Blow-by-Blow: Ritson v. Sharp

31/10/2017

There are a number of ‘big names’ in the marketing industry, but they don’t get much bigger than Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp.
 
Marketing Week columnist Ritson is a marketing professor who is rarely shy of proffering a ‘colourfully articulated’ opinion on his field. Whether it’s championing zero-based budgeting or pillorying the Adidas marketing director for crimes against media neutrality, he doesn’t hold back. Sharp, also a professor of marketing and author of the seminal ‘How Brands Grow’ books, is similarly outspoken, with empirical evidence backing him up to boot. He’s the leading figure at South Australia University’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute – the global centre of excellence for taking an evidence-based approach to marketing effectiveness.
 
The similarities don’t stop at their professions and plain-spoken candour either: they’re both expats in Australia, for example. But where they do differ is in their opinions on segmentation and audience targeting. Put simply: Sharp is largely against a surgical approach to reaching a brand’s audience, with his number one rule being that brands should “continuously reach all buyers of the category”; Ritson favours a more nuanced approach.
 
Over the years sparring between Ritson and Sharp has become something of a spectator sport. Fast forward to London’s Festival of Marketing, held earlier this month, and the audience was blessed with ‘Ritson v Sharp’ in the ring, with an eager crowd baying for marketing blood. Ritson went first. Left hook: “Sharp has a childlike focus on science”. Right hook: “We don’t study rocks, we study people.” Alongside noting that truly mass marketing is out of reach for most businesses, his most pointed argument was that Sharp “believes in salience and distinctiveness, because that’s all you really can stand for if you go after everyone”.
 
Up then stepped Sharp. Clearly a little tired of being typecast but revved up by the left and right hook, his opening salvo was an uppercut: “You tell everyone what Byron Sharp says. I have the advantage in that I am Byron Sharp.” Kapow! Responding to Ritson’s “childlike” jibe, he said: “Scientists are people who have a sense of wonder, who go out into the real world and are humble enough to say we don’t know everything about the world.”
 
As Sam Peña-Taylor observes in his full blow-by-blow account on WARC, it was – just about – a win for Ritson, with the crowd nodding in agreement. Whilst Sharp has empirical evidence, his focus often feels a little narrow. Ritson is more open to a range of ideas, which rather contradicts Sharp’s point about his sense of wonder. The reality is that this was always going to be a battle more civil than royale. In Ritson’s own words: “The real gift of Sharp and his Ehrenberg-Bass Institute was to catch the helium balloon of bullshit that marketing was becoming… the contributions are not necessarily new or sexy, but my goodness they have been essential.” Quite.
 
At the7stars we’re effectiveness obsessed. And our own evidence tells us that rigorous strategy and proper comms planning ensure that both mass marketing and a more targeted approach deliver results for our clients. Like Ritson said, it’s not gin or tonic, it’s gin and tonic.

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