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.