Mark Ritson: We should thank Byron Sharp, not attack him

Byron Sharp’s focus on and commitment to law-like rules leaves him open to challenge, but where would marketing be without them?


There’s nothing like starting the year with some heavyweight marketing fisticuffs. That was obviously what was going on in Marie Oldham’s head at the turn of the year as she penned her wonderfully hostile article for advertising trade magazine Campaign.

Oldham, the esteemed chief strategy officer at VCCP Media, was meant to be promoting Volume 26 of Advertising Works – the collected case studies of the successful IPA Effectiveness Awards for 2016. But from the very outset of her article Oldham got stuck into marketing professor Byron Sharp like there was no tomorrow.

“Challenge Byron Sharp and grow your brand” was her titular opening salvo. Most marketers at this point would look at that title and hide under the coffee table but Oldham was just getting started.

She went on to point out that many brands have broken Sharp’s seven rules for brand growth and cited Eurotunnel, Pepsi and The Economist to name but three aberrant cases. She was particularly bruising on Sharp’s most contentious claim, his rule number one, that brands should “continuously reach all buyers of the category” and eschew the standard segmentation, targeting and positioning route to marketing success. Oldham concluded that half of the 39 winning IPA case studies for 2016 exhibit clear targeting strategy and thereby negate many of Sharp’s claims.

Sharp’s popularity is somewhat paradoxical given his proselytising about the relative ineffectiveness of targeting or differentiation. His own rise to power is based on targeting the right executives at the right companies and differentiating himself (it’s science, you morons – science, I tell you!), and that leaves him somewhat open to accusations of strategic hypocrisy.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Those who bash segmentation and targeting are talking nonsense

But this article is a defence of Sharp, not an extension of Oldham’s critique. While it’s true that Sharp has certainly made enemies in our industry, he has done so by calling an algorithm-based machine-learning excavation device a spade, and our industry is infinitely better off as a consequence. When I was a junior marketer in the 1980s we looked to the great American pioneers of our field to lead our thinking: Levitt, Trout, Aaker and so on. But over the past decade something has gone seriously wrong with the direction of marketing thought. Obsessed with the shiny distractions of digital and the soft platitudes of politically correct but commercially inane attempts at brand purpose, marketing has lost its way, its edge and its impact.

The real gift of Sharp and his Ehrenberg-Bass Institute was to catch the helium balloon of bullshit that marketing was becoming just in time to attach a series of rigorous, practical and wonderfully quotidian concerns that weighed marketing back down to ground level. The contributions are not necessarily new or sexy, but my goodness they have been essential.

The emphasis on salience over acontextual brand awareness. The focus on distinctive brand assets over ephemeral attempts to deliver mission and purpose. The open hostility for marketers who overstate the role of brands and consumers’ ‘love’ for them. The idea that brands must be available in the mind and on the shelf to sell might sound obvious but, trust me, most modern marketing departments are too busy workshopping the values inside their new rhomboid of brand trust, or working out how to get a 3D ad on the new Wankometer 8000 VR machine, to have such prosaic concerns anymore.

READ MORE: Why brand purpose requires more than just a snappy slogan

How Brands Grow is not an original book, nor is it especially easy to read. But it is the only book on marketing in the last 15 years that you had to consume because of what it said and the implications it held for marketers, and because every CMO you met literally had it in their bag. Given the perilous state of the printed word, it might also turn out to be the last marketing book anyone ever reads.

Plonkers will continue to write them, of course, but no-one is going to read the damned things. I’d like to reserve a special shout-out to all those marketing professors currently working on books on strategy, digital marketing or disruption and joyfully challenge them to consider whether a printed 400-page tome that takes three years to complete is anything other than prima facie evidence that you don’t understand any of those words you are meant to be writing about.

Sharp’s success, impact and focus on law-like rules certainly now leave him open to challenge and revision. Oldham’s critique may be the first of the year but it will surely not be the last. However, before we all start picking holes in the venerable rules and aggressive approach of Ehrenberg-Bass can we pause and appreciate just where marketing would be without them?

My bet is floating somewhere past Uranus.



There are 13 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Zbiggy Ucinek 18 Jan 2017

    Sorry Mark, but couldn’t disagree more. The marketing community has become over obsessed with process and so called “expert” learning. For me, process is something that has been developed by people who can’t think creatively to attempt to mimic those that can. Sadly exploited by scholers et al that actually kill creativity by teaching people to learn rather than teaching them to think. Did Steve Jobs and Lee Clow rely on consultants to develop some of the most incredible ads and therefore a truly iconic brand and incredibly successful business? In my humble opinion they used deep rooted personal insights and therefore gut instinct. Real marketing is an art not a science, because while it might assist people like yourself, to attempt to argue otherwise, those in the real world know that is complete and utter bollocks. You can teach someone to paint by numbers but it doesn’t guarantee they will be the next Picasso.

    • Phil Davies 22 Jan 2017

      Ziggy, your comment “Real marketing is an art not a science’ made me die a little inside. This statement implies you have no interest of incorporating into your ‘real’ marketing strategy and practice, the sciences of psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics, or perhaps even simply market research and data analysis of any kind? Marketing, in my humble opinion, is in fact the perfect blend of art and science, like great architecture for example. Art is crucial to marketing, but alone, marketing as an art leads to arrogant and egotistical thinking; this is what we’re offering, this is how we shall communicate our offering and by jove the consumer will bloody well engage with and buy it.

      That said, please do continue to think of ‘real’ marketing as an art form, you provide the rest of us with a distinct advantage.

      • Zbiggy Ucinek 23 Jan 2017

        Phil, As someone who spent two decades having an incredibly successful corporate career profitably building brands around the world, despite starting off as a trainee salesmen, your response doesn’t surprise me. It sums up exactly what is wrong with marketing today, namely an obsession with data, cover your ass research and therefore an inability to actually frequent or understand the real world. The really successful brands are built on an emotional rather than a rationale USP. However that doesn’t suit the business schools, universities and consultants who peddle regurgitated rubbish. Why? Because it would mean an end to their gravy train, and accept that individuality rather than conformity is the real secret to success. Given your smug view re a competitive advantage then perhaps you would be happy to explain why 76% of all new product launches (Neilson Data) fail in the first year for FMCG products, the so called birth place of brand management.

  2. Jonathan Cahill 18 Jan 2017

    There is no doubt that Sharp challenged a lot of orthodoxies in a constructive and informed way – something that should always be celebrated. In particular his recognition of people’s fickle beliefs is instructive. However he then went on to introduce his own orthodoxies, many of which evaporate with a touch of rigour. It is a question of sorting the wheat from the chaff, not taking it all on face value. Sharp uses the familiar trope of proposing marketing as a science but doesn’t seem to realise that it is a social science and not a natural one. Even in this latter field Richard Feyman stated that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts’, something of which Sharp does not seem to have taken note.

    It is at best disingenuous the way that what he refers to as “empirical generalisations” metamorphose through “law-like patterns” to end up as laws. This is an absurd and illogical progression.

    Above all Sharp does not seem to have any awareness of the advances made which have brought into question the rational model of thinking. He seems to have an antediluvian regard for rational decision making as evidenced by his statement that “marketers have used advertising and packaging to fool buyers into adopting irrational preferences and loyalties”. Naturally it is vexing that consumers don’t conform to his rational outlook but that’s reality – he needs to get out of his bunker.

    It is instructive that at no point in the numerous editions of his book does he ever mention the work of Kahneman and others which has been of far more value to marketing than his blinkered ‘scientific’ outlook. In particular he seems to have little clue about advertising as at no point does he give any acknowledgement of the pivotal role of perceptions.

    There is a lot of dodgy logic employed by Sharp with leaps worthy of a kangaroo. One particularly egregious example is when he conducted some research at the weekend for ads which had been aired during the week. This was done by telephone, whereas television ads do have a tendency to be visual. On this basis he concluded that 40% recognised the ad verbally described. The conclusion he drew from this was “i.e. 40% of potential viewers noticed the ad WHEN it was aired”, rather than recalled it. This deduction is pure fantasy.

    The blanket adoption of Sharp’s views is naive and ill-informed. It might be a juicy doughnut but people seem to forget that doughnuts traditionally have holes, which Sharp provides in abundance.

  3. Phil Smith 18 Jan 2017

    It’s one thing to write soubriquets like this one: most modern marketing departments are too busy workshopping the values inside their new rhomboid of brand trust, or working out how to get a 3D ad on the new Wankometer 8000 VR machine, to have such prosaic concerns anymore. It’s quite another that the observation is so dead on. Mark, if, as I have been over the past month, you were actively looking for a new marketing job you’d be even more concerned about the state of the profession. Most job descriptions seem to be written with the type of person who would see no irony/sarcasm in your Wankometer 8000 VR machine joke. There’s a total obsession with getting people who are almost entirely analytical, as opposed to the perfect combination of creative and analytical that’s downright scary, and if you’re not digitally obsessed don’t even bother reading the description, let alone applying. My observation, from an extensive review of more than 500 job listings, is the profession is going to get way worse before it gets better, so please continue to play the role of canary in the coal mine. We need you now, more than ever.

  4. Paul Wakefield 18 Jan 2017

    Byron Sharp’s ideas should challenge us all to think again about what the fundamentals of marketing should be in our own industries. Whilst a preoccupation with process and theory can distract us from embracing the unique consumer and competitive context of our own markets, following structured approaches, rooted in core marketing concepts, still provides a springboard to unlocking genuine creative propositions that represent authentic and credible offerings to consumers.

    The only way to ensure we keep our brand building fresh and authentic, is to continually question our own thinking and see the value in new perspectives that challenge the status quo, even if not all of these new ‘evidence based principles’ appear to resonate with the consumer dynamics of our own industries. Every competitive context has it’s own winning strategies and so where segmentation, targeting and positioning are paramount in one sector, the market dynamics of another may warrant a less targeted and personalised approach, where the path to growth instead is achieved through growing market penetration and brand aesthetics.

  5. Jon Bradshaw 19 Jan 2017

    Hmm. I couldn’t disagree (respectfully) with Zhiggy more. In fact the one thing that infuriates me most (and let’s face it there’s a lot to be infuriated by in marketing at the moment), its the postulation that marketing is a creative discipline, led by creative thinking. Never in the history of arguments about marketing has the horse been so clearly tethered ahead of the cart, by so many people, so often. Usually people with the word ‘creative’ in their job title. As redundant an epithet as ‘digital’ in my mind.

    My argument, such that it is, is that marketing’s job is to sell more stuff, to more people, on more occasions, at higher prices, in order to make more money. The loss of sight of that goal by so many in our profession leads us into the eye of the Tsunami of Horseshit, so well described in earlier posts (and still my new favourite indie band). Last I checked, therefore marketing should start with a little maths. Notably, maths is a science.

    Then we segment, target and position. We do so using qualitative and quantitative analysis (science, bitches). Once we get past the hard analytical work of uncovering insights and tensions. Once we stop digging into behavioural science about motivations and heuristics and biases. Once we have finished quantifying sizes of prize and tensions and drivers and making tough rational trade offs between strategies and approaches. Then we may if we are lucky, indulge in a little bit of creative exposition, as we write a brand manifesto or some other such fluff. According to Byron and others, that’s an utter waste of time in terms of affecting behaviour. I’m conflicted about that. But I do know that 90% of this exercise is analysis, research, and deductive reasoning, long before we get to the inductive. Flashes of inspiration come after weeks and weeks of hard analytical slog.

    As we move from brand strategy into execution, we should zero base our budget. Maths again sadly. Hard maths thats very hard to do. So hard, its a discipline not yet mastered by (m)any. As a result we may choose to do work, on pricing (damn math again), architecture (research led work, into choice drivers), practical availability (you could try ‘creating’ a planogram or a range review, but I reckon Sainsbury’s aren’t going to buy it) and a host of other, far from creative activities. And yes, we might decide to make some advertising. At least that bit sounds creative.

    But sadly it isn’t. If we, as marketers do our job right we set goals and objectives. Tram lines and boundaries. Work out quantifiably where the audience is and when they are receptive (so much maths it hurts my head). If we start writing creative ideas, we just fucked up the whole process. If we are good at our job we then pass the ball to someone who’s job it is to do ‘creativity’. And the first job of a good creative is to understand what all the science that came before is trying to tell them. Then finally, we might be truly creative for a moment, right at the end of the process.

    My second pet hate by the way is those who eschew process as ‘anti-creative’. Such thinking is at best self serving, at worst downright dumb. But marketing is a process. Not necessarily a process that has to be followed in sequential order. But even if you choose to start with gut and instinct, my point of view is you then need to go and back it up with science. Or risk frittering away million of dollars of shareholders’ money. And with it more importantly, goes the reputation of our discipline.

    Marketing unquestionably has a creative element. The advertising type of creativity has long since proven its ability to deliver results, albeit on the shifting sands of the new media landscape. A more liberal interpretation of creative thinking should be littered amongst the processes and science of this job. Intuitive leaps and big strategic thoughts are the stuff of breakthroughs. If, and only if, you are leaping off a launch-pad of analytical thought.

    But our willingness to worship at the knee of the creative god is a cornerstone of all that is wrong at the moment. Its why ‘content marketing’ is a thing (it isn’t, its just advertising). Why we have actual conversations about making advertising people truly want to engage with (they don’t, really they don’t). Why too many creative directors have corner offices and egos and attitudes that Don Draper would shudder at. I’d be like that too, if you put me on that high a pedestal. It’s why so much innovation fails. It’s why so many ads look good but deliver nothing. It’s why the CMO is not that well regarded in the boardroom in far too many companies.

    I love creative people. In some ways, I am one. By most standards not. I love the creative aspects of marketing. And I recognise their power and worth. But we need to put them back in their place. Firmly behind the horse of strategy and science. Its not just that we are not reading, or reading and dismissing the most important marketing book of our lifetime. It’s that we are not reading any of the books, or articles, or case studies, or marketing week columns that should be helping us solve the increasingly complex problems we face. We seem to have abandoned science for the art of wildly guessing. Strategy for tactics. Expertise for intuition. Intelligence for instinct. To an almost anti-Darwinian level. We have become so focused on the creative outcomes, we have forgotten about the problems.

    The problems of selling more stuff, to more people, on more occasions, at higher prices. You know, the job of marketing.

    Someone sciencey once said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’. Its as good an analogy for marketing as I can come up with. Maybe I am just not creative enough to have an original thought. And too happy to stand on the overburdened shoulders of giants.

    I know those last five minutes are important. But they do not define the job. They are not marketing.

    • Matt Bowden 19 Jan 2017

      Err. Yeah. What he said…

    • Rodney Tanner 19 Jan 2017

      Thanks Jon

      I needed the reminder:
      “The problems of selling more stuff, to more people, on more occasions, at higher prices. You know, the job of marketing.”
      “Flashes of (my addition – insight and) inspiration come after weeks and weeks of hard analytical slog.”

      Byron Sharp – How Brands Grow is by no means full-proof. But it´s still one of the three or four books on brands and marketing I go back to regularly for some sanity and clarity.

    • Zbiggy Ucinek 22 Jan 2017

      Jon, one of the reasons I regularly post re Mark’s articles, is whether I agree or disagree he makes me think. In addition that approach stimulates debate and discussion without which we would not be the leading species on this planet of ours. Couldn’t disagree more with your response, which for me sums up all that is wrong with marketing today. Namely an obsession with focusing on numbers rather than one thing that actually makes them happen, an ability to think differently. To assist in my response a simple formula, “An obsession with taught process/short term financial obsession + lack of any real creativity or deep rooted personal insights = No Long term future! The simple fact is for too long we have a society that obsesses with command and control rather than encouraging and accepting that successful individuals are not taught but made.

  6. Lucas Bergmans 20 Jan 2017

    Just a point on the Pepsi Max case study from my own experience of it (I was Pepsi Marketing Manager at Britvic at the time)

    Yes, the shift in comms to being focussed on digital content was a brave, very smart and brilliantly executed move but it’s only half the story.

    The campaign coincided with a big shift in Pepsi’s pack strategy which delivered in a big spike in off shelf visibility in store (ie physical availability) and increases in penetration and share as a result. The comms plan also included a heavyweight push on ‘rational’ outdoor advertising focussing on Pepsi Max superior taste as a no sugar cola (‘Max Taste, No Sugar’) – ie the thing that makes it distinctive in the cola market.

    Also worth pointing out that it’s not really a variant strategy. Pepsi Max is the face of Pepsi in the UK – it gets 100% of media investment and represents over 50% of UK volumes.

    So, as an example of a brand that disproves Byron it’s a pretty poor choice in truth. Being distinctive in market and driving mental & physical availability are all things that happened and that delivered share and profit growth as well as improvements in equity on Pepsi Max. The IPA paper just doesn’t happen to reference it all…

  7. Nick Brown 22 Jan 2017

    Our agency logo talked about the art and science of persuasion, and a hot topic was always which was more important – Creative or data targeting.

    My conclusion from watching this debate is that it is best to think about the emotional and rational sides of the brand.

    The emotional engagement piece, does this feel right to me and does it offer something different from the competition are fundamental to brand values, and a good agency will understand this.

    Further, rules imply something that is repeatable, and thereby probably less likely to be original, emotional, new, different, fun etc etc.

    But at the same time, no matter how good your creative is, it needs to be seen by existing and potential customers and staff.
    So the media and targeting matter. Further being able to switch the creative as message 1 tires, can massively increase the effectiveness of the campaign, and its ability to stay front of mind.

    So my view would be that delivering for the client takes both art and science, and in a good agency that will be a source of shared vision rather than competition.

    It’s not about accountability, it is about understanding the customer. This then leads into external and internal communications, customer expectations and experiences, that determine margin, repeat purchase and cross selling.

    Till next time


  8. Marie Oldham 26 Jan 2017

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your considered response to my article on IPA Effectiveness papers which seem to be deviating from the principles advocated by Byron Sharp. You are indeed right in that I appear to come out fighting, as we often do when we want to encourage debate. I strongly believe that it is our collective responsibility to raise the level of rigour in our industry and I agree with you that we need big, consistent principles to guide us through the landscape of emerging technologies, seemingly ever changing consumer behaviours and demands to innovate and be creative at all times. Many of my clients and colleagues will attest that I am actually a Byron Sharp supporter and have often referred to his books and his thinking in response to certain briefs.
    However, the beauty of our industry is that it is not a world of “one size fits all”, many of the best solutions come from the diversity of talent we draw upon, deep understanding of category behaviour and genuine understanding of consumer needs. It struck me during the judging process of the 2016 IPA awards that many clients and agencies are still investing significantly in segmentation and building campaigns around tightly targeted audiences. The cases I drew attention to outline the facts leading to positive return on investment (as stated by the agency and usually the client) and not my opinion of whether they are right or wrong.
    As you say, Byron Sharp is a contentious figure in our industry so to pull these examples together and unite them around their “defiance” of his thinking was always going to be contentious but at the end of the day I wanted to inspire a healthy debate and, as you rightly pointed out, maybe a little “fisticuffs” to start the New Year.

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