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Is Mark Ritson right about marketing training?

Short answer – yes. As someone who also has a dog in the training game, via The Oystercatchers I can’t disagree with his assault upon the Philistines who question the value of marketing training, published yesterday in Marketing Week.

However, I take issue with his interpretation of the very interesting, and worrying, graph on the effectiveness of marketing campaigns he included in his article.


This graph, produced by the researchers Peter Field and Les Binet for the IPA, shows the overall effectiveness of British marketing campaigns over the last ten years. Field and Binet cite the reason for the downwards trend from 2012 as being short-termism, overly tight targeting and an obsession with tactical activation. Ritson proposes a ‘lurking variable’ responsible for these sins: the lack of marketing training.

I don’t think this has anything to do with lack of, or failure of, training. It is more about a failure of thinking and the profound inability of most in the marketing community – trained and self-taught alike – to get their heads around the fundamental changes taking place in the communications and media environment brought about by the emergence of new social digital space.

Traditional marketing is a distribution game: channel and message, reach and frequency. It is a game which has an audience of consumers at its centre. Digital marketing is a connection game. It has the individual at its centre and its primary challenge is not reach and frequency but behaviour identification and response. This is a totally different game and you can’t play it effectively by simply taking channel-based, distribution type strategies and tactics and attempting to give them a digital face-lift – which essentially is what most brand digital strategies involve. This includes even supposedly cutting-edge digital approaches such as programatic advertising. Programatic (i.e. algorithmic) is something that has huge implications for marketing – but why limit its application to advertising or any form of content distribution. This is a failure of imagination akin to attaching an internal combustion engine to a cart on the basis that a cart is what we use to carry things around in and therefore if we combine the proven transportation capabilities of a cart with the speed and endurance capabilities of an engine then everyone’s a winner.

Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus makes the brilliant observation that the most important discovery of the Scientific Revolution was the discovery of ignorance: a recognition that knowledge wasn’t fixed and that there was much more out there to be discovered. The year 2012 was roughly marks the point when most brands started investing heavily in their digital (face lift) strategies. I think it is the failure of these strategies that accounts for the downturn in overall marketing effectiveness. I also think the savvy marketers are beginning to realise this: to discover their own ignorance. Witness the famous Mark Pritchard of P&G speech of last year.

Academics, marketers and trainers all need to stop and think. What is happening now is the biggest shift in information and communication since Gutenberg. We can’t expect to have all the answers, but it is essential that we get to grips with how the rules of the game are changing.

Below is the conclusion of an article I wrote 10 years ago. I would still stand by it.

We are just starting to recognise that we standing in the twilight of a world that has lasted for 500 years. It is a world which has become shaped by the institutionalisation of the information that flows between individuals. The world we are moving into is one where new technologies are making the process of institutionalised mediation obsolescent. Information can flow between one individual and all of the potential individuals for whom that information might be of relevance, without any form of institutionalised intervention except the provision of a freely available technological infrastructure.

It is unlikely that power and influence in the world that is now forming will lie in the control of channel. Instead it will be vested in forms of community, which will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership. This new world is in its infancy, but its principal characteristics are starting to become apparent as is the significant transformational challenge for organisations that wish to manage the transition from one world to the next. It is only by understanding the shifts that are taking place and switching investment from channel based assets and competencies into assets and competencies that reflect the collaborative, collective and communal characteristics of the post-Gutenberg world that organisations will be able to protect themselves from functional obsolescence.