Beware Of Marketing Gurus

Mark RitsonJune 24, 20093 min

Marketing is possibly the most widely misunderstood business topic in the managerial world today.

The problem of marketing ignorance stems not from the difficulty of the topic. After all, marketing at its core is just about as simple as it gets. The problem is that to understand what a concept like marketing means is one thing, to actually apply the marketing principle to your day to day business life is an altogether more difficult challenge.

So, in brief. The philosophy of marketing revolves around a single, strikingly obvious idea. That idea is that we find out what people want before we start making and selling it….and yet when push comes to shove, they will continue to completely ignore the voice of the consumer when they actually make strategic decisions.

How can we account for this glaring mismatch of theory and practice?

Many managers seem to mistake market orientation for marketing orientation. Yes, there is a difference. In the former case, managers find out what the consumer thinks about their products and services. In the latter, the manager asks the marketing department what they think and they answer for the market. In doing so they demonstrate the presence of marketing gurus, possibly one of the most pernicious problems in the marketing world.

There are no gurus in marketing. To be a guru suggests you have immense knowledge, knowledge that can answer the strategic questions that a firm encounters. In marketing the last thing we need is a guru who thinks he or she knows what the market wants. The fact that they work for the company producing the product means they are just about the last person on earth who is likely to know how the customer is thinking.

The minute you sign up to work for a company you have also signed away any remaining sense of customer orientation. You are no longer a consumer, you are a producer. Producer and consumer may see the same product before them but the personal significance of that product could not be more different.

The customer sees toothpaste. The brand manager sees the toothpaste too. But while the consumer then sees fewer trips to the dentist, clean teeth and fresh breath, the brand manager sees her career, her company car, her future social standing and perhaps her pension plan. When a manager/guru confidently describes what the customer wants they are actually simply describing what they assume/hope/imagine the customer wants.

One of the most humbling experiences for managers is to ask them how they think the customer thinks and then take them out onto the street to actually find out. The results are always revelatory. Another is to point out, in a room filled with senior marketing managers from a leading Wall Street bank, that not a single person in the room (barring yours truly) has ever had to actually purchase a mortgage because the bank provided them as a perk.

At Business School we train our marketing rookies to avoid this potential pothole by instilling in them a single, simple phrase that wards off marketing guruism. That phrase is: ” I am a tool”. We make them say it over and over until our lecture halls resonate to the sound of it. Typically, our MBAs spend the summer in internships with big blue chip organizations and, equally typically, some of them are asked by their managers to take a look at the latest company advertising, packaging, branding, price levels. They have MBAs in marketing after all – who better to suggest a strategic direction.

It is in these situations that our MBAs, or at least the ones who have been paying attention, raise their hand meekly and declare: “I am just a tool”. A tool that connects market with manufacturer. A tool that avoids speaking for the market and instead goes out to the customer to get real, lived consumer perspective. A tool that then brings that information back into the organization and uses it to influence decision making.

No gurus. The only gurus in marketing are fools. Its all about tools. Different tools of course for different jobs. Sometimes you need a very powerful tool. Sometimes a very cost efficient one. Sometimes one that gets the job done super fast. Sometimes one that uses quantitative data. Sometimes one that uses qualitative data. But always a tool.

So repeat after me. What am I?

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Mark Ritson


  • Nerida Murphy

    June 24, 2009 at 2:31 am

    I completely disagree with your take on Marketing Guru’s – marketing professionals are never “removed” from the consumer space – at the end of the day we are all consumers. The main difference is that marketing personnel have unique insights into why, how and when consumers purchase. If you don’t then change jobs.What you’re actually describing is the difference between a true marketing guru and someone who is a poor marketer who claims the title. These types of people are not just limited to marketing – but to all careers and management levels. Further I disagree with your “tool” comment – marketing requires creativity you can have all (or claim to have all) the marketing insights in the world, but if you can’t utilise that information in a meaningful way that makes a difference to both your bottom line and your customers again – change jobs!

  • T.M. Harris

    June 24, 2009 at 10:25 am

    It sounds like this guy got screwed over by a ‘Marketing Guru’ in the past.

    Honestly, I don’t buy your whole article at all, bro.

    I AM NOT A TOOL! I am a human being! To subject myself to admitting I’m a tool, is nothing more than self-belittlement, and I refuse to subject myself to that.

    There ARE marketing gurus who can truly research and understand what a market wants. The GURUS you’re talking about just don’t give a damn about the market, and have no interest in truly researching it to their fullest potential.

    You get a D+ for effort, but I’m not buying it, bro.

  • Tom Brzezina

    June 24, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Marketing professionals who believe they can still see things from the consumers point of view are extremely dangerous. First, for the reason you mention in your post—our perception is skewed by our profession. Second, no matter how objective we try to be, our point of view is always subjective. There’s a strong tendency in all of us to assume that others believe, feel, and prefer as we do. Social psychologists call this tendency the false-consensus effect. Until you go “out in the street to find out”, there is really only one thing you know for sure about the consumer: he or she is not you.

  • Peter Korchnak

    June 24, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Yes, do beware of marketing gurus, especially those that call themselves that. But, if you’ll think of yourself as a tool, a tool you shall be.

    I’d be curious to hear how many students walk out during the “I am a tool” exercise, whose resemblance to the military’s suppression of the individual is uncanny. If no student walks out, marketing is doomed.

  • mark ritson

    June 24, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Great discussion – but I have to say that only Tom really gets it. Our individual experiences are very dangerous as any kind of barometer for marketing strategy. First because we are fundamentally biased by crossing the threshold from being a consumer to becoming part of the organization. How many bad marketers have I met who are bad because their skewed perception drives all their insights. Even if we weren’t biased (and we are) you represent a single kind of consumer – and usually there are multiple segments in any market all with very different perspectives.

    And Nerida, oh my! There are two classic mistakes from marketers who don’t get marketing. One of them is that marketing is a funademantally creative challenge. Nonsense. If you are doing marketing right you are insightful, inspired, analytical, rational and strategic. But you are not creative.

    I work with 2 or 3 of the most creative brands in the world and with their superb marketers and none of us do creative stuff. Marketers analyze, understand and strategize. And then, and this is where you really need to pay careful attention, you learn to brief the creative people.

    Creativity is something marketers do awfully (the ignorant ones think they do it well). You hire a great creative agency or a great creative director to do this part for you. The big skill for marketers to learn is how to brief. I spent 3 days working with senior executives here in Europe to help them brief creative people (we use Parsons when we do this in the US, and St martins in Europe) in the right way.

    I totally respect your viewpoint Nerida. But asking me to switch jobs is a bit much. I think you need to step back. You are sounding very guru like.

    Tom gets it. I get it. The rest of you guys are dangerously off the pace. And that ratio of 2/5 marketers who get it is about right for our whole industry.

  • Brandon R Allen

    June 24, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Beware of a “guru” in any space quite frankly. The word is way overused and has lost it’s meaning whether it’s in marketing or some other industry. The people who have a problem with this article currently have the word guru somewhere in their professional bio.

  • Burak Babacan

    August 14, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Marketing guru qualifications : Mind reading and fortune telling.

    A guru is perceived as “the reader of the minds of consumers/customers” in a dynamic way as he is always up to date and accurate.
    He knows what customer wants & needs.

    Also he is a “fortune teller”, as he is able to say the future behavior of individuals and markets. He can spot the trends and evolving behaviors before they exist.
    He knows what customers will want and need in the future.

    From my experience, I can tell that you cant read minds. You can observe and try to make an educated guess. Still it is a guess.

    Future trends can be spotted easily when you are looking backwards. After they have happened, it is always obvious that such a trend would emerge. So, if someone is trying to explain to you the future by explaining past, forget about it.

    I think we should humble ourselves and admit that we know nothing. I always start with the assumption that I know nothing about my customer. From that point, slowly and meticulously, I try to make my educated guesses.

    For trends, best is to make a scenario analysis. Lots of brainstorming and alternative realities. Who knows, maybe we will spot one.

  • Della Kabza

    March 12, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Do be weary of anyone that says he knows what the consumer needs, want’s or will buy especially a marketing professional. Our view is certainly biased to say the least. I agree with Brad that we are “tools”. Anything else would be narcasisstic. We are talking about MARKETING. This not to say we don’t have our own identity and are soldiers but instead to say there is a distinct break between who we are marketing to and trying to sell and leaving our personna out of the equation. Della Kabza

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