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OPINION9 October 2017

The great debate comes down to evidence

Opinion UK

The Festival of Marketing closed with the much anticipated live debate between Professor Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson. 2CV’s Adam Pemberton reports

The scheduled debate between Byron Sharp, professor of marketing science, and Mark Ritson, associate professor of marketing and branding expert, for the end of day two of The Festival of Marketing, made sure no-one dare leave before the show closed. The two earthly avatars of the major schools of marketing in the ring together: broad vs. targeted, fire vs. ice, oil vs. water:  THE GREAT DEBATE. Ding-ding.

Ritson kicks off with some effusive and emotional praise of Sharp and his contribution – it’s about as moving as a debate at a marketing conference can get.

But he knows why he’s here – he’s the poster child for the ‘Prof. Sharp doesn’t have all the answers’ movement. His argument is nuanced – marketing isn’t science, it’s social science; differentiation isn’t about big differences, it’s about small, meaningful differences. It’s not that Byron Sharp is wrong, it’s that his view is incomplete – use Sharp’s work plus targeting.

Sharp’s turn; the compliments have wrong footed him, he wasn’t expecting that. But he soon finds more familiar ground – science is science, social or not; the laws are observed regularities; you have to understand the rules of the game in order to foster creativity in the industry; sophisticated mass marketing is about finding ways to reach everyone, but that doesn’t mean you are hitting them all in exactly the same way.

We move on. There’s more, but you get the idea. The vote at the end gives the match to Ritson 60% to 27% with a few saying draw. It’s a fabulous narrative and a major contributor to my attendance at the event, but I see a problem.

It’s all a lie.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling the combatants in this war of words liars – neither the men on stage nor the marketers, and those of us in associated disciplines, who are living it on a daily basis. I’m talking about the war itself.

Ritson pulls out the big guns: Apple has 13% market share in the smartphone market, but 19% value share and a loyal customer base to boot – stick that in your evidence-pipe Prof. Sharp. Sharp rebuts: it is in the Premium Smartphone market, where it has a proportionate share. “Sounds like targeting” says Ritson.  The laughter tells me that the hall agrees with him.

But here’s the crux of it: Ritson says “targeting” and means using different creative for different segments, Sharp calls this “sophisticated”; Ritson says “targeting” and means only making premium products, Sharp calls it “defining the marketplace”.  I hear two men that agree much more than they disagree, but the semantics of the language let them make it look like they don’t. They’re putting on a show and it’s bloody good entertainment; it’s not just for the hell of it either, the audience laps it up and it raises the profile of the end game: being evidence-based.

Mark Ritson calls it out in his opening remarks as one of Byron Sharp’s key contributions to the field – popularising the idea of being evidence-based.  We shouldn’t even need the term ‘evidence-based’ he says, because it’s so staggeringly obvious that you should check that what you are doing works or stop doing it. 

That nailed it for me. This isn’t a debate: this is an excellent piece of content marketing for evidence-based marketing itself. It’s sophisticated – the avant-garde can side with Sharp, while those who aren’t ready for his world can get behind Ritson. It’s broad – hitting the entire marketplace of marketers and, most important of all, it’s fiendishly clever – whichever side you pick, the goal is achieved: you have accepted that marketing decisions should be based on evidence – if you can’t prove it, you can’t do it.

Adam Pemberton is group research director at 2CV

1 Comment

2 months ago

Good to see the Aussies stirring the pot and making advertising and marketing people challenge populist thinking.

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