A skit for Cannes Lions Live about marketers and consumers in relationship therapy, by Professor Mark Ritson, is enlivened by digs at a rival antipodean marketing professor. But the real issue for him is the marketing industry’s midlife crisis, WARC’s Brian Carruthers heard.

If the marketing industry is facing a midlife crisis, it is, ironically, caused by its younger practitioners, according to Ritson. They are, he says, “far more susceptible to nonsensical thinking than the older, more experienced, half of the discipline”.

He identifies ‘tactification’ and ‘communification’ as two major symptoms. The first refers to “an almost complete obsession with marketing tactics at the expense of diagnosis and listening and understanding the market.” In short, they favour tactics over strategic thinking.

It’s fine for brands to be on digital platforms like TikTok, he says, but without a clear strategy – “and I don't think most CMOs, never mind most marketers, know how to do that anymore” – they are failing to address the bigger picture.

The second is the tendency in many companies to only talk about advertising within a marketing mix that should also embrace things like price, distribution, product development, customer experience. “But no, we focus on the most superficial, and I’d argue, probably the least important one of the mix, which is communication.”

He points to McKinsey research which suggested that when marketers aren’t involved in pricing, “we drastically underprice 80% to 90% of the time – so there’s money right there being left on the table”.

And he adds a third “circle of hell” –  the preoccupation of companies “in the grip of middle-aged marketing myopia” with digital communications at the expense of other media.

As to why the industry finds itself in this state, one reason is that it’s because it has developed ideas above its station. Twenty or more years ago “marketers were aware that they were relatively unimportant people” but ones who fulfilled an important role in greasing the wheels of business.

But now?  “We’re an inflated discipline, full of CMOs trying to fix the world rather than do what they’re supposed to do”. There is, he asserts, “a big pomposity factor” at work, as marketers are no longer satisfied by the essentials of the discipline – listening to customers, giving them a good product or service and turning a profit – but are instead looking for other “cool” things that aren’t actually part of marketing.

Worse, they believe that brands are actually important. “They’re not,” says an exasperated Ritson.

“The only way to understand brands properly is to realise that they play a tiny little role in consumers’ lives.” If marketers were able to appreciate that, he maintains, they could do a better job of growing their brands rather than mistakenly thinking that brands are somehow always top of mind for consumers.

And so back to relationship counselling and the disconnect between what marketers are doing and what consumers think. An already tricky picture has been further complicated by the developments of the past year.

The boost given to e-commerce and digital platforms during the pandemic is further tilting the balance away from the big-picture approach that Ritson advocates as marketers have scrambled to respond to fast-changing circumstances.

WARC’s new white paper, Rethinking brand for the rise of digital commerce, highlights several of the issues involved. Namely, how digital platforms are blurring the lines between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ investment and how long-held assumptions about the roles of ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ media (effectively mirroring brand and performance) are realigning for a future in which algorithms and walled gardens will be increasingly prominent.

That future is hurtling down the track. The marketers who escape a midlife crisis will be those who keep an eye on the big picture, because that new “cool” thing today won’t stay cool for long.

Watch Mark Ritson at Cannes Lions Live. WARC subscribers can read the white paper here (non-subscribers can download it here).