‘I’m not TV’s bitch’: Mark Ritson on silencing digital critics with YouTube pump; mini-MBA tops 30,000 alumni, revenues circa $60m, new programs to launch
It's almost six years ago to the day Mark Ritson carpet-bombed digital marketing in his Marketing Deconstructed lectures for the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), calling digital video a "tsunami of horse shit". It electrified the debate between digital marketers obsessed by channel tactics and the loss of overall strategic thinking in marketing and prompted an army of digital critics accusing Ritson of being on the take from broadcasters – a claim he counters with not ever receiving a dime from the TV sector. Then, last month, Ritson appeared to flip his alleged allegiance to TV, fronting a “Long and Short of It” series for YouTube, featuring CMOs from Optus and Menulog singing YouTube’s praises. Has he now sold out to the media-tech titan too? Here’s Ritson’s take.
I threatened to sue someone who suggested that I only talked about TV because they were paying me.
What you need to know:
After a long, bearish view on digital video’s effectiveness, Mark Ritson launched a series for YouTube last month with CMOs from Optus and Menulog talking up the merits of the platform.
He says he took no money from YouTube for the series and the same goes for TV, despite his critics saying he was on the take from broadcasters.
Ritson remains resolute that TV has been the greatest advertising medium ever, and will not be replaced as its slow audience decline continues.
YouTube is a reach filler and like linear and online broadcast, can do a job generating both tactical, short-term demand and longer-term brand building.
His mini-MBA program over the past five years has topped 30,000 alumni, is growing at 30 per cent and is set for further global expansion.
When Mark Ritson fronted 400-plus marketers in Telstra’s ampitheatre for the AANA’s “Marketing Deconstructed” lectures in 2016 and called out digital video as a “tsunami of horse shit”, it was one of the first serious, uncompromising challenges by anyone to the hitherto unquestioning global stampede to digital and social media platforms.
“Media neutrality…” he told the twitchy Australian audience. “It’s hard for those of you who have Facebook or Google sitting around the corporate table advising you on the overall strategy. It’s hard for them to be media neutral.”
At the time, it was reputational suicide for a marketer to question digital media’s metrics and efficacy. But Ritson’s brutal takedown of digital marketing’s excesses created a simmering underground of critics that accused him of being on the take from broadcasters.
Last month’s launch of YouTube’s “Long and Short” series featuring CMOs at Optus (Mel Hopkins) and Menulog (Simon Cheng) should silence some of Ritson’s detractors. So, is he now being paid by YouTube and what of those rumblings of being on TV’s payroll?
“I threatened to sue someone who suggested that I only talked about TV because they were paying me,” Ritson told Mi3 recently in an interview about co-authoring a Better Briefs best practice guide for marketers, which was based on the “most scary and remarkable data” he’d ever seen. “I said ‘they don't pay me, I believe in it’. And his retort was, ‘well, you should tell everyone you're not being paid by the TV lobbying industry to make your point’. By that definition, if I went to a dinner party, when I walk in the door, I should say that I'm not having sex with anyone's partner.”
So no money from broadcasters then, what about YouTube?
“Yeah, apparently I’m taking YouTube's money instead, which of course I'm not. Because – and this is amazing to most people who work in marketing – I am my own man,” he said. “I did all of that [YouTube] shit for free. But I believe YouTube has a role to fill within the TV world. I'm still a huge fan of TV and to be honest, I got called out by YouTube. I judged their awards two years ago and I said back to them that it was shit, the clients weren't very good. And they held me accountable to it – they said, ‘well, you'll have to come and explain why and how we can do it better. And so I found myself there for four days swinging my arms up in a studio talking to clients who do get it," said Ritson. "So, I'm a fan as you know of TV, there's no superior medium. I like a bit of YouTube in amongst my TV – and I see no reason why most marketers shouldn't do both.”
Ritson remains resolute that TV as an advertising medium for audience size, fast reach, creativity and context will never be matched – but it is on a slow decline.
“I think what you're seeing is a feeding frenzy because there is a gap and everyone's jumping into it, but not necessarily to their own benefit.”
And what about his long and loud warnings about rubbery platform metrics and them marking their own homework around audience measurement and impact? Has he seen new data that prompted his about-turn for YouTube?
"No, to be honest I'm less intrigued by the tactical measures, I'm more intrigued by the client response, both soft and hard, right. So when Mel Hopkins from Optus says she loves what YouTube has done for the brand building campaign ... I buy it," said Ritson.
"I don't think it's all that it’s cracked up to be but I don't think TV is either. Everybody manages to overstate their growth to some degree but no, I'm minded by the strategic stuff and the clients that have said we like what it does. YouTube definitely has limitations. The reason I was so keen on doing those case studies – and I think we might do some more – is clients that get the idea that you actually want to split things up and that you do want to use YouTube. But you want to use it differently for either of those long or short objectives. I find that fascinating, that's really right up my street. So that was my attraction to it.”
So YouTube is no different to the arguments from TV and on-demand broadcaster video (BVOD) – that the channel can do a job on both short-term demand generation and longer-term brand building?
“Absolutely,” said Ritson. “There's a few technical issues with BVOD as we know, but yeah, the principles remain the same for me. In the long brand-building game, YouTube is frankly a demographic filler. TV remains the king or queen, but there are demographic gaps, as we know, and we do need to fill them for better reach. YouTube does that nicely but it doesn't beat TV," he added.
"On the shorter term, yes, it's a fantastic short-term, more targeted medium where we can reach out and activate people quickly with video. Again, it's not perfect, but those two things, particularly in the power of video, is something that I think more clients could harness. So, yeah, I'm certainly playing YouTube's bow at the moment. I do genuinely believe in it. It's not the only medium. I think TV has its magic still, the greatest of all time. But whenever you take some money out of a TV ad budget and put it into YouTube, you get about a 35 per cent bump in your metrics.”
More broadly, Ritson’s post-academic career running his mini-MBA program is going gangbusters around the world. Ritson said in the past five years 30,000 people had gone through the program, which by Mi3’s calculations at circa $2000 per person equates to $60 million in revenues.
The Tasmanian-based Ritson now has a London-based team running the program and now needs to increase headcount as his course intake lifts 30 per cent this year. He’s also working on new programs for those that have completed the mini-MBA.
“We hit 30,000 alumni this year, so really my life is mini-MBA based now, and that's fine with me. We're still growing about 30 per cent. I think we’re in about 60 countries now and we're still growing with an NPS of plus-80. We'll do about 6,000 a year. The average age is 41, so they're senior. It works really well but we're starting to roll out new stuff in the coming years because we got 30,000 alumni who want more,' said Ritson.
"So we have significant production going on for new stuff for marketers that will roll out now. It's great. It's too much for me to handle. I think we have nine people working on it full time in London and we'll expand it again at Christmas. So, yeah, we're a little company with a very large top line.”
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