Teaching marketing

Recently, the Alumni Association of IIM Bangalore had invited alumni to give interviewing practice to second year students at the institute. This was in an attempt to help them prepare for their “final” placements that are coming up in March. With a view towards brushing up my interviewing skills (haven’t interviewed anyone for close to three years now) and also to check out the kind of people that go to IIM nowadays I decided to volunteer. And ended up interviewing some five or six people.

I had told the organizers that I’d be interviewing for a hypothetical job in my firm and that they should preferably send students with an inclination for “quant” and for consulting. Perhaps there was a mismatch in communication, and perhaps I sent my “requirements” too late, but it so happened that at least half the people who came to were “majoring” in marketing (nowadays they’ve introduced the “major-minor” system at IIMB. If you do five electives from one “area” you “major” in that. Three electives from an “area” gets you a minor. There is no compulsion to either major or minor, though).

Given that the questions that I’d prepared were inclined towards interviewing for a quant/consulting/analytics kind of role (basically whatever I currently do in my “job”), I decided to not veer too far from that while teaching these people. To each of them I put forth a “case”, where the central problem was marketing-related but needed numbers to “solve”. In fact, I made up the case on the spot after one of these students told me he had interned at an e-commerce firm.

So I told them that they are the marketing manager of an e-commerce firm and the firm has launched a few advertising campaigns and now needs to test the effectiveness of such campaigns. I asked them how they would measure this.

Given that they might have just about started off practicing for their placements, I realized they didn’t have much expertise doing “case interviews”, and so tried to help them navigate the case. So for each of them I started by asking them what kind of metric they would use for measuring the effectiveness of the campaigns. And this is the stage that each of their “interviews” came unstuck.

Incredibly, each of them independently started off with “we will first understand what segment this campaign is targeted at”. And then their process of measurement involved identifying a sample of customers of this segment and then “measuring if they had got the intended message of the campaign”. When I told each of them that they weren’t allowed to do a survey, and added for good measure that a focus group discussion is also out of question, they all seemed absolutely lost. I couldn’t really proceed with their cases.

I find it incredible that the three of them (granted – small sample) who are second year students in one of India’s better business schools (at least I hope so) completely failed to imagine that the effectiveness of an advertising campaign can be measured in terms of “sales” or “website hits” or “click through rate” (depending upon the “intended message” of the campaign, one of these becomes the appropriate metric). It seemed to me that their management education had clouded their ability to think intuitively.

In my limited experience in interacting with marketers, I’ve found that a large number of them are fairly resistant to using numbers in their business, and speak in terms not fathomable to the common man (I once made the mistake of applying to a marketing analytics firm, and was promptly sent some questions about measurement of “brand feeling” and such like. I withdrew my application). The impression I get from my small sample is that marketers’ way of thinking is completely divorced from that of other people in business, and have always wondered about why this is. I had assumed it might be a function of getting ingrained into certain marketing jobs, but now it seems like this way of thinking is more deep-rooted.

I was taught core marketing by a somnolent professor who was renowned to be a “great marketer”. He clearly didn’t market marketing too well, for I didn’t take any marketing electives after that. However, I think I “get” related fields such as game theory and behavioural economics, and try to understand marketing using those frameworks. Usually it doesn’t take you too far in a conversation with marketers, though.

Based on my interactions with the three marketing major students I interviewed, it seems to me that something is wrong with marketing teaching, especially at IIMB. It seems to me that marketing is taught as a rule-based discipline, rather than based on first principles. Perhaps that is how recruiters of marketing majors want it to be like, but it seems like this kind of “education” is only going to create poor quality marketers.

PS: I admit to small sample bias, extrapolation and such like.

One thought on “Teaching marketing”

  1. That is pretty surprising. In my team, we do go to bschool campuses for hiring, and we do case interviews. And these are very similar to what you said, involve some hypothetical ecommerce site or marketing campaign and revolve a lot around metrics and numbers. Usually the students do okay, and the cream of the crop does pretty well.

    One reason could be that we go to bschools that are ranked 6-15 and they are lot more clued onto analytics. They have courses in data science, have analytics symposiums etc. Not sure if IIMB is doing all that. I remember a fairly mediocre set of statistics/OR courses in our time. Not sure if they have made any headway in this area.

    The other problem could be the ‘strategic mindset’ that some students think they should have. Basically ignore the data/details and share some random high level gyaan, similar to class CP. Corporate life is not going to be an easy ride…

    And yes, marketing professors do not understand data and statistics at all 🙂 They live in their ivory towers of 4Ps and 5Cs

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