Mark Ritson: Marketing debate is so polarised it’s hard to be sure of anything

Whether it’s targeting, viewability or video, marketing debate is beset by equal and opposing viewpoints of such vehemence that it makes it look like we don’t know what we’re doing.

Ritson head scratch smallThe worst of all sins in marketing, in my book at least, is the use of that hoary old quote often incorrectly attributed to either John Wanamaker or Lord Leverhulme. You know the one with the apocryphal line that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half”. If it crops up in a presentation, marketing article or debate – with the exception of this masterpiece you’re reading at the moment – it signals an almost inevitable journey to cliché and obviousness in equal measure.

But there is another problem with that quote these days: it’s not just a cliché, it’s also wholly inconsistent with the current way in which we discuss anything in marketing. Gone is the uncertainty and open, plaintive thinking of an earlier age in marketing when we queried with honest introspection what does and does not seem to be working. That’s been replaced by a form of tribal combat in which different sides hammer each other with exactly the opposite point of view constructed from equal parts of wobbly data and fake news.

READ MORE: Marketing must be better defined to be taken seriously

Rather than Lord Leverhulme bemoaning his uncertain advertising spend, today’s equivalent axiom would have him boasting “I’m spending all my money on digital and it’s working 180%”, followed by his arch nemesis Lord Beaverbrook retorting “shut your face Leverhulme, your money is being wasted because you don’t understand content marketing like what I do”.

Everywhere you look in marketing there isn’t just debate about what is and isn’t the right approach, there is vehement and unyielding certainty that my way is correct and yours is total balls.

Polarisation complicates marketing

Take the debate about brand safety for example. Depending on who you listen to it is either a massive threat to brand equity that has infected a significant proportion of global advertising, or it’s a tiny issue that was drummed up by the traditional media to inflict maximum damage on Google and other digital platforms and has been largely forgotten. Clearly it can’t be both, so which Is it?

If we ran a poll here on Marketing Week’s home page and asked readers to rate the degree to which brand safety is a serious threat to your brand on a scale of 1 (no threat) to 10 (huge threat) I am betting that we’d derive an average of around 5 but that the answers would be polarised at either end of the spectrum.

And it’s that polarisation that afflicts and affects seemingly every dimension of marketing. It makes for fabulous arguments on social media, juicy debates at conferences and several emotional comments at the foot of Marketing Week columns. But it also complicates the act of doing marketing tremendously.

Marketing debate is tribal combat in which different sides hammer each other with views constructed from equal parts of wobbly data and fake news.

It has never been a more exhilarating or exhausting time to work in this discipline. Never before has so much happened in marketing with so little consensus around what is and isn’t working. We do our business on what appears to be a continually moving and undulating platform of knowledge that constantly contradicts and reverses itself as we cling on for grim life.

Look at the act of targeting. I can spend a morning with a client that is convinced of the merits of micro-targeting using digitally enabled options such as lookalike modelling and A/B testing, and then the afternoon with a second company that follows the sophisticated mass-marketing approach and now believes (incorrectly) that it can go after everyone with a pulse. Depending on how you look at it you either target no one and let the computer do it for you, or everyone.

Take the optimum length of digital video advertising on Facebook. I can cite extremely persuasive men and women who tell me not to worry about sub-two-second exposures because that is more than sufficient to influence consumer decision making, and who then remind me that digital video is more complex than simply putting overly long TV ads online. Just as I am nodding and starting to get my head around two-second exposure models someone else pops up and says: “Bollocks! We are getting incredible results from three minute films.”

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Why can’t marketers see that digital metrics are bullshit?

Or how about viewability? It seems logical to assume that 100% viewability is the gold standard for digital media. If consumers can’t see the bloody ad then clearly it’s not going to be impactful. So surely 100% viewability is the way forward?

Well not necessarily. It turns out that chasing 100% viewability often leads to much more expensive programmatic prices, opens you up to far greater risk of ad fraud (you always get 100% viewability from a bot) and generally ensures that the overall impact of advertising is lessened. Depending on who you ask, 100% viewability is either the only acceptable way to ensure effectiveness or a guaranteed way to reduce it.

You see what I mean? As soon as we develop even the semblance of marketing best practice, someone turns up, turns it upside down and claims the opposite. You need marketing training; you don’t need marketing training. Artificial Intelligence is dangerous; artificial intelligence is essential. Marketing needs to get back to basics; marketing is changing dramatically. Content marketing is a crucial new development in marketing; content marketing is just a bunch of fancy names for stuff that has existed for 50 years.

I could go on – trust me – and on.

Loss of nuanced debate

Surely you have seen it yourself. You read an article on a marketing concept and then, in the comments section, another marketer not only disagrees, they go out of their way to completely refute the whole nature of the original argument and supplant it with the exact opposite perspective.

My favourite current example is programmatic. There are only two clear and overriding observations we can make about programmatic in mid-2017. First, it’s growing like the clappers. Second, it’s unavoidable given the plethora of new channels that now exist and exceed human capabilities. More contentious is the current state of programmatic and whether the murky media supply chain and the multiple commissions it takes renders it inefficient.

I certainly think that’s the case and have been very – ahem – vocal on the subject. That has resulted in an entirely typical marketing response.

Mumbrella Ritson debate

Two very senior, very smart media professionals have responded to my wailings in the same Australian marketing site independent of each other. One of them agrees wholeheartedly with me. The other disagrees completely and, very politely, suggests my argument is nonsensical.

I read both articles, and was persuaded mightily by both articles, even though they perfectly contradict each other. My point is not to dwell on the respective arguments of my two commentators but to suggest that this is the nature of marketing these days. Everything is up, unless you think it’s down.

Mumbrella Ritson debate

Maybe the answer to all the quandaries is: it depends. That was usually the right answer in marketing in the olden days. We would look at the brand, the target segment and the objectives, and these factors would direct us to the make the right choice from the potential options in front of us.

But that’s not how contemporary marketing works. There is no room for ‘it depends’ anymore. It’s either totally wrong if you belong to tribe A or, if you belong to tribe B, entirely and completely correct.

We seem to have lost nuance, relativity and context. In our search for definitive answers to marketing’s big questions we’ve created chaos. It’s an exciting, fast-moving and emotional chaos. But it’s chaos nonetheless. And I wonder if things will ever calm down again.

But why bother asking you? Given you are also a marketer operating in 2017 I already know what your response will be. This column is nonsense and my point of view ridiculous. There is no issue with polarisation within marketing; we are all completely and utterly aligned.

Unless, that is, you disagree.



There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Matthew C 2 Aug 2017

    Peddlers of digital ads/content (f***** agency types) need to step out of the types of debate I know you’re referring to. I’ve seen them many times on LinkedIn, been present at “digital forums” where some paid-up numpty who sponsored the event wants to sound clever (like a walking cliché).

    The inevitable result is, for those unfortunate to have joined/looked in is: Guy with something to lose (like money, credibility, a business case – or all three) in “slating anything which questions how he ears his money” shocker.

    More often than not, they seem very well-versed in the formulas that go into estimating TV audiences and the effectiveness of adverts, despite never working in TV or with TV content/advertising – but will in the same breath absolutely ignore things called facts, like rising TV viewing figures. And it all surprises nobody.

    Because of these people, and other similarly clever-dicks, today is the shittiest time in history to be in marketing.

  2. John Bell 2 Aug 2017

    it sounds suspiciously similar to army ventriloquism to me; you’re not paid to have an opinion, soldier – just keep digging…

  3. Andy Jones 3 Aug 2017

    As ever a thought-provoking read. Marketing (as a discipline) does not exist as a one-size-fits-all solution. In the same way as you would approach a marketing challenge by segmenting your market, marketing itself can be segmented, and the right bits applied in the right way. There will however, never be a single “right” way.

  4. Pete Austin 3 Aug 2017

    Many damn fool marketing ideas work for a short while, because of the novelty effect. Long enough for marketers to report they succeeded and blog jubilantly on the Web.

    Then when they stop working, marketers either don’t notice or are too embarrassed to write corrections. The result is that so much marketing “science” is anything but.

  5. Jonathan Cahill 3 Aug 2017

    Much of the debate on marketing appears to be that of undoubtedly talented intellectual Tarzans swinging around in the forest canopy with little regard for the roots that support it. Indeed it seems unlikely that they ever come down to earth.

    A good base would be a clear definition of marketing, so that everyone knew what they are talking about. At the moment there are none, the offerings that purport to be such go no further than descriptions.

    Maybe this might help, at least to get some discussion started on the subject.

  6. Al King 3 Aug 2017

    I know you need to come up with stuff to write Mark, but there’s no need to over complicate this or lose hope. Of course the answer is: it depends. Always was, always will be. Objectives, segmentation, targeting, positioning, the comms mix and budget. Everything is contingent upon that and the permutations are endless which is why we like doing it.

  7. Steve Hartley 3 Aug 2017

    I have to agree with Al King. The answer must always be, “it depends.”

    It depends on your budget, your business goals, your marketing strategy, your target market . . . on so many factors. Good marketers are those that can understand all these factors and pull together the tools/tactics/channels to achieve their goals. Good marketers use the tools that will get the job done, whether they are brand new or have been around for a hundred years.

    However lately it seems as though you must either be a disciple of the cult of digital, where every marketing problem can be solved through the proper application of a “digital marketing strategy,” or you must be a marketing dinosaur, a marketing curmudgeon yelling at the digital kids to ‘get off your lawn!’

  8. Philip Smith 3 Aug 2017

    Agree with your hypothesis. However, isn’t the cause that comment sections like this have turned us all into (fake) experts? Blogs, LinkedIn posts, tweets etc have further exacerbated the fissures between each side of a debate (as they have done in the political world with disastrous consequences, ahem Trump, ahem!), because everyone is now free to voice an opinion. As ever in any debate, the loudest, most obnoxious opinions are the ones we feel drawn to the most. Hmm, in the case, maybe I need to change my opinion. This column is total bollox and the author has no idea what he’s talking about.

  9. malcolm wicks 5 Aug 2017

    The rise of angry binary thinkers is not just limited to Marketing. You can see examples everywhere from Universities no platforming speakers to radical groups of many shades. This could have bigger implications for all of us.

  10. Tess Alps 6 Aug 2017

    Slightly embarrassing to say this here but isn’t online journalism one of the issues? A headline that doesn’t dramatise, over-simplify, involve ‘death of’ or promise a punch-up won’t get clicked on.

  11. David Howlett 8 Aug 2017

    Great article. Yes, Al King, it depends. It always has; it always will. Marks says that “We seem to have lost nuance, relativity and context”, so not sure where your criticism is directed. I believe the cause of this polarisation within the marketing world is exactly as Malcolm Wicks describes. There’s a shift towards over-simplification everywhere. Look at politics; whether in Europe or in USA. The nuanced complexity of real life is just too dull / complicated / unpalatable for people to cope with, so we make ourselves feel better in echo chambers where we can comfort ourselves listening to the same polarised opinions, popping out occasionally to goad the enemy. I find it all as depressing as Mark does. If any business discipline should acknowledge the complexity and inherent ambiguity of customer decision-making, it’s marketing.

  12. Deborah Inglis 12 Aug 2017

    All or nothing thinking is a common mindtrap and selling definitive, absolute solutions feeds this one. Black vs white or how about grey?
    It depends.

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