive our companies forward. That part – the bit where we have to work out what makes the customer tick – remains our biggest challenge and usually our most misunderstood mission.

Here’s to lots of coverage about how much marketing has changed with accompanying shots of marketers in flares, dodgy facial hair and bright Laura Ashley frocks. But here’s also to acknowledging how much of the professional challenge of marketing remains the same now as it was back then. Understand the customer. Develop a strategy. Pick the right tactics.  

So happy birthday, Marketing Week. It is a hell of a thing to make it to 40. I had my introduction to you when I was a marketing student in the 1980s, my orientation when I was a marketer in the 1990s, knew you as a competitor when I was writing for rival title Marketing in the 2000s, and now – and for the last 10 years almost – you are my home.

Hide Comments4 Show Comments
  • Paul Woolf 26 Jun 2018 at 2:21 pm

    Great encapsulation of the dynamic yet inherently stable nature of marketing. Having spent many years working or running initially sales promotion then direct marketing then digital marketing agencies in the UK, it always felt like we were looking for the next shiny object when really at its core we were always trying to keep in-step with the customer of our clients. When we didn’t listen effectively to that customer, the results of our shiny objects were tarnished. When we did, it glistened amazingly. Thank you for capturing in a clear and concise way the evolution of the UK marketing business, and congrats to MW on 40 years of keeping us informed and entertained.

  • John Bell 27 Jun 2018 at 2:09 pm

    what is a mantelpiece…

  • Al King 28 Jun 2018 at 7:44 am

    Yes indeed, happy birthday. All hail the holy trinity.

  • Mahesh K Enjeti 13 Jul 2018 at 2:01 am

    Totally in agreement, Mark. I started my Marketing journey in 1973 after my Honours in Physics so tempted to link the two disciplines. The force exerted by the outermost band is the ‘apparent’ centrifugal force that is pulling things away while the force exerted by the innermost band is the ‘real’ centripetal force that keeps the business in equilibrium. For any non-nerdy marketers, here is a link that explains it in simple terms:
    Often, I see the centrifugal force exceeding escape velocity leading to marketing effort flying off the handle, literally and figuratively, indicating a lack of any sense of balance.

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