Mark Ritson: Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t an ‘expert’ in marketing be trained in marketing?

Before anyone is declared an expert/ninja/guru/visionary in marketing they need to learn the discipline. You need a qualification to be qualified.

Ritson head scratch small

Sitting on a train on Friday grading exam papers I got a tweet from marketing consultant Glen Gilmore. The tweet was a little grid of 24 headshots and the message, “24 Marketers you Should Follow on Twitter”.

Intrigued, I clicked the link and discovered it was actually an article by Nicholas Scalice for in which he presented a list of his “24 top-notch marketers”. I scrolled through the list. Some of the faces were familiar to me and I smiled when Gilmore himself appeared. I was about to head back to my exams when I had a fantastically cynical thought. “I wonder,” I said out loud to the immediate concern of the woman sitting opposite me, “how many of them have actually studied marketing?”

See the tweet here

It’s a reasonable question is it not? If they are being held up as experts in the discipline of marketing – not just digital communications, you will note – you would certainly expect them to have a qualification in the topic. If someone sent me a list of the 24 leading experts in brain surgery or physiotherapy or 17th-century romantic fiction I would expect most, probably all, of the names on the list to have a formal education in the subject matter in question. Why not marketing?

Before I knew what I was doing I had Excel open on my laptop and LinkedIn windows were popping up all over the place. I went through the list of 24 experts and finally sat back with my research compete. Do you know how many have a formal training in marketing of any kind, according to their LinkedIn profiles?

Four of them.

In that whole list of 24 world-leading experts in marketing only four have a formal education in the subject. There was one MBA, two undergraduate degrees and a community college certificate.

Now that’s not to say those other 20 thought leaders aren’t intelligent people. They have degrees in all kinds of subject areas – electrical engineering, English literature, political science. It’s just that they don’t have any training in the thing they are meant to be telling you about. The author of the article, himself an expert in “inbound marketing tools” (bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, master’s in public administration), had managed to pick a list of people that are less well trained in marketing than the average local PR agency.

Now I know how this reads. Middle-aged marketing professor with a BSc and a PhD in marketing is pissed off because he did not make a list of global experts. Or worse, out-of-touch marketing academic wishes people would still listen to business school professors because he is one, and they don’t.

But look beyond that and I think there are two serious concerns. First, despite their billing as leading experts in marketing it’s clear from even a cursory examination of the list that these people are actually experts in just one area of marketing – communications. They sell it using a variety of different, new conceptual names like “traffic”, “content”, “lead conversion” and “digital marketing” but this is what ancient professors used to call the promotional part of the marketing mix. Nothing wrong with that but this is a very small part of marketing discipline – about 10% by my estimation.

The new breed of experts are big on tactics but light on market orientation, research, segmentation, positioning, brand equity, strategy and all the other rich substantive matter that makes up the remaining 90% of marketing once you take the promotional P out. Our new generation of experts are actually confined to a very small tactical box, despite their billing as general marketing thought leaders and that makes for an overt tactical focus in those who follow them.

Second, the experts aren’t just out there teaching marketing to the masses, they are openly and explicitly altering it. It’s become the norm to suggest that “traditional” approaches don’t work and the new approach to content/purpose/inbound/digital/storytelling has disrupted everything. But I’m uncomfortable with people who don’t have a formal knowledge of the marketing discipline suggesting what needs to change before they actually understand in totality what it originally was.

I think before you become an expert/ninja/guru/visionary in marketing you should learn the discipline. I think before you start creating new rules and insights you should know what the existing ones are. I think before you explain how marketing is changing you should understand what it was before you started announcing the change. I think you need a qualification to be qualified. Surely you must agree?

Or shall I go get my coat and try my hand at becoming a world expert in origami, tree surgery or some other alien pursuit I haven’t got the faintest fucking clue about, and leave marketing to the ninjas?

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