Mark Ritson on why he’s OK with TV, but welcomes a ‘post-digital’ world

Mark Ritson has a few things on his mind. It’s a little after 11 p.m. in Australia and Ritson has just finished teaching a class in the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing, but the outspoken, oft-quoted industry commentator, with a large following on marketing Twitter, isn’t ready to call it a night just yet.

In advance of his appearance at thinktv’s Media, Marketing & Effectiveness conference in Toronto next Tuesday, Ritson spends the next 40 minutes or so digging into how to ensure marketing effectiveness, his continued belief in the power of TV, and why he’s had enough of generational marketing and brand purpose.

The overarching theme of the thinktv event is marketing effectiveness. What constitutes effectiveness for you?

In more prosaic terms, marketing these days comes down to two things: The long and short. There’s a real war going on at the moment between those who would tell you, ‘You want to get a return on investment, and the best [long-term] return on investment is where you should spend your money,’ and those that will argue that can be misleading and that short-term returns on your investment—we spent $5 million on a campaign and got $30 million back in sales—is a good thing.

It is probably a good thing, but the reality is that you might be better off spending some of the money on longer-term branding that certainly won’t give you the same returns in year one, but over three, four or five years would pay you back far more.

I teach MBA students, and they all say ‘It’s obvious that you’ve got to spend 50-60% of your money on long-term brand-building.’ It is obvious. But you put them in a simulation where they have to start generating money, and almost every time you find they don’t spend 50-60% on long-term brand-building—they shunt more and more of it into the short-term returns, because that’s how businesses are.

Peter Drucker, as usual, was the one who got it right, when he said that the long-term isn’t five one-year windows stitched together. That’s the mistake we’re all making.

We keep thinking there’s more money to be had from spending at the bottom of the funnel and we keep making that Groundhog Day mistake again and again. It’s a genuine problem for companies: They keep living the same year. You have to take a two-, three- or four-year view, starting at year one to get there.

So what’s driving this trend?

The Google and Facebook duopoly. Whether or not [advertising with them] is having the effect they’re claiming is a different question, but there’s no doubt that the way they’ve sold their services has completely revolutionized the way media is sold.

They’ve been stunningly effective, and they’ve really pulled the short-term into a place where marketers feel they have to go, because all the bells and whistles are there.

Most marketers are looking for a win that will keep them in their job. It’s a very brave and secure marketer that is able to say ‘I know we could make more money this year doing X, but I’m looking at the longer game and that’s why we’re going to do Y.’ Sales people wouldn’t do it, and a lot of marketing people come from sales. Finance people probably wouldn’t do it. You’ve really got to have someone who’s happy to put themselves out there to pull it off.

I’m assuming that the increasingly short tenure of the CMO is a factor as well?

Maybe. But I have a thing with that. It gets talked about at every panel session at every marketing conference I’ve ever been to. It’s true that the average CMO, depending on where you look, is lasting three years or whatever, but if the average Canadian [man] has one testicle, it doesn’t mean we should start redesigning Canadian underwear.

There are some really bad CMOs and some really good ones, and what do you know… the crap ones get found out and pushed out quickly. A lot of CMOs have been around a long time. You go to marketing conferences, and all the CFOs [say] there’s a lot of short-term pressure. That’s nonsense. It’s mostly marketers that don’t have a long-term plan in the first place.

The overarching theme of your presentation is lessons learned from Effies case studies. Are there some prevailing themes you can share?

One of the cool ones is code-ification, which is how much does the ad looks like the brand? I’m sure in many 30-second ads in Canada, it’s not apparent what the ad is for. It turns out that’s really dumb, and you wouldn’t want to waste a single second not looking like your brand.

[Studies show] about 86% of ads the people see the night before, they either can’t remember the ad at all, or if they can they can’t remember which company it was for. More than 80% of all ads are completely pointless, because they don’t actually scream the codes of the brands doing the ads.

The first thing you learn from the data is ‘Just make it incredibly, distinctively us throughout every pixel.’ As boring as that sounds, that would have a massive impact on effectiveness.

If you don’t “code-ify” your ads, they don’t look like the brand. They’re too clever, too diffuse and although agencies hate to hear this, they’re too creative and not linked to the brand itself.

Wait, are you advocating for less creativity?

No, no, no. I think it’s possible to be creative and code-ified, but you’ve obviously got to be pretty good to do it. What you’ll hear from agencies is ‘You’re using that device too much,’ and the answer is ‘No we’re not. You can still be creative within that framework.’ It’s obvious, but it’s super important.

I’m a huge fan of what KFC has done,  taking the Colonel which is not the most appealing code—a white, besuited 70-year-old gentlemen who’s been dead for 40 years—and they’ve played with that code brilliantly over the last two years. Whatever else you might think about the KFC work, it looks like KFC—and that’s a big, big advantage.

You recently commented that you’re looking forward to the era of ‘post-digital marketing.’ What did you mean?

[The digital marketing era] is nearly over. We’ve had this decade where this dreaded D-word has appeared everywhere. [MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte] wrote 20 years ago “Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.” We’ve just about got to that point right now.

It’s noticeable to me that marketing conferences two years ago were replete with digital this and digital that aren’t saying the word at all. It doesn’t mean that digital is somehow not relevant; what it means is that everything is digital, and saying it is like saying you’ve got an electric computer. It’s meaningless.

There isn’t such a thing as non-digital, so [the notion] of being a digital marketer is rapidly becoming a silly thing.

The reason that’s good is that while we’ve been digital, we’ve been obsessed with tactics—with Facebook versus TV, search versus news media—and the problem with that is it takes us into a tactical place rather than thinking about strategy. The digital people are still part of the discussion, but we’re not obsessed with the D-word anymore, so we’re swimming back upstream and asking questions about marketing strategy that we haven’t been asking for 10 years.

You recently wrote about The Gap’s decision to completely eschew TV in its holiday marketing plans. You remain an avowed fan of the medium, but can you explain why?

First of all, there’s no guaranteed medium. The whole point of being media neutral is that you don’t start with any guaranteed media—it depends upon the strategy, the target and the budget.

But it’s odd when a company like The Gap is making video ads, spending a lot of money and [the thinking seems to be] ‘How can we get the reach and emotional impact of TV without buying any TV?’ It’s just an odd approach. Why don’t you just buy some TV? It’s not that expensive relative to what it does, and you don’t have to spend a lot on TV for it to have the synergy effect on all the other media, especially digital.

What we’re learning more and more about media is that the answer to the question YouTube or TV? is yes. You want to do both, because the synergy of 1+1 is almost always three. In the same way that a company says it would never do digital video, you’d think that’s a bit strange.

Rumours of the death of TV have been so incredibly exaggerated. I deal with MBAs who are not young—they’re 30—yet they’re all amazed when you tell them you can still reach more than 90% of the population every month with TV. It’s true in Canada. It’s true everywhere. People still watch TV, and 90% of it is live TV.

What should everyone in marketing shut up about already?

The first thing that should be called out is the bullshit attached to generational marketing. It’s not only strategically incorrect, but frankly it’s extraordinarily inappropriate to start by saying “You were born in 1989, therefore you’re not loyal to your company and like to take days off.” It’s just racism by a different name.

I’m also really keen on moving beyond purpose. We live in the least purposeful time in the planet’s history, clearly. There are companies with genuine purpose, but they’re about 2% of the companies talking about purpose.

State Street and their Fearless Girl, with all the prizes they won for that purpose campaign, were paying women and people of colour significantly less than white men inside their organization. It’s total bullshit.

Gillette, [with] its wonderful campaign to attack toxic masculinity, was still charging women more money for the same razor blade than they were men. It’s all nonsense, and we have to acknowledge that most of this is trendy, wanna-be marketers who are uncomfortable saying at dinner parties in fashionable parts of Toronto ‘I sell coffee or beer.’ That’s bloody embarrassing. What I’m gonna say is ‘I’m working for world peace through the consumption of coffee beans in support of communities.’ It’s total B.S., and it’s really at the point now where it’s become pretty much a joke.

Starbucks is a perfect example. I think Starbucks is a great brand. I enjoy my Starbucks, but I’m not going into Starbucks because it’s building communities one coffee cup at a time. I’m going there because it’s a good cup of coffee.

The only definition of purpose is it has to cost you money. You have to have taken an option that costs you as an organization money to fulfill your purpose and suddenly the list of companies infused with brand purpose goes from millions to almost none.

Chris Powell