Ritson: Who hurts marketing more, Gary Vaynerchuk or out-of-touch professors?

Marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk’s dismissal of universities shows he’s hopelessly ignorant about strategy, yet he’s right that professors have become detached from reality.

Long Hair Senior Man Professor With Palm Up

You might have seen the video already. The Canadian father of a 17-year-old, attending a marketing session hosted by marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk, stands up during the Q&A and asks the speaker for some advice. His daughter, Kiara, is interested in a career in marketing and is currently reviewing her options for study. The father explains he is recording the response on his smartphone and asks Vaynerchuk to talk to his daughter and advise her on the best course of action to achieve her goals.

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

Vaynerchuk does not miss a beat. “Here’s what I would say, Kiara,” he responds, dropping to a kneeling position on the stage. “There is not a school on earth, not a university or college that exists, that is even remotely equipped to educate you properly on communications and marketing in the world we live in today.” He goes on to describe a university education in marketing as a “shit product”, “extortion” and “fucked-up fucking crazy-ass shit” as his audience, presumably of marketers, whoop their encouragement.

It’s obviously difficult viewing for a marketing professor. To be dismissed, along with all your peers, in less than two minutes like that is everyone’s professional nightmare. The fact that the dismissal comes from someone like Gary Vaynerchuk makes it worse. Vaynerchuk’s star has risen rapidly in a decade from online wine guru to chat show host, to digital marketing expert, to personal brand coach and he is held up by his followers as the king of modern marketing.

Personally, all I see is a man talking a lot about himself erratically in the back of limousines, but enough marketers have told me he is important for me to recognise that I must be missing something. His millions of followers and incredible capability for generating content alone make him a force to be reckoned with. More people will hear something from Vaynerchuk today about marketing than will attend a class on the topic at university. For someone this influential and widely followed to be so openly hostile to a marketing education is deeply troubling.

READ MORE: Do marketing experts need a qualification in marketing?

Vaynerchuk was hardly likely to be a fan of marketing education. He is at the vanguard of the self-taught, “everything is now different” school of digital marketing that has engulfed our discipline in recent years.

I’d be a lot more comfortable with his recommendation to the inquisitive father if he himself had experienced, and then regretted, a formal marketing education. Particularly problematic is Vaynerchuk’s constant conflation of marketing communications and marketing as one and the same. This is a particular pain point for me as I watch in horror as untrained marketing gurus ignore the strategic aspects of marketing and the other tactical areas like pricing and distribution in an ignorant, self-oriented quest to promote marketing communications.

Marketing risks reverting to the tactical, superficial and flashy stereotypical image it represented a quarter of a century ago.

Unfortunately, Vaynerchuk does have something of a point about marketing education. Most marketing academics in the UK and US are wildly out of touch with marketing practice.

It may sound strange but most of the people teaching marketing at British universities have never actually done any marketing of any kind. If they have it was so long ago that the dramatic changes taking place in our discipline are completely missed. Lost in the languid esoteric flagellation of academic publication, they can’t even see Vaynerchuk and his acolytes on their radar, let alone acknowledge the existential threat they surely represent to the discipline of marketing.

Out-of-touch marketing academics have always been a problem. Ask any university-trained marketer about their studies and, inevitably, the hopeless quality of some of the lecturers will feature high on the list of memories. But this becomes a major issue as marketing changes and alternative sources of expertise from the likes of Vaynerchuk and his multiple modes of learning spring up and offer immediate marketing enlightenment.

READ MORE: Would you hire a marketer without a formal qualification in marketing?

We now face the genuine risk that marketing as we know it will revert to the tactical, superficial and flashy stereotypical image that it used to represent a quarter of a century ago. Just when the areas of customer experience, targeting, brand, pricing, distribution and product design become most important there is a genuine risk that marketers will be excluded from the discussion because we are the guys babbling about digital media in the back of cars.

A few months ago, I sat down for a day to read the latest editions of the main marketing textbooks as preparation for a new course I am about to teach. The authors and the titles are unchanged since my days of study two decades ago and I fondly opened Marketing Management by Professor Philip Kotler (now with Professor Kevin Lane Keller as co-author) with the affection one would usually reserve for a long-lost friend.

To my horror the book was terrible. Perhaps I have become more critical in old age but I remember a logical, illuminating text that genuinely schooled me in the ways of marketing. Today’s edition (the 14th) is a jumble of displaced examples and headings that seems bereft of any narrative or passion for the subject of marketing. It read like a text that had simply been appended and expanded continually for many years until its structure and overall message had been lost in all the annotations and sub-headings.

Give Vaynerchuk his credit: he is nothing if not concise. And most of his wisdom comes free. The textbook costs £170 in hardcover and, well, it’s a book. How many 20-year-olds are lugging two kilos of dead wood around in their bag anymore?

Young marketers find themselves, I fear, trapped between a marketing rock star and an academic hard place. One is full of digital modernity and superficial brio but enormously ignorant of the true nature and scope of the marketing discipline. The other might represent the subject matter but is increasingly out of touch with the new directions and challenges of marketing in 2017. It’s a genuine conundrum.

Even I’m not sure what Kiara should do. And I’m meant to know the answer.