Mark Ritson: Marketers’ obsession with digital comes with a sting in the tail

The time old parable of the scorpion and the frog sums up exactly why marketers are choosing digital over traditional marketing – it’s in most marketers’ nature to favour new over old, even if there’s no evidence to suggest it makes sense.


Many years ago, in a different century, I worked for a smart, very experienced global marketing director. He hired me to train some of his new marketers and over a period of a few years a friendship grew. For an inexperienced, naïve young marketing professor my association with a high-profile marketer at such a famous brand was something of a coup. I soaked up his advice every time we met and hung off his every word.

At one of our meetings he informed me that his newly arrived CEO had just given him notice that he was no longer needed at the company and he was about to be replaced. Half drunk and stung by the news, I railed for several long minutes about the injustice of pushing out such a proven, talented marketer.

When I had exhausted the rant my senior friend rested his hand on my arm with a wry smile and asked: “Have I ever told you the story of the Scorpion and the Frog?” I shook my head and, after pausing to order another two Negronis, he told me a tale that I still, to this day, remember. It’s a simple but powerful parable that can be used in innumerable situations to explain the apparently inexplicable and satisfy even the most troubling empirical conundrum. And that’s why I tell it to you now.

A scorpion is scurrying across the parched desert floor when he hears the unmistakable and entirely remarkable sound of a droplet of rain landing on the dry sand bed next to him. A few seconds later another one lands. Then another. And another.

Before the scorpion knows it, a torrential rain storm is upon him and very quickly the arid desert is transformed into a fast-rising river bed. Alarmed and acutely conscious of his inability to swim the scorpion heads for a small area of elevated ground. He reaches it but is surrounded, and with the water almost reaching his legs, the scorpion prepares for the end.

Suddenly, over in the distance, he spies movement. As the blurry image comes closer he recognises a frog swimming across the newly formed river with very apparent glee. “Hey!” shouts the scorpion. “Swim over here and let me get on your back. I need a lift over to the higher land over there”.

The frog pauses. The scorpion is her mortal enemy and she fears the arched sting that he carries in his tail. But she approaches and looks, not without sympathy, at the apparently doomed arachnid.

scorpion and frog
The tale of the scorpion and the frog has some big lessons for marketers.

“If I come any closer you will sting me,” she says.

“Nonsense,” the scorpion replies. “If I get on your back and then sting you I will die as surely as you in the water”. The frog ponders the situation for a moment and then, cautiously, swims over and allows the scorpion to climb on to her back. The two unlikely partners turn and swim towards the higher land off in the distance.

A few meters before they reach higher land the scorpion pulls back his tail and strikes deep into the frog’s neck. Stunned the frog looks up at her passenger and, as the poison starts to paralyse her system, she has just enough time to utter a single word: “Why?”. As the paralysed frog and her passenger sink to their deaths beneath the water the scorpion shrugs his shoulders and says: “It’s just in my nature”.

When my marketing mentor got to this punchline he paused, drained his glass and gave me another sad smile. His point was that his talent, experience and track record were all meaningless in the face of a new CEO who was always going to clean house and bring in his own new team. Some things in business, some things in life, are simply unavoidable, irrespective of the situation or the data at hand.

Explaining marketers’ increasing investment in digital

I learned that story a quarter of a century ago. These days I am the old weary marketing professor using it to explain the way of the world to bright-eyed young MBA students. I tell it to you now because it’s the best and simplest way to explain the extraordinary data that emerged from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) last week. The WFA surveyed 50 of the world’s top marketers who, in terms of combined marketing spend, represent a potential £62bn of global ad spend.

READ MORE: Are brands over-investing in digital?

Despite the fact that 45% of all marketers can’t see the value of digital advertising, 75% aren’t convinced of its effectiveness and 72% think marketers have over invested in digital, a massive two-thirds of that same sample expect to move more of their marketing money in to digital next year –  many by as much as much as 40%. The majority will spend more on digital advertising next year.

Yeah I know. 75% aren’t convinced of its effectiveness yet 66% will invest more next year. Pause, consider this data, and gulp.

75% of marketers aren’t convinced of the effectiveness of digital yet 66% will invest more next year. Pause, consider this data, and gulp.

The legendary marketing professor Christine Moorman has been publishing the same finding for many years in her annual Duke University CMO Survey of senior marketers in America. Her pie chart of marketers invariably shows around two-thirds unable to show the business return on digital marketing and unconvinced of its ultimate value. But her next pie chart shows a similar proportion of marketers determined to invest more in digital marketing channels in the year ahead.

These empirical results are as illogical as they are consistent. Most marketers will continue to switch more and more of their budget to digital marketing and away from so-called traditional channels. They will do that not because traditional media is losing share or engagement or because digital media metrics actually make sense or impress anyone. They will do it, quite simply, because it is in their nature to favour the new over the old. The digital over the traditional.

And the Scorpion and the Frog and everyone else on board will taste water, a surfeit of it, before this decade is over as a result.

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There are 6 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Justin 3 May 2017

    It’s interesting when market conditions become difficult, marketers default to tactics with statistical ROI. History repeats itself…just look the early nineties when everyone diverted their spend into direct mail. It was quantifiable and helped justify positions in times of insecurity. Only companies which invested in longer term broadcast brand exited the recession ahead of the pack!
    (time for me to get back to my KPIs, PPC , analytics, ROI, CTR, SEM/SEO, info-graphics, unique visitors, cookies and BIG data!)

  2. Anthony Smith Chaigneau 3 May 2017

    We are seeing the same in TV – there is a rush to put all content and thus drag advertising along for the ride onto Digital IP networks that we call OTT. Despite the fact, seen in everyday news that it’s making piracy a fiddle, it’s isolating the poor and forcing everyone to believe we can give every individual on the planet their own personalized content channel. Hurrah as we charge towards the precipice and take down our own world and the world of advertising with it.

  3. rob blackie 3 May 2017

    One interesting nugget from that research. CMOs always predict they will spend more on Social than they do:

    Which indicates to me that they like the idea more than the reality.

  4. Jerry Daykin 4 May 2017

    Like many headlines/surveys it partly shows a disconnect between what gets said and the actual reality… and also the specificity of questions. It can be very hard to know exactly the impact that a particular piece of digital spend has, but of course big brands spending hundreds of millions of $s are accutely monitoring the overall impact of that spend and reacting accordingly.

    I work in digital these days but would be the first to say we’re often too quick to jump to it as the solution to any number of problems, but it certainly can play by traditional media’s rules and be a useful addition. It is interesting that a resurgence in emphasis on true marketing theory is leading some brands back more heavily towards TV & traditional media, which may well in some cases be the right thing.

  5. Marlene Greenhalgh 7 May 2017

    The fable you quote, Mark, fails to explain why a frog would go against its nature and give the scorpion a ride in the first place. The risk to the frog offers it no advantage and no reward so why would it do it? The fable may have a sting to its tale but it is nonetheless a failed fable by all account.
    A better fable would be the one about the sun and the wind vying to remove a gent’s coat. It is a warming tale on all counts and a warning one too – in so far as the best fables always ring true as does the best marketing – surely?

  6. Richard Fullerton 16 May 2017

    Hi Mark did you see this article on social? Supports your anti-digital rant very well.

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