For this Marketing Professor, Fundamentals Endure

The practice of marketing has evolved almost to the point of being unrecognizable from what it was 20 years ago. Whole new titles are circulating — Chief Customer Experience Officer? — and some experimental agencies even have machines doing creative. It is a strange time, and calls into question the future of marketing education. Or does it?

What better way to find out than by speaking with a professor who teaches marketing?

For DMN Career Week, I spoke with Andrea Bonezzi, assistant professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business.

Professor Bonezzi and I discussed the makeup of today’s marketing curriculum, how professors respond to massive paradigm shifts in the space, and the role AI and other machine learning applications play in classroom discussions.

(Perry Simpson) What’s going on with [today’s] young marketers? I talk to a lot of veterans, and they talk about shifts in the industry, and marketing being more data driven. What does that mean for the classroom? What are you imparting to your marketing students? How different is the education now versus when you were learning?

(Andrea Bonezzi) I teach the core marketing class, so actually my class covers a little bit of everything, but obviously other classes go much more in depth on things like data and analytics. I think not much has changed, yet a lot has changed. Meaning, the fundamental principles are still the principles that I studied 20 years ago.

As a marketer, you’re thinking more in terms of strategy. How do I position my brand? What does it stand for? How do I identify my targets? Hearing and understanding the voice of the customer. The fundamental principles are still very much there, it’s just the tools have changed. If you think about communication and persuasion, the fundamentals are still the same. It’s not like human beings have completely changed their nature and basic psychological motives. With respect to that, there’s definitely an emphasis these days on digital.

If you go back just 16 years, if you were a marketer and you had a big advertising budget, where would you spend it? Mostly TV. Nowadays, the very big spenders — depending on the industry, company, and brand — they spend more than half of their advertising on digital. Digital is overcoming TV. Of course, in the classroom, there’s a lot of talking about digital channels. Whether it is digital ads, or more social media, anything that is digital. [Digital] is where the emphasis on data is coming from.

It’s really the digital world that has brought in this huge amount of data that marketers can leverage. If you think about it though, marketers have always had a lot of data, especially in certain industries. It’s just that now the amount of data and information has become massive. Having at least some fundamental knowledge of how to handle that amount of data and how to interpret analysis [of that data] is important, because data speaks, and tells a truth that [may not] be true. Data can be interpreted and modeled any number of ways. As a marketer, even if you’re not the one with the skills to build the model, it’s important to have an understanding of what the models are doing.

One of the big topics right now seem to be around chatbots, AI, machine learning, all of that stuff. Is any of that creeping into the curriculum?

At the moment, we don’t necessarily have classes that focus exclusively on artificial intelligence, or anything that comes with it. However, they are definitely topics that are discussed in marketing classes.

Recently, especially after Pokémon Go, people are starting to discuss how companies and brands use augmented and virtual reality, and anything that is artificial intelligence to engage with customers, and to push toward whatever brand management goals they are trying to pursue. So, there are definitely discussions, but no classes that I’m aware of.

[Probably] because the moment you start digging deep into those topics the class quickly becomes an engineering class more than a marketing class, the more you dig deep into the technology in these applications. From a marketing standpoint, we’re talking more about how these technologies are used to engage with consumers, improve the customer experience, and change the way things are done, and where we’re going to go with those [changes]. But those are definitely hot topics, and the students are very interested and excited about anything that is current and digital.

Another thing that seems to happen every year, without fail, is there are one or two big [trends] like a Pokémon Go. These things seem to come out of nowhere. When you’re teaching, how do you respond to that kind of stuff?

It very much depends on the professor. There are professors that use more current topics as an opening for classes to foster discussion. Personally, I believe the fundamentals are what matter most, it’s important to understand how current examples are illustrative — in a good or bad way — of something that is fundamental. I do try to incorporate whatever is current in my classes, but I make an effort to link it to a fundamental we are discussing. Some [professors] choose to  incorporate current topics in a less structured way, which also has value because it fosters very diverse types of discussions in the classroom.

When you look back at your marketing education, is there anything that seems frustrating, for lack of a better word, about new aspiring marketers? Are there any common misconceptions that they come in with?

I wouldn’t call it a frustration, and of course, experiences are different across different schools and views on how to teach marketing. But definitely the perception, especially among young students [that I run into], is that marketing is all about advertising, consumer communication, and some kind of consumer psychology.

The way I teach is that, first and foremost as a marketer, you’re responsible for the P&L of your brand, the P&L of your product. So, really there’s a lot of financial decisions that you’re making as a marketer. I try to get students to think of themselves not only as marketers, but as entrepreneurs. As people who are managing a business. For sure there is going to be an aspect of communication, the aspect of understanding the psychology of consumers, the aspect of advertising, and all of those things. But besides that there are much more business-y aspects of your job.

At the end of the semester, I see students writing in their feedback that they approached marketing as a soft discipline that was mainly about communication and psychology, and by the end of the semester they realize that there is much more to it.

I also get them to work on a practical project. I partner with a company, and [the students] develop a complete marketing plan for one of its products. They go through that process of doing a complete marketing plan, which means doing the exercise of segmentation, targeting, positioning, and then doing the four P’s, and the tactics and all the things like communication, advertising, and so on. By doing the complete process, they do understand in the end that the part about communication and advertising is really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the most evident; it’s what gets the most attention because everybody can see that, but before you get to the comms there’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done that requires very different skills.

In terms of careers, [young students] sometimes think that if they get into marketing they’ll go into the advertising industry, and that’s not always true. You can definitely do that, but you can also go into market research. You can be a brand manager. You can become a product manager at more digitally focused companies. There’s all sorts of things you can do that aren’t necessarily closely related to advertising.

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