Mark Ritson: We must fight the philistines on the value of marketing training

We’re surrounded by voices disparaging marketing training, but even though it’s mostly terrible, our effectiveness and professional standing depends on a grounding in knowledge.

Marketing trainingNo one knows if the Philistines actually existed. They turn up in the Old Testament being a bunch of wankers to the Israelites and then promptly vanish from history.

But something about their general wankery and disrespect for culture and learning kept them in the frame long enough for them to reappear in 19th-century German literature. From there it was a short jump to modern thinking and their current position as a very particular reference point for anti-intellectualism and immediacy.

To be a philistine today means to be ignorant and lacking in cultural appreciation and respect for learning. Philistines are doers, not thinkers, and their doing is always ultimately undermined by their lack of appreciation for learning and a broader perspective. It’s a key concept these days for our own discipline because we are surrounded by marketing philistines.

READ MORE: Ignore all the waffle and set time aside for strategic thinking

You know the sort. They actively deride contemplation as being a pointless waste of time. They know what they know and the idea that data or debate might sway them is ridiculed. They are all about artificial intelligence, not the real stuff. The whole idea that one might study marketing is met with open hostility. Not only do these people not have time for study, they think the study itself might damage their marketing savvy.

These people are all around us. I was reminded of the fact this week on social media. I tweeted an article, which was in fairness behind a paywall, about the fact that several studies are showing that, rather than reducing the time people spend watching television, the growth in digital video appears to be increasing the importance of the television set to viewers.

I’d barely pressed send when an instant response came back: “It’s a bit hard to comment without more data and I can’t read the article because I don’t have a subscription but frankly I don’t buy it.”

I’ve had some pretty incendiary comments and messages on Twitter over the years, I can tell you. This was certainly not one of them. But something about the comment perfectly captured the mood of modern marketing. Here was a senior marketer essentially saying ‘I have no idea what your data is or what your argument might be, but I have already decided that I disagree with it’. Perfect marketing philistinism.

The reason the message struck a chord with me was that barely a few hours earlier I’d bumped into the latest message from the world’s most famous marketer, Gary Vaynerchuk. He had just posted an interview he’d had with Larry King to his 1.7 million followers on LinkedIn.

In the video, Vaynerchuk explains that he did not fail at school, “school failed him” and then goes on to bemoan the wasted time entrepreneurs spend at school. “I am stunned by the amount of people that would rather read a book than watch the behavior [sic] of people that are winning.”

There it is again. Did you spot it? The arch disrespect for any formal learning and the prioritisation of immediate brute experience over any kind of study. Better to get out there and do it than spend a moment thinking and learning. Marketing philistinism.

I saw the same thing last year when the increasingly famous, highly impressive Steven Bartlett was interviewed by Econsultancy’s Ben Davis about the success of his media business Social Chain. When asked whether marketing degrees were teaching the right skills to students Bartlett was openly dismissive.

“In terms of how marketing is taught,” he explained to Davis, “I wouldn’t know, because I never studied it. In terms of school in general, I don’t believe schools are doing a lot to teach people about social media and social media marketing, and all the opportunities that exist on social media.”

He later explains that knowing what works comes with “experience and trying and failing”, and that no book can be published on the topic, as by the time it is printed “it will have expired”.

And there it is again. Did you catch it? That sudden, unmistakable aura of philistine thinking? If you listen to many of the most influential current marketing leaders it seems that books and studying in marketing are out, completely out. Training is not essential for marketing success.

Rising disrespect for knowledge

It’s appropriate around now for those who don’t have any formal training in marketing to start getting defensive about why not being trained is entirely acceptable. While they expect their accountants, dentists, undertakers and engineers to be fully trained the marketing philistines make a small exception when it comes to marketing, which is ‘creative’ and ‘common sense’. It’s neither of these two things but, and here is the catch, you need a bit of training in marketing to know that in the first place.

Let me go out on a limb at this point and make an outrageous statement. Ready? I believe that training in marketing makes marketers better at their job. I really do. So much so, I am going to say it again. Training in marketing makes marketers better.

Which other profession would come out so strongly against education as a path to improvement?

I think learning from case studies and theories and concepts and the long and rich history of marketing which stretches out across a wonderful century of application is worthy of all of us. I think knowing about Al Ries and Ted Levitt and Christine Moorman and all the other great marketers makes us better at our job. And I think that anyone that actually tries to argue that studying marketing is a waste of time is, well, a philistine.

But let me also accept that this is a minority viewpoint. Two years ago, Marketing Week asked its readers if a qualification in marketing was necessary to be a good marketer. Only 43% of readers agreed and the rest sided with self-taught, work it out from the field approaches. I continue to think that is extraordinary. I wonder which other profession – and we do claim to be professional and search for our place among the other professions, do we not? – would come out so strongly against education as a path to improvement.

My argument is somewhat weakened by the state of marketing training and education today; a point, to be fair to the irrepressible Vaynerchuck, that he has made on several occasions. I accept that there are plenty of marketing training programmes that are not up to practical scratch.

READ MORE: Shouldn’t an ‘expert’ in marketing be trained in marketing?

I recall one particularly painful evening at a top university where I and the head of training for one of the world’s biggest luxury brands listened in horror as the marketing academics meeting with us debated whether it was even appropriate for marketing professors to work with corporations on consulting projects. I got so angry I literally nearly broke the wine glass I was squeezing in my hand.

It is crucial that marketing educators offer proper, applied marketing training. Note that I am not listening to the ill-informed bozos that claim universities cannot keep up with the vast changes in social media and digital media. That is the argument of the philistines that miss the larger, non-tactical nature of the marketing discipline.

But it is true that too many marketing students, both undergraduates and executive, are taught pricing by a man who has never set a price in his life, or brand management by a woman who has yet to manage anything other than her academic duties. It’s hard to make a case for marketing training when so much of it is so utterly, utterly shit.

But I want to make a strong case to those who will listen for the power and importance of being trained in marketing; whether that training takes place through your employer, in some form of structured corporate learning, or at a university or business school. For those marketers who desire to be better, you should read books and you should open your mind to research and other points of view.

Bastions of marketing training

I remember turning up at Wharton business school in America as a fresh faced 26-year-old and being blown away by the sheer size, impact and knowledge of the marketing professors I encountered. I could literally feel my brain growing. And I want that feeling for other marketers who want to get better and who know that it takes more than watching ‘winners’ ‘winning’. FFS.

I appreciate I have a dog in this hunt with the (highly rated) Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing. So, I will avoid any accusations of self-promotion by going out of my way to promote the competition. I would tell anyone that does not know about the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) that this must be the first place they look when they want to improve their skills and knowledge in marketing. For over a century the CIM, in its various formats, has been providing cutting-edge and practical training for those intent on improving their marketing skills.

For those marketers who desire to be better, you should read books and you should open your mind to research and other points of view.

Then there is the IPA – the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising – another century-old operation. Is there a better place to learn the art of advertising anywhere on the planet than Belgrave Square?

If you work in communications, then the chance to complete the IPA’s Eff Test or the Excellence Diploma will set you up for a senior career in advertising or more broadly in marketing. More importantly, it is a place to stand on the shoulders of advertising giants and learn from those who went before you.

And finally there are the great business schools of this country, where marketing is taught by academics who also have extensive experience in the field. The place in the UK is London Business School and, aside from its world famous MBA, the school runs a series of short courses in branding and marketing strategy that offer a chance to learn from some of the great thinkers in our field like Rajesh Chandy or Nader Tavassoli.

Similar programs can be accessed up at Manchester University and my own beloved Lancaster University. We have thousands of marketers but only handfuls ever sign up to learn more at these places.

Ritson training

The research giants Peter Field and Les Binet have created a single, very scary line chart for the IPA. It shows the overall effectiveness of British marketing campaigns over almost 20 years. Over the past five years, for the first time, the effectiveness of British campaigns – measured in terms of market share, profit and penetration – has started to recede. The authors argue that this is a combination of short-termism, overly tight targeting and an obsession with tactical activation.

But I smell a lurking variable. The reason these sins are being committed where once they were largely avoided is surely also a function of a lack of proper marketing training. The philistines are winning. Marketing is seen as being common sense and the subsequent results are there for all to see.

The only silver lining in all this depressing ignorance can be found in the ancient and enduring concept of differentiation. The more the marketers around you think that ‘side hustle’ and ‘street smarts’ outweigh proper marketing training, the more you can stand out by getting yourself a decent marketing education.

I remain in the minority who believe that marketing training makes you a better marketer; why not join me there? It’s a place of books, crazy thinkers, case studies and amazing articles from the Harvard Business Review. It’s a refuge from the marketing philistines who don’t want to invest in training and desperately don’t want you to do it either. It’s the way we all improve and ultimately move the discipline of marketing forward.

Mark Ritson is a Marketing Week columnist, consultant and adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School.



There are 24 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. jesse gilbert 21 Mar 2018

    A healthy disrespect for formal marketing institutions is probably a good thing to have. Not 100% of the time, but in general you don’t see economics professors reaping the spoils of entrepreneurialism.

    Heck, Einstein made 100k per year!

    While I agree with you that study of books is good…Actually essential, why does anyone but a rank sheep and conformist need a guided school course to walk them through 1 or 2 textbooks over the course of 3 months when the same intel could be gleaned in a few hours at a local Barnes & Nobles?

    I’d almost definitely rather spend 100k trying and failing at business than coming out of 4 yrs of respectable education with an official certificate of marketing competency.

    All that said, reading and the thirst for knowledge is key.

    “Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.”…

    “Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant” – Ogilvy

    No disagreement about the value of reading, just the mode.

    I just prefer to use my photographic reading skills I invested in to tear right through volumes of books and improve my marketing intelligence that way.

    Jesse Khan

  2. Mark Ritson 21 Mar 2018

    Fair point Jesse, do you mind me asking if you have any training in marketing?

    I am interested in the viewpoints of everyone but I have a strong suspicion that the 40% i favour of marketing training have it, and the 60% against do not.

    So I welcome heated comments from all but could you also qualify if you have studied marketing as part of your response…..

    • Sandra Pickering 23 Mar 2018

      Hi, Mark.
      I believe I was one of those who answered that a marketing qualification wasn’t necessary.
      That doesn’t mean I am against either expertise or education – quite the extreme opposite in fact.
      My response was to some extent based on the construction of the question to include the word ‘necessary’ (whilst it might be valuable it clearly isn’t *necessary*).
      More importantly, I believe that a strong qualification in a relevant subject is essential combined with a genuine openness to learning and an appetite for reading real research in the area and the occasional hard, stretching book.
      I may biased by having spent most of my career in companies that valued marketing, understood brands and provided formal and informal training to marketing employees. (though not qualifications) and I do know that many ‘modern’ companies have replaced marketing discipline with an obsession for MarTech.

      Incidentally, I think the problem is exacerbated by the frequent use of the term ‘Marketing Science’ casually applied to stuff that is not really scientific at all and is really just descriptive statistics. So, I applaud and support your drive for higher quality marketing thinking and marketing education. We have a long way to go.


  3. Dave Tindall 21 Mar 2018

    In my experience the issue is one of timing as well as quality of education. I have a BA from an average UK university and although I would say most of my lectures were middle of the road academics who did little to inspire a large group of late teens and early 20 somethings, as someone with a genuine interest in the field I could still take something from my studies. However the theories and concepts I learnt and read about had no relevance to the junior marketing roles I took on upon graduation. At that stage I felt let down that I had no formal training or understanding of some of the basics of tactical execution that were now part of my job role (after all how many people take on a strategic role when they first start out?). That was where the learning on the job came in, and I’m sure why those who believe formal training is not essential start to build this view. Now I’ve progressed to more senior roles I find more and more that I use some the principles first honed in my formal training to cultivate strategy and avoid the trappings of that new “digital shiny thing” that will solve all my companies problems. It’s at this stage of my career where I’d love to be doing more reading and further formal studies but as someone in my early 30s, working 50 hours a week and with a young family I just don’t have the time to take this on.

    Good read as always Mark.

    • Mark Ritson 21 Mar 2018

      That’s something I did not think about Dave. You’re right on three levels.

      The senior people that want to teach strategy, the young students are 20 years from needing that and do need tactical training, and once they grow up and need their strategy skills expanded they have 3 kids, no time and a giant mortgage.

      Not sure how to resolve that but I appreciate the comments.

      • Bob Hogg 26 Mar 2018

        …and isn’t that where effective Continuous Professional Development (CPD) should come into play?
        As young marketers climb the career ladder and take more responsibility for strategic decisions, they should be able to go back to their earlier training, relate it to their current situation, and therefore apply it effectively – and a good CPD programme provides the framework for them to do that.
        Anyone who has acquired CIM qualifications early in their career has the opportunity to join the CIM CPD programme which provides just such a framework and can lead to them achieving recognition as a Chartered Marketer.
        (Disclosure: I have responsibility on the CIM East of England Board for encouraging the uptake of CPD!)

    • Sandra Pickering 23 Mar 2018

      Good point, Dave. Perhaps we need more of a skill/craft approach within a strategic framework.

    • Andy Hooper 24 Mar 2018

      Great point Dave, same one I was going to make. I didn’t go to Uni but did a CIM course early in my career, but at the time I wasn’t involved in doing SWOT and PESTLE analyses, in discussions about pricing strategies or making decisions on our communications tactics etc, very little of what I was learning was applicable to my day job of data entry, direct marketing lists, and making coffees and handing out badges at events.

      The course actually put me off pursuing further courses, after all, what was the point if it had no relevance to my job? Perhaps naive, but I was young and didn’t get any career advice really (we’re talking 2000/2001, internet in it’s infancy still, so no abundance of online resources like young people new to working life have now). For me the design of the course was wrong, it was entry level, there was nothing lower, but it didn’t really help me do my job better.

      Maybe I picked the wrong course, something more technical would’ve been better but I’m not sure they existed so much nearly 20 years ago. Online, paid or free, courses certainly didn’t exist, that’s for sure. And when I moved into websites and online marketing, I felt the courses couldn’t keep up and the free information available allowed you to stay up to date with latest tactics. They’re better now and abundance of free training is incredible.

      Now, I’m a big advocate for marketing training, but it has to be right for the stage of your career. Giving you enough to do your job better as well us an understanding of the bigger picture and some theory that’s being applied by bosses and something for you to strive towards.

  4. Asenath Kiprotich 21 Mar 2018

    You can add one reformed philistine to your soon-to-be growing list of the minority. I always read your articles here Prof. Ritson, but this was particularly special because you called me out on my BS.
    Changing my major at Wharton from Operations to Marketing. Thank you!

  5. Marcelo Salup 21 Mar 2018

    I actually did study advertising & marketing and have a Master Degree in Communication from the University of Madrid. Advertising is a weird industry. A lot of its practitioners deride training, hate math, don’t understand statistics and its management does not invest in R&D. No wonder clients routinely rape agencies… agencies can’t prove that their specific product works, that their people are any good or that they fulfilled their mission: increase sales.

  6. Rob Voase 21 Mar 2018

    I went to Warwick Business School and did the CIM Diploma years ago both of which gave me really useful grounding I still use today. But it was when I specialised in CRM early on in my career and did the Institute of Direct Marketing Advanced Diploma that I truly saw the value of training. The lessons I learned there I have used every day since. It is amazing how few people in CRM know about control groups, statistical significance or sampling error all of which are crucial to CRM performance. To your point Mark I’m a better marketer as a result of my training.

    Non-formal training is also key though – I’m reading up on Psychology and Behavioural Economics given CRM is half stats, half psychology. I have gained massive benefits from that too.

    Someone I knew once said why spend time learning through experience when someone else has already learned that lesson and written about it. That’s not to say real life experience is not crucial – it is clearly. But ignoring the massed wisdom of smarter people than me seems really dumb….

    • Andy Hooper 24 Mar 2018

      Sir Isaac Newton’s famous quote regarding learning from others might be relevant here – “If I have seen further, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”.

  7. Alan Charlesworth 21 Mar 2018

    Apart from the fact that any article that includes the term ‘general wankery’ should be lauded, and that I teach marketing and so may be perceived as having a bias … I totally agree with your sentiments.

    In particular, I agree that we wouldn’t employ anyone in any other profession/trade if they were not qualified in that profession/trade … so why are there so many non-marketing marketers out there?

    Worse: why are there so many non-marketing marketing ‘experts’ out there?
    Understanding – be that ‘street smarts’ or whatever – only comes if it is has the foundation of knowledge. That knowledge comes out of books.

    That said – there are some shite marketing lecturers/teachers out there who manage to make one of the most interesting subjects taught at universities boring. And too many of those are teaching from theory and not experience.

    Oh, and only the 4Ps anyway isn’t it?

    And finally … there are always exceptions to a rule, and there is a small number of folk who take to marketing ‘naturally’ [entrepreneurs?] – but holding them up as examples for others who do not have that inherent talent is a big, and common, mistake.

  8. Michael Capizzi 21 Mar 2018

    Wow is my first reaction! Finally a piece of thought leadership that challenges the growing convention that marketing education does little to advance the profession of marketing. I am a marketer, hold a BBA in Marketing from the University of Cincinnati and an MA in Media from New York University. While at UC, I was a co-op student who rotated 6 months of classwork with 6 months of paid employment at a marketing firm and the combination turned out to be powerful. But it was the core elements learned in the classroom and the library that turned the lights on in the workplace. My career took off and I have never stopped being a perpetual student. When the opportunity emerged I became an adjunct instructor in marketing – six different US universities over my career. I helped build in-house training and “university” programs at two different corporations and saw associate satisfaction increase, career advancement accelerate and foundation skills improve. Clients saw it too! All of this led me to my present role at The Loyalty Academy where we teach the principles and practices of loyalty marketing – a large global industry with tens of thousands of managers and billions in annual spend. Yet, no formal education is available. And we wonder why programs fail? I am with Mark. While experience can never be dismissed, experience without foundation will take twice as long to yield results.

  9. Rob Trounce 21 Mar 2018

    This, this, this. I think there’s a much needed discussion to be had in the industry about required certifications in order to address this.

    I can’t just set myself up as a personal trainer because I think I’m pretty good at making people exercise. I can’t just set myself up as a counsellor because I think I’m pretty good at talking people through their problems. I can’t just set myself up as a yoga teacher because I think I’m pretty good at showing people how to stretch. Why on earth is someone allowed to set themselves up as a ‘marketing expert’ because they think they’re pretty good at using Twitter?

  10. Nicola Duhig 22 Mar 2018

    For those who claim to be marketing “experts” simply by running a business, and selling their wares, they are simply sales focused. More likes ,more followers, passive income, immediate results, viral videos are seen as the best outcome to them.

    It’s a shame the same people don’t realise that long term success needs strategy, focus and analysis.

    I saw an Instagram marketing “expert” announce proudly to their followers they have no formal marketing training. I cringed and worry for their customers who only see immediacy as the reward.

    Just repurchased my Marketing Management by Philip Kotler after giving it away years ago. Long live case studies, training, online and offline, focus groups, research panels and marketing strategist who follow tried and true methodologies, learn from their mistakes, adapt and adjust and build brand awareness and customer satisfaction over time. Thank you Mark for another gem.

  11. Ben Shute 22 Mar 2018

    What I see a lot of is an (increasingly cheap) investment in tools that many think will do all the heavy lifting and deliver success without actually understanding the underlying principles of what they are trying to achieve. That comes from study – structured or otherwise.

    I got off the Gary V train a while ago but I just did a check on Amazon and he’s written 5 of those things that he can’t believe people have their head stuck in rather than watching the winners.

  12. Tadas R. 22 Mar 2018

    Mark, amazing and utterly brilliant sales pitch!

  13. Bryn Walton 22 Mar 2018

    Unfortunately, the people who have “succeeded” in marketing have more of a voice/audience than those who have failed. As a result, those who have “succeeded” without an education are more vocal than those who have failed in marketing as a result of their lack of education. The problem with all the people you have mentioned is that they are voicing an opinion based on on personal experience, with no appreciation that their “success” may not be replicable at scale. Also, the idea that “learning by doing” and education are mutually exclusive, kind of baffles me.

  14. Paul Crick 22 Mar 2018

    As a formally trained marketer, former adjunct lecturer on the MBA and MSc at Henley Business School and former Fellow of CIM and IDM, I think – generally speaking – the issue is the content and format of marketing education that seems to be ‘out of touch’. Of course, there will be exceptions (and if there is one, please point me in the direction of it for some meaningful and useful CPD). Your clarion call to the marketing profession at this year’s Marketing Live was, IMHO, spot on. Marketing is as simple as it is complex and takes hours to learn and a lifetime to master and, in many cases, appears to have lost its way. Much education (as with other categories of goods and services) is in need of reinventing itself for the 21st Century. When marketing courses require you to create and market a live ‘side hustle’ commercial project I think it will have come much closer to catching up again.

  15. Dorothee Sidokpohou 23 Mar 2018

    Thanks Mark for a great read as always. This one really strikes a chord.
    Full disclaimer: I was trained in marketing in a top-ranked French business school, but after 15 years as a marketer, I had forgotten most of it! This became obvious when I decided to teach marketing and gave my first lectures a few years ago – I realized that my theoretical knowledge was pretty thin.
    So, I decided to enroll in a Ph.D. program, and well… I can definitely second the impression that I “felt my brain growing”. But -and it is a big ‘but’- I also discovered the dark side of academia: the pressure to publish, the disdain for teaching, the reluctance to collaborate with practitioners (I have been told I was ‘contaminated’). All of this is now leading me back to the corporate world.
    What I want to say is, of course marketing training is valuable. It is crucial to get a grip on consumers’ psychology, econometric models, and marketing theories, to be able to define well-rounded strategies. And it is also crucial to have a flavor of real-life examples to understand tactics. Unfortunately, most courses are either taught by marketing professors who have never set a foot in a company, or by lecturers who only talk from experience…
    Where do we go from there?
    My cousin, who is an anesthesiologist, recently told me that professors in medical schools followed a simple rule: one-third of teaching, one-third of research, and one-third of practice. Couldn’t business schools give it a try?
    Another question: why does it seem that marketing is only really valued in executive education? Should marketing training focus more on on-the-job marketers, in companies, and less on students?
    If you have any trip planned to Singapore in the coming months, I’d be extremely interested to meet and discuss further.

  16. Al King 23 Mar 2018

    Nailed it mate. I have the MBA, the LBS short course, I’m FCIM and a Marketing Society Business Leader BUT I’m still attending a 2 day course on Managing the Brand at the CIM in May. Why? Training in marketing makes marketers better & reading books and attending courses opens the mind to research and other points of view. Keep the faith.

  17. Zena Wigram 26 Mar 2018

    We can extrapolate to a bigger picture: how many of the ills currently facing the UK are based on political campaigning which promoted mistrust of “so-called experts”, encouraging lazy stereotyping in order to win votes…?
    (I am convinced that my training has allowed me to move between industries – if you’ve only ever learned from experience I suspect your skills are much less transferable.)

  18. Richard Fullerton 12 Apr 2018

    I did a Masters in eMarketing at a second-tier university business school. Overall we 14 students were not happy with the quality of the teaching. We also found that our lecturers were time-poor and couldn’t devote enough time to us largely, we felt, because of their commercial interests. It was very disappointing.

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