Understanding Marketing’s Midlife Crisis: A Q+A with Mark Ritson

The acceleration of digital technology over the last decade has revolutionised the world of advertising – and forced many marketers to question their existence. In this Q+A, Mark Ritson, marketing consultant and founder of The Mini MBA of Marketing, tells Mark Holden, PHD’s WW CSO, why the industry is currently suffering from a midlife crisis, and how it can pull through.

Mark Holden: Mark, why do you think the marketing industry is in some form of marketing midlife crisis?

Mark Ritson: We’ve had a midlife crisis for quite a long time. I think it’s caused by, ironically, not the middle-aged people in the discipline, but the young people. They are far more susceptible to nonsensical thinking than older, more experienced marketers.

MH: Ok, what are the symptoms?

MR: The symptoms are pretty obvious and they’re all around us.  I made up two words a few years ago to describe them, and they’re comms-y words, but good ones.

The first symptom is ‘tactification’ – an almost complete obsession with marketing tactics at the expense of diagnosis and listening and understanding the market; and at the expense of more strategic thinking first. All we ever talk about is tactics.

The second word is ‘communification’, which means, not only do we only really talk about tactics; we only really talk about advertising within the mix of all the different tactics. We could talk about price or distribution or product, but no, we focus on the most superficial and the important but least important one of the mix, which is ‘communification’ and a focus on comms.

Then, one more circle of hell, an obsession with digital communications at the expense of the rest of it or whatever we want to call it. Again, digital is about half the pie, we need to talk about it, but you’ll notice it gets obsessed upon, especially in companies that are now in the grip of middle-aged marketing myopia.

MH: What do you think are some of the more worrying practices that have emerged from this crisis? What are the things that might be causing serious financial damage to businesses?

MR: First, there’s this belief that brands are important. But they’re not; brands are little, little things. You’ve got a generation of marketers now who think they’re having an impact on society when in reality, the only way to understand brands properly is to realise they play a tiny little role in consumers’ lives.

That’s not a depressing thought, it’s a realistic thought, and it enables us to do a much better job, ironically, of growing brands than if you think a brand is some big important thing that’s always the top-of-mind thing for consumers. So that’s a big one.

Another big problem we’ve got is because marketers are now just basically advertising people. A lot of the more important parts of marketing -- and I would highlight customer experience, pricing, and product development -- are no longer part of the marketing remit in a lot of companies.

MH: But don’t those responsibilities still exist in some companies?

MR: In some companies, yes, but if you look at your average company now, marketers would not be invited to get involved in pricing, partly because the company doesn’t realise it’s a marketing thing. I think that’s a big loss because if you look at the history of pricing, when we don’t have marketers at the pricing party we drastically under-price -- 80-90% of the time, according to McKinsey -- so there’s money right there that’s being left on the table. That’s a huge one as well.

I’d say generally the big one for me, the big miss, is marketing strategy. So, when we don’t have a strategy, we just have jingly-jangly tactics, and we’re essentially missing, I think, most of the impact that marketing can have. You know, it’s great that you’re on TikTok, but unless you’ve got a clear strategy -- and I think most CMOs, never mind most marketers, don’t know how to do that anymore -- I think you’re missing the big part of the pie.


After such a dramatic amount of change, it is understandable why marketers are suffering from a midlife crisis. But if you are feeling this way, don’t worry; just read Shift: A Marketing Rethink, PHD’s latest book.

 Click here to buy a copy.