How Mark Ritson found his voice

At an event to launch the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program Professor Mark Ritson explained how he had used the platform to gain wider exposure, and shared tips including when to swear, how to position yourself and how to take an enemy.

While Mark Ritson has made waves in the marketing community in recent months with some bold claims about the media and marketing industries, the contrarian professor from the Melbourne Business School has been quietly building his brand for many years.

One of the main platforms he has been using to do that is LinkedIn, where he has built a following of more than 15,000 followers and has developed a writing style that provokes a strong reaction to his posts, but displays his opinions honestly.

Mark Ritson: “Every comma you use tells me you’re not focussed”

He admits his diverse background is probably an advantage to him on the LinkedIn platform, although for his early career as a business academic he was fairly quiet.

“That part of my life means I was part of a silent, largely irrelevant group. And if you think of the place where business academics are right now it’s in a very tough place because we used to own a bit of the turf and we kind of don’t any more,” he says.

“We’re kind of out of it, and while marketing is going through all these changes professors are not saying anything of any use. There are a few exceptions like Byron Sharp, but most of us are quiet.”

And while he also has some content and profile through weekly columns he writes in Marketing Week in the UK and The Australian locally, he explains: “While I can repost this on LinkedIn some of my better hits have been organic stuff independent of that.”

Avoiding the curse of ‘profile wank’

While Ritson used the LinkedIn platform to engage with former students for many years, he admits he had some concerns with the platform initially that “stopped me going any deeper into it”.

Ritson warns people using LinkedIn to avoid ‘profile wank’

He described the first problem as “profile wank”, pointing out examples of people who list multiple disciplines such as ‘writer, speaker, illustrator, marketer’ on their profile.

He explains: “It annoys and bemuses me this shit, what’s your job? Every comma you use tells me you’re not focussed.”

The next he describes as the “backslash multitasker”.

“The first thing you learn on an MBA program is strategy is what you don’t do. Anyone who does ‘Senior executive digital | Product Marketing | Customer Experience’ you know what, they don’t do any of those well. They do them all really badly.”

Then there’s the “pro conference speaker”. “I do a lot of conference speaking, but anyone who says they are a pro conference speaker should immediately disqualify themselves from speaking at conferences as there aren’t that many conferences out there to speak at and it doesn’t pay that well,” he adds.

But he says the worst group are the ‘contradiction in terms’. “If someone says they are an ‘experienced account manager’ you know they’re worried they don’t have enough experience. Or if they say ‘I’m a results oriented or innovative’ we know they are not particularly results oriented or innovative in their approach. You can’t claim this shit, it’s like saying ‘trust me’. You have to earn that, someone else has to say that about you.”

The risks of personal branding and the value of swearing

Inevitably, Ritson admits, a platform like LinkedIn is about enhancing your personal brand, but he also warns against changing what you stand for.

He explains: “As a branding professor I have a little trouble with personal branding, there’s a lot of merit in it and a little risk in taking the strategic approaches we use to sell products and apply them to humans. I think something is lost when we take the principals we use to sell products and use them to sell people.”

He explains that while the industry positions brands based around what the customer wants, and what we can deliver better than or different from the competition.

“So the issue with personal branding is clearly you want to position yourself based on what your customers want, and against competitors,” he adds. “But the minute you start changing yourself and your personality and viewpoint fits on personal brand position something has been lost there, and that’s authenticity.

“Don’t change yourself.”

That then reaches into the kind of words you use when you’re crafting content to sit on the platform.

While some people take offence and criticise Ritson for his use of swear words in his presentations and his written pieces, he says that is part of what makes him successful, as it is him being authentically Mark Ritson.

“I’m not saying you should say fuck or bollocks or piss in your posts, but I do, and I do it not because I want to impress people by saying fuck, but for the simple reason that it’s how I fucking speak when I talk to marketers, and that’s how they speak to me.”

He uses the example of Labor leader Bill Shorten, saying while he’s probably a “very good man”: “Every time he speaks I have one recurring thought, and that’s you’re such a fucking phoney.

“If he just talked like he normally talks in the pub he’d get about 40% more of the vote. I think someone has told him he needs to talk like that, but that’s missing the point.”

Similarly Ritson encourages people to learn from the writing and thoughts of others being shared on the platform.

“To my own personal surprise I started to say that’s interesting, and it’s become my main source of insights for people I like, respect, hate, and it’s become my main portal in a very busy world,” he says of the platform.

‘The way you market this stuff is important’

He points to examples of work he has shared on the platform which he feels is some of his best, “solid gold”, but failed to gain as much traction as he hoped. And the reason for it is, he admits, poor headlines and featured images.

Two of Ritson’s best posts which he said he messed up with weak headlines and imagery

However he points to his most successful post, one rebuffing comments from Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted which has had more than 30,000 views, saying he got the image and headline right.

Ritson held up this post as an example of getting the headline and image right

“He said something really stupid about TV advertising and not doing it anymore, so I got a picture of him looking Danish and superior, and a headline ‘Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong about Digital’ and it worked beautifully.

“But I think it comes from not that interesting a piece of content, it’s not that good of a post from me, but I think it captured two things. It had a great title, and it took an enemy.

“Not Kasper himself, I went to great lengths to explain I think he’s a good man, but the belief that TV is dead.”

‘If someone accuses you of click bait, you’re winning’

He points to the fact the Adidas piece which garnered 194 comments as a success in terms of engaging people on the platform in a debate.

However some of those comments Ritson gets accuse him of creating click bait content, something he wears like a badge of honour.

One, from AHG CMO Jag Sanger, starts with: “I get the Ritson brand – fact free provocation. Anecdote as analysis. Never owned an ad budget. Get it. Great entertainment in a trollingly click bait kind of way.“

The comment from Jag Sanger

Ritson explains the average length of a comment on the post is 280 words, with Sanger’s post 110 words itself.

“There’s two types of click bait, there’s one that has a title and no content to back it up, and there’s the other which is having a great title which pulled me in and then I read the post and now I disagree with you. That’s not click bait, that’s pulling someone in to have a debate with you, which I think is a sweet spot we should aim for.”

“If you go through the comments 30 support me, 38 are neither and 32 think I’m a tosser, and that’s the magic ratio I think. That’s when a debate it bigger than your own.”

But he warns there does need to be value in the content to merit the debate in the first place, urging people to make sure they pull out an insight or something no-one else has been talking about within the content.

Going through his past posts he says he stands by the claims made in them, as truly held beliefs which make his content more authentic.

Pointing to a recent post claiming the UK Conservative party would win the general election there with Facebook ads (they lost seats and were forced to form a minority government), he admits “you have to be prepared for people to bag you out when you call it”.

Staying on the value of comments to any post Ritson points to another of his recent articles, which newsjacked the Oscars controversy when an error by PWC led to the wrong winner being announced for the Best Picture gong, which garnered several comments.

In particular he singled out one which read: “What’s more concerning to me is how quickly Deloitte threw an employee under the bus. There was no reason to name the person. That’s finger pointing which is not a demonstration of leadership. Acknowledging the error and review of policies is adequate.”

Another commenter then points out: “See you just proved Mark Ritson’s point. You got the BRAND NAME wrong. Poor Deloitte.”

Ritson explains: “Here this is better than anything I could have written to make the point.”

Take an enemy, and choose some friends

Ritson says while brands in other parts of the world have been built by taking a position as being the opposite of one of its competitors, it is not happening as much in Australia,

But he explains it is one of the best ways to assert who you are on a platform like LinkedIn.

“It’s very important to be aggressive and go after a topic, but to play the ball, not the man,” he says.

“Go after the topic, make it clear it’s not the person you are going after and it’s important to call that out, then use LinkedIn to engage them.”

To illustrate this he uses the example of his post about how many of the top 24 CMOs to follow actually don’t have any marketing training, and how he thinks that is not a good thing.

“I wrote this post and I sent it to them all on LinkedIn. I got so much abuse, that idea that gurus in marketing should have training in marketing was anathema to many people.”

However as important for Ritson is choosing people and issues to back, not just shoot down. He uses the example of his post backing P&G marketer Mark Pritchard’s address on the issues in digital marketing earlier this year.

“Putting your support for people you love, sharing their material and saying ‘he’s on it’ is just as important as being negative.”

And then there are times when you can do both. For this post he points to the post contracting the actions of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and Tesla boss Elon Musk, and how their differing actions towards issues showed their differing leadership abilities.

“Make friends and respectful enemies is important, there’s too much ‘he’s right’ and ‘I support that view’, let’s disagree in a respectful way cus there’s shit going on right now we need to talk about,” he says.


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