The phrase ‘that might work in practice, but does it work in theory?’ is invariably attributed to economists.

Unfortunately, the theoretical aspect is also what holds precedence in marketing degrees in many of our universities. In an article on Medium in 2016, Tribefire founder Daniel Palmer described studying marketing at university as “a frustrating waste of time”. When he was asked “Hey mate, you’re studying marketing at uni. Can you help me with my business?” he realised the answer was no.

I had a similar experience to Palmer. About 10 years ago, swotting my way through a very textbook-heavy MBA, it dawned on me that none of the marketing books I was reading bore any resemblance to my real-world marketing career and it was almost impossible for me to explain to my fellow students (who had no marketing background) why this was so.

Despite having actual marketing experience, as well as an undergraduate degree, a post-graduate masters and a soon-to-be MBA, I could barely help one of my fellow students with his startup. What he needed was customers – now. He needed SEO, copywriting, online lead generation – none of which was discussed in our MBA, laden as it was with case-studies on US and European blue-chip brands. A few years later my friend had created a business with millions in revenues – sadly, with no help from me.

Universities are like the Catholic Church

Peter Thiel, legendary contrarian and early-stage investor is even more pointed about university, comparing universities to the Catholic church 500 years ago: “People thought they could only get saved by going to the Catholic church, just like people today believe that salvation involves getting a college diploma. And if you don’t get a college diploma that you’re going to go to hell.”

So where does this whole idea that theoretical is better that practical come from? In the mid 19th century, Cardinal Thomas Henry Newman wrote about the ‘The Idea of a University’. He believed that narrow minds were born of narrow specialisation and suggested that students should be given a solid grounding in all areas of study. Now, I am going to go out on a limb here, but I would suggest that the sort of person going to university in the 1850s was not facing the milk round or, for that matter, student loan debt.

However, I have sympathy with both Palmer’s and Newman’s worldviews.


I have, as author Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls it, “skin in the game“.

I’ve been teaching classes on marketing – in particular digital marketing, 100-plus hours a year – since 2011 as well as programming a large marketing conference.

Guess what the students and attendees want? Practical, hands-on tools, tips and techniques, not theory. That’s why they are there.

The problem with the tools, tips and techniques approach

But there is a problem with this ‘tools, tips and techniques’ approach. In every single one of my classes, which are mostly filled with marketing professionals, I see a lack of understanding of some key tenets of strategy and marketing. Take, for example, the work on strategy and competitive advantage by Harvard Professor Michael Porter, or on positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

I don’t get many hands in the air when I ask who has read these. The startup world, in particular, is littered with crackpot ideas and a two-minute skim of Porter, Ries and Trout would save a lot of heartache.

Similarly, a basic understanding of economics – scarcity, substitutes, switching costs, externalities, perfect and imperfect competition, oligopolies – really help you create both strategy and tactics. If you understand oligopolies, you will quickly understand that the notion of customer centricity might not need to be that high on your list of priorities. Having market power means you can say ‘no’ to lots to things that the rest of us who work in competitive industries have to say ‘yes’ to.

If you don’t believe this compare exhibit A, the big banks, and exhibit B, food retail. Cost of switching their choice of food retailer for consumers: pretty much zero. Cost of switching banks: I will let you be the judge of that.

Nevertheless, as a teacher, I also understand that teaching practical tactics like SEO is very challenging: developing and teaching a usable and repeatable technique takes a lot of effort by the instructors. A personal insight here: all my classes have to be updated every quarter. Try updating a three-hour class every quarter – it’s a lot of heavy lifting.

The Total Change in the ‘Theoretical v Practical’ Discussion

But perhaps we are about to see a total change in the ‘theoretical versus practical’ discussion. All work in the future will be challenged by the rise of the robots. Machine intelligence and automation has already reached manual work, and the professions that were considered impossible to automate – like law, financial services, product design, education and health – are now being eroded. We are now seeing something unprecedented, so maybe the discussions around ‘theoretical versus practical’ are just discussions looking in the rear view mirror and projecting a possible future from an interpretation of the present.

Most university courses are based on teaching knowledge. But with Google search on every smartphone, we’re rapidly approaching the era of abundant knowledge – a time when you can know anything you want, anywhere you want, any time you want.

As author, entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis says, in the future it’s not “what you know” but rather “the quality of the questions you ask” that will be most important.

With the rise of the robots purportedly taking our jobs, the more we can get comfortable with uncertainty, the better off we are. Uncertainty is a more accurate representation of the world – things aren’t always going to work out. You can make the best decision in the world, and it can go awry. You can make the worst decision ever, and it can go just fine.

And which capabilities enable us to frame good quality questions and be comfortable with uncertainty? So-called ‘soft skills’ such as emotional intelligence. Not something that is taught in university either.

So, where does this leave the teaching of marketing and the challenge of theory versus practice?

First, knowing the theory will become even more important. Learning a theory is more useful in the long run than learning a tactic. Once you know the theory or understand strategy and positioning, you can apply that knowledge again and again, with more ease each time. Frameworks and ideas and tools go in and out of style, but strategies rarely change and principles never change.

Second, the tactical aspects, such as SEO, will need to be embedded just as the practical aspects of any course are, but with the total understanding of the students that they are going to be updating those on regular basis for as long as they have career in marketing. The learning won’t stop the day they get their parchment.

Finally, learning the soft skills of marketing will become the thing that the student has to spend the most time on, as this is what that separates us from the robots and creates our own personal unique ability. Embedding the interpersonal skills, communication and natural curiosity needed to create a great career and a great life will become the real challenge for us all. And that is learned best of all in the university of life – a process you will have to undertake yourself.


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