Mark Ritson: The first rule of marketing is you are not the customer

A new report confirms media agency staff are nothing like the consumers they serve, but the bigger question is whether they and marketers are market-orientated enough to know this and let customer insight guide them.

There is a great lowball question that you can use on anyone interviewing for a marketing role.

Ask the candidate to imagine a leading tennis brand is looking for a new marketing manager. Two candidates make it to the final interview. The first is an ex-tennis pro who has spent the last 10 years in the lower reaches of the top 500 players and knows the game intimately. The second is a marketing manager from a soup company keen on a new challenge but with no experience of the game or prior interest in tennis.

Who is the best candidate?

You can argue that the tennis pro has an innate and extensive knowledge of the game and that makes her the ideal candidate. But you can also use that experience against her. She is a pro, not a normal customer, and her deeper and more widespread knowledge of the game might stop her empathising and ultimately converting amateurs to buy into the tennis brand.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Understanding customers is marketers’ most misunderstood mission

Similarly, the soup marketer’s inability to tell one end of the racket from the other can be used as a strong argument against hiring him. But, then again, taking someone with no knowledge of tennis forces that person to study the market more carefully and removes a lot of the over-confidence and innate biases that prior experience often brings.

Of course, the correct answer is that either candidate might be superior to the other. It will all depend not on their background but on their marketing proficiency.

A good marketer who is well trained will have been schooled in the discipline and will have started their training with extensive exposure to the concept of market orientation. It’s the bedrock theory of marketing and, paraphrasing somewhat, essentially points out that the first rule of marketing is that you are not the market. All your thoughts, feelings and immediate responses to things like advertising, price and packaging are not just incorrect – they are dangerous.

You help produce the product, ergo you are not the consumer of it. Learning to separate your own instinctive thoughts and feelings from the actual insights from real consumers is, literally, the first thing a trained marketer learns to do well.

Are advertising people different from consumers? Sure. But the bigger question is one of market orientation. Do agency people know that?

If the tennis pro can bracket her own experience and knows how to generate good qualitative insight, then produce clear quantitative results from representative samples of the target market, I would hire her. If the soup guy can do it better, I’d take him instead. I don’t give a fuck if either of them can hit a half-volley.

Men can market women’s products and vice versa. The key is not who you are but rather your ability to be market-oriented at all times. And we know from groundbreaking work by a host of American academics in the 1980s and 90s that the more market-oriented a manager and the company she works for is, the faster it will grow, the more profit it will make and the more successful its new innovations will be. It turns out knowing you’re not the customer bestows massive marketing advantages.

This is often a hard message to deliver, especially to senior C-suite executives who fancy themselves as “a bit of a marketing expert”. I’ve lost count of the number of times that these senior men – and they are always men – completely forget they are not in the gender, age range or salary bracket of the target segment but still wax lyrical about which campaign they prefer and what the marketing team should do next.

This is not marketing, this is being a cock. An overpaid cock. An overpaid, incompetent cock.

We’ve just completed another round of Marketing Week’s Mini MBA in Marketing and, despite all my efforts to make the pricing module the most rewarding and the positioning module the most enjoyable, the vast majority of our graduating class have just told us that module 1 on market orientation is their favourite of the 12 sections, because once you understand what market orientation is, it pretty much changes everything about how you practice marketing.

Data-driven decisions

How media agency staff compare to mainstream consumers (source: Trinity Mirror Solutions)

Market orientation was very much top of mind as I read the new report from Trinity Mirror Solutions last week on the major disparity between the advertising industry and British consumers.

The research worryingly confirms that the people who populate agency land are nothing like the markets they are attempting to influence. Agency people are younger, more left-wing, more mobile than their consumer counterparts.

More concerningly, this disparity is further exemplified in attitudinal differences. Agency people are more comfortable with risk, seek out strong emotions and have a greater need for belonging than the consumers they target.

According to the report, the results help to explain how “brands and advertising have lost relevance with large swathes of the UK”.  Its conclusions have certainly divided marketers. Many have expressed concern at the findings but many more have pointed out that no one expects marketers to be identical to the markets they target, so why worry?

READ MORE: How to get big insights from small budgets

I can see both sides. But, like Brad Pitt in Moneyball (sort of), I think the study is asking the wrong question.

Are advertising people different from consumers? Sure. But the bigger question is one of market orientation. Do agency people know that? Do they understand the implications of that? Do they exhibit clear and disciplined market orientation when faced with marketing questions? And does that lead to data, rather than their own gut feelings, guiding the marketing decisions?

These are the key questions of marketing. The real way to test our tennis pro and soup marketer is to show them some of our current advertising and ask for their opinion.

If they start cocking on and giving us their personal take on the campaign we can end the interview early and send them home with their bus money and a sad, disappointed smile. If they look up from the ads and ask, with a twinkle, to see the segment being targeted with this ad and the position driving the campaign, it is time to talk salary and benefits.

It sounds so simple, does it not? You are not the customer. The report proves that with extensive empirical evidence. But we all knew that already. Ten minutes in Soho in an agency followed by five minutes round the corner in a boozer would have confirmed that.

The bigger question is whether marketers know they are not the customer, and whether that knowledge creates a space research and insight can then occupy.



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

  1. John Bell 11 Jul 2018

    tennis analogy with net scores, very appropriate, but locus of control – new balls, please

  2. Luke Chess 11 Jul 2018

    The tennis pro and soup marketer would be allowed a moment to talk about cut-through and clarity of messaging though, before asking for segmentation and positioning, surely?

    • Matthew C 11 Jul 2018

      Wouldn’t you do that the other way around? What’s the point of analysing the message if you don’t at least first know 1) who it’s for and 2) what it’s trying to say?

      Anyone can have an opinion…

  3. Matthew C 11 Jul 2018

    For god’s sake SHOW THIS TO GREEN EXECS. The first thing you should be taught in marketing is that your opinion doesn’t matter.

    Too often, sadly, the culture of “you’ve got your marketing degree, which means you’re an expert now, so that means you can basically just run your mouth without issue” isn’t something which is challenged – they never reconcile what they think with the facts. Clearly.

    The net result of that is a horrible cocktail of incompetent managers throwing client budgets into a gaping hole where strategy should be.

  4. Pete Austin 11 Jul 2018

    Marketing is about two things: (a) what the customer wants to buy and (b) what the company wants to sell. There’s little point marketing stuff that don’t match point (b) because companies can’t suddenly wave a magic wand and change what’s in the pipeline or in stock.

    The “senior C-suite executives” you complain about know this. They are making suggestions because they’ve been presented with marketing concepts that will sell something that customers would no doubt love, but that does not shift what the company needs shifted. And they don’t have time for the marketers to randomly come up with something that does.

  5. John Alderman 11 Jul 2018

    Marketers should never assume they know the customer/consumer when starting out. @ examples, when I was a Brand Mgr on Deodorants and looked out the window across the road to the council flats and watched the motor cycle game come and go I had no idea how or even if they used the products I was trying to market. Or when I was on a secondment to the Philippines and worked on a Laundry soap I had to first learn the wash process and see it in action in the streets and in the rivers to better understand my product. I was also responsible for a soap powder but at that time the penetration of washing machines in Metro Manila was only 2%, hence in both cases, if I had assumed I knew how these products were used based on my own experience then I would have failed miserably and I expect it is many still do. Finally, to add working in a foreign market is one of the best learnings for a marketer.

  6. Mark Ritson 11 Jul 2018

    Pete Austin your comment above – which I thank you for – is totally wrong. Market Orientation should also include the actual product / service offer too. What you describe above is sales orientation or product orientation both of which Have been widely debunked. As the saying goes “stop looking for customers for your products, start looking for products for your customers”.

  7. Pierre Bouvard 11 Jul 2018

    In the U.S., Advertiser Perceptions asked marketers and media agencies about their personal media habits and their perceptions of average American media usage. Brands and agencies believe their personal media habits are a perfect reflection of consumer media habits. A comparison of advertiser perceptions with actual Nielsen media use reveals a complete mismatch. Not only is the marketer not the customer, they have no understanding of actual customer media habits. Marketers need to take the “Me” out of Media. For more:

  8. Oakley Walters 13 Jul 2018

    Couldn’t agree more, though that could simply be confirmation bias.

    At Elder ( we are a fast growing start-up helping people avoid being forced into residential care, and instead stay in their own homes.

    We have two groups we need to communicate with, the individual being cared for (80+ years old), and the child of said person who usually controls the purse strings (50-65 years old). With the oldest person in our company being the wizened old age of 37, we constantly have to check ourselves to ensure that what we are doing and saying is relevant and persuasive, that it chimes with what we’ve learnt about our consumers, and then to follow the data to make sure we’re accurate in our assessments. It’s all too easy to wistfully project what we believe our future-selves would want, and in so-doing completely miss the mark.

  9. Gerben Busch 13 Jul 2018

    So, to summarize your plea it’s about time for the more traditional advertising agencies to discontinue their Mel “What women want” Gibson Planning Departments and rely more on actual data and the insights they yield, right?

  10. Mark Cichon 15 Jul 2018

    Its really down to who has the capability to ask the better quetions.

  11. Mark Thornton 16 Jul 2018

    Your ‘old white men’ argument is trendy but only gets you halfway there. If you buy into diversity (and IMHO diversity is *everything*) then you have to buy into “neuro-diversity”. Unfortunately the tennis pro and the soup exec are likely both products of an education system that a) rewards a certain type of thinking just to pass exams (whether independent school or state-school cream), and b) trains young people to seek the ‘correct answer’ route which fits neatly into corporate life, where a pat on the head and not rocking the boat is still highly prized, male or otherwise .

    What we actually want to do is improve critical thinking – and that’s a big, old society problem. How can marketing be part of the solution here? Where does it take its interns and new recruits from? Be the change you want to see, I say.

  12. Al King 18 Jul 2018

    Bang on as always. The para on senior C-suite executives is incisively brilliant. Way too many cocks.

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