Mark Ritson: “It’s Total Crap To Think Digital Is The Only Way To Innovate”

Mark Ritson, Marketing professor and award winning columnist, speaking at National Radio Conference 2016

It’s everybody’s favourite contrarian and marketing ne’er-do-well, Mark Ritson, who’s also the adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School. Today he talks to B&T about the haters, why he can’t stand Twitter ‘gurus’, and why Millennials aren’t that painful after all…

John Bastick
Posted by John Bastick

You’ve got yourself a reputation as a bit of an industry rabble-rouser and contrarian. Is that a fair assessment? 
I think that’s fair. I’m a contrarian because I say things like, “Eighty-five per cent of video in Australia is watched on the television” and people think that’s a dangerous point of view. But when has 85 per cent been misconstrued as anything but the dominant point of view? So, yes, I am the cat among the pigeons, but there should be a lot more cats, really. I am rhetorical; I push hard back, because no one else is, and I find it distasteful. And I should add I make no money from it (public speaking engagements*), I do it because I believe in what I am saying and someone needs to say you can’t keep saying stuff that isn’t true. Marketers can be a little scared to stick their heads up; they’ll defend existing things versus the new.

(*As a clarification, Ritson was paid a small fee for speaking at the recent Radio Conference in Melbourne. B&T has updated this article.)

Could your detractors claim you’re a bit of a traditionalist?
They would do that because they’re morons! These people who are constantly banging on about digital versus traditional, they’re missing the point. We’ve had Facebook now for 10 years, so at what point does it become traditional? Outdoor will soon make more from digital than it does from print, does that make it a digital media? It’s just nonsense. All we ever hear is that to innovate you have to be digital and that’s another great untruth. It doesn’t and it’s a total load of crap. Innovation is innovation. People with the word ‘digital’ in their title are fundamentally out of touch because that means nothing anymore.

Is it a dangerous game trying to predict what’s going to happen in the marketing world? After all, no one knows what great disruptor’s lurking around the corner.
Let’s be honest, we won’t end up in a place where Facebook and Google don’t take of 50 per cent of total advertising revenues in Australia. I think I know where we are going, when we actually get there I’m not as certain. Marketers will be spending 50 cents in the dollar very shortly, and more than three-quarters of that 50 cents will go to those two. That is unavoidable. But when will it happen and how long will that trend continue? But the next big battle will be digital versus television and this is a battle where it’s a harder medium to pull down, particularly where a lot of the metrics are rubbish; but no metrics are perfect. Digital video, to how much is visible, how much is bot-based, and how much of it even exists? There’s a dozen different slices going on before we even get to any reach or frequency. The dominant sources of advertising are making it up as they go along, and that’s not their fault. I’m not saying they’re not good, what I am saying is they’ve grown so fast they don’t know what they’re doing.

Who won’t survive this great media shake-out? Whose future looks decidedly bleak?
You can’t squeeze news media any more than it has been. Take News Corp, if you look at its performance over the past five years its audience decline has softened but advertising (revenues) continue to decline. You can’t see a continuing picture of double digit decline in advertising and at some point someone has to go, “Actually there’s a big problem here.” Magazines, inflight magazines they’re in a difficult space. And then there’s the smaller digital players and I think because of Facebook and Google they’re in for an almighty shock in the coming year.

Is the problem really just the customer? They’re digitally savvy, highly informed about products, and they simply expect too much these days?
They’re the conversations of companies who don’t do research. You’d be amazed by how many Australian marketers don’t pull their fingers out and do proper research. You can’t do marketing without spending five to 10 per cent of your total budgets on research, on segmentation, on qual (qualitative) and quan (quantitative). The likes of Unilever or P&G never say that they can’t keep up with the customer because, yes, the customer is changing but their research tells them that and that’s what gives those guys the commercial advantage.

You go to a lot of marketing conferences and a lot of people say the exact same things – other than your good self, of course. Do marketers suffer too much from a herd mentality, everyone thinks the same?
It’s one of the problems. The problem in Australia in a nutshell – and this took me 15 years to work out – was that we had this situation where one or two major players dominated every category and that meant that marketing was always to tone. Then around 2007 all these foreign brands arrived and sliced and diced and tried to kill the established players. But the fundamental DNA of any marketer that grew up in the era is they still don’t get it. I’m not saying the Poms or the Americans are better marketers, I’m saying they grew up in a more competitive environment. But this new crop, who’ve grown up with Zara and ALDI, are getting it. But I think Australia got fat and lazy for a long time.

You’re a professor, you teach at university, are we equipping graduates with the right skills for modern marketing?
I think a lot of people are telling them what they think they need to be told. The problem these days is we have a huge army of self-appointed experts with 100,000 Twitter follows and no formal training in marketing and no respect for this 100-year-old discipline. And I grow weary of these people who launch into content marketing horseshit and tactical hoo-ha. Sure, tactics have changed a lot in the past five or so years but the end game remains the same: you still do your research, you still segment markets, you still pick targets, you still position, you still set objectives. You talk to anyone in agency land and they’ll tell you, off the record, that their client has no strategy. They’ve got toolkits, they’ve got tactics and they’re asking the agencies and there’s nothing there. It’s the “tacticfication” of marketing, they’re obsessed with eight different pinball machines but they don’t know who their customer is, what their objective is, and they don’t know what their position is and, quite frankly, that’s pathetic. People say marketing is changing dramatically and people who say that are mistaking tactics for strategy, and that’s a huge error. Unfortunately, it’s all these social media “gurus” with no training in marketing whatsoever who are having all the influence and that’s dangerous.

It is a confusing landscape with everybody pushing their own barrow, their own miracle cure to every marketing dilemma. For you, what still wins every time?
Nothing and everything. There is no ideal medium. I’ve done work for clients who are 100 per cent digital, that are zero per cent digital, that are 50 per cent digital. The point is let’s start with strategy, let’s work out what we are trying to do, let’s look at our position, look at our target audience and then let the tactical stuff be chosen correctly. Some brands work on social media while others have no interest in it and they’re both right. What’s missing from the debate is media neutrality and strategic thinking. And it’s a sad indictment that we get into these ding-dong battles when in reality there is no perfect media. And, anyway, you always get more bang for your buck when you spread them across multiple tools.

Is the problem we live in a time where everything’s great? If your brand stinks you’re quickly found out and destroyed on social media?
I don’t think everything’s great to a 17-year-old. The game always changes, the bar always rises. But to a 17-year-old, that’s how it is and they’re always looking for the next “thing”. It has to be better, it has to be faster, it has to be greener, this how we move forward. We just get older and fall off the demographic cliff and somebody else takes our place. We think it’s good and we probably can’t be fucked any more, but others will join us from behind.

So everything’s those darn Millennials’ fault then?
I think that’s overstated. Enormously. Human society doesn’t change that dramatically in the space of a decade and it’s nonsense to think that.

You hear a lot of people arguing to the contrary?
They would and that’s because they’re completely free of any facts or data. There’s about six studies I know of that show that psychographically and behaviourally the Millennials aren’t that dissimilar to Generation X. In fact, in many cases they are indistinguishable. But of course our friends in social media guruism don’t look at that data any more and they just say want they want and no one challenges them. Sure, Millennials have different behaviours because they’re younger than us. When we were 22 we were doing different things and if we’d have had a smartphone we’d have behaved differently then as well. The differences are overstated and if you look at attitudes to work, attitudes to consumption, attitudes to other people, they almost look identical (to the Xs) and there are many published papers that say that very thing. None of these (social media gurus) are reading anything, they’re too busy typing something into 140 characters to release the latest nonsense on how Millennials are changing the world. It’s ill-disciplined thinking at its very worst.

Last question. What’s the one thing marketers should be investing in now so they’re jogging on the spot in five years’ time?
First of all, committing five to 10 per cent of their budgets to research. Half to find out what’s going on in the market and the other half to track their brands. No one does that in Australia and it’s a scandal. Secondly, they should be challenging everyone as to their claim around metrics. I think media agencies are pretty straight but I think their clients don’t know what’s going on. So they should invest more time into where their money is and it isn’t going in media. And the biggest one of all – get their arse out of the office and spend time with consumers. About a third of marketers I meet go out and hang out with customers and the other two-thirds would rather brief agencies and design PowerPoint charts. You have to be with customers and if you can’t you’re not doing your job.