An American visionary

A former Harvard professor plans to help Oxford University reinvent marketing

The cartoon hero of Scott Adams' sideways look at corporate life, Dilbert, once wandered into a marketing department and was sucked into a world of "creativity" and powdered unicorn horn... This is not how business schools see things. In a world of academic rigour, marketing has had to shape up and fit itself into a business-like box - with courses in the subject stuffed full of statistics and diagrams about the possible "routes to market" a business might take.

The cartoon hero of Scott Adams' sideways look at corporate life, Dilbert, once wandered into a marketing department and was sucked into a world of "creativity" and powdered unicorn horn... This is not how business schools see things. In a world of academic rigour, marketing has had to shape up and fit itself into a business-like box - with courses in the subject stuffed full of statistics and diagrams about the possible "routes to market" a business might take.

Enter the latest recruit to Oxford University's Saïd Business School - Douglas Holt. Dr Holt has an impeccable CV, with qualifications from Stanford and the Chicago Graduate School of Business, a career in corporate marketing and an associate professor post at Harvard. It was during his time at the latter that he began to harbour dangerous thoughts about his subject. He's hoping that Britain's oldest university will give him the chance to spread the word about how MBA graduates should view marketing in the future.

"The kind of work I do is on the margins in the US," Dr Holt says. "Mainstream marketing - at least at US business schools - is all about cranking up the newest algorithms. It's a quantitative approach. I don't want to teach marketing like that."

Instead, he advocates studying the subject from a "cultural" perspective - encouraging students to look at how big corporate brands succeed by tapping into the needs of society or reflecting cultural identities. As such, he reflects on the 1980s advert from Levi's promoting their 501 brand by showing a clean-cut young man in jeans and T-shirt, stripping off to wash his denim in the laundrette. "The advert conjured up a mythical post-war America," says Dr Holt, "an America that young people in Europe loved because it was the birth of youth culture, of Elvis and James Dean." Levi's became a symbol of a new masculine ideal and factories couldn't keep up with demand. "There's a real need to understand the role of culture and the media in the way products are marketed. MBA students should learn about the symbolism of big brands. Why should we leave it to the sociologists and anthropologists to critique these things?"

Dr Holt's desire to bring the disciplines of sociology, history and cultural studies to bear on the world of marketing strategy may be received well amid the dreaming spires. Some Oxford dons have long harboured the suspicion that management, including marketing, is not an intellectually rigorous subject. But he is all too aware that the really big names in the international business school world are not on his side.

"In the US, there is a whole generation of business school professors dedicated to making marketing a rigorous, hard discipline," he argues. "Marketing has the best statisticians, the best analysts and a reputation for being a hard-core subject in the curriculum, just like accounting." To achieve this, he says, it has had to make itself as much like a finance-based subject as possible. "But the quantifiable things are not the most important. The numbers game in marketing is middle management work."

No MBA student worth his or her salt wants to remain a middle manager. Every aspiring leader wants to be a "strategic thinker" and Dr Holt believes his way of teaching marketing will enable them to reach that goal. "I want to make the so-called soft side of marketing 'hard' and intellectually demanding in a humanistic way - to bring an historical perspective to the study of how companies market their products." The old-fashioned way of teaching marketing as a set of functional skills needed for anything from a telesales campaign to a product launch could easily be done on the job through company training. In the long run, he argues, business schools will lose out if they take this approach.

"Business school teaches you to be a rational manager but that same logic can kill the creative process which helps build great brands and successful businesses." Academics have, he says, a duty to give MBA students an insight into this process and understand the way brands become symbols for customers. "These MBA students are the future clients of advertising agencies. I'd like to teach them how to be good clients, to teach strategy not numbers."

As a visiting professor from across the pond, he sees some interesting contrasts in the way US and European business schools approach his subject. "Institutions like INSEAD in France mimic the American style and are more analytical in their approach. But overall, the marketing area has been under-developed in European business schools and there is a lot of opportunity to lead in a new direction."

There are, he says, some advantages to the higher status marketing has in the US as an academic subject - even if he disagrees with its emphasis. There is a tradition of big companies recruiting marketing professionals from the top schools, such as Harvard, or sponsoring their own managers on executive MBA programmes. "Marketing in Europe hasn't been professionalised or institutionalised as it has been in the US," admits Dr Holt. It's too early to say whether the French cosmetics company, L'Oreal, which sponsored his appointment, will begin sponsoring its own managers through Saïd MBA.

So what will his lectures consist of? "I'll teach the tried and tested Harvard case study method," he says. Students can expect to be taken through the basics of marketing theory, but there'll be an opportunity to specialise and delve into some of the "cultural marketing" theories through electives. "Either way, I'll be asking students to take an anthropological leap, to put themselves in the position of the consumer and to think about how a brand develops and is communicated through the media." Oxford University may be the centre of tradition but he believes it is in a good position to lead the way on new thinking in the field. "Because the business school is relatively new it has a chance to be different. We can use the Oxford name to break out of an old academic mindset and re-invent the way marketing is taught. It's our game to lose."

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