Professor Quelch and the marketing manager

An open letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

In these pages, today, John Quelch said,

"Many marketing managers are failing their employers. They are often creative right-brain thinkers who can dream up campaigns to drive top-line sales but they show little interest in the balance sheet impact of their promotion programs. Such marketers lack the quantitative, analytical skills necessary to drive marketing productivity…"

This is well and good, as far as it goes. In a perfect world we would all be utility infielders, equally gifted in all the things a marketer needs to do. But we know perfectly well there’s a trade off. The more skillful we are at some things, the worse we are sometimes at others.

Except at the Harvard Businsess School, where Professor Quelch teaches. In point of fact, there is plenty of training in "left-brain" and quantitative skills at HBS, but virtually none in qualitative skills and what Prof. Quelch calls "creative flair."

This is a problem not just at HBS. Most marketing managers are not formally trained in the performance of their "right brained" activities. This is in some small part because of the influence of HBS. Despite this educational, intellectual deficit, marketing managers continue to be one of the great founts of value for the corporation. While their colleagues are busy squeezing nickels, the marketing managers are the ones who attempt to reap the whirlwind of contemporary consumer taste and preference. And a good thing, too. For as Prof. Quelch points out, "Since customers are the source of all cash flow, marketing and sales excellence are critical."

In sum, Prof. Quelch is whipping the marketing manager for failing to acquire statistical skills when in fact this manager is a) the only reliable supplier of the creative problem solving from which the corporation now extracts much of its value, b) hampered in this exercise by a paucity of formal training in qualitative skills and creativity. (Take a bow, HBS.)

It’s a great idea to give every marketing manager better at running the numbers. While we’re at it, should we make up the bigger deficit in matters of cultural literacy, pattern recognition and creative problem solving.

The corporation is a little ship on the high seas. It must negotiate the perfect storm of the contemporary market place. Reading the instruments is a necessary skill. Looking for land, this, too, could be useful.

2 thoughts on “Professor Quelch and the marketing manager

  1. Peter McB.

    Superb, Grant!

    In my management consultancy life, the really big problem with lack of quant. skills was not among marketers, but among the officers of corporations (all Fortune 500s), most of whom had trained as engineers, and all of whom had MBAs from places like HBS. These guys manage-by-anecdote: “I was talking to a friend at the golf club yesterday, and he said he could never got cellphone coverage at location X, so put the engineering department on it right away.” No matter that the engineering department already had a long list of priorities, developed with marketing, to fix the coverage holes of most importance to customers, and X was not on the list (because rich golfers were not the target segment).

    If you’ve not met these guys, this sounds like parody, but it isn’t.

  2. steve

    It seems to me that the discipline of rigorous thinking is just that, a discipline, and like all such skills it diminishes with lack of use. Peter’s impression strikes me as frighteningly plausible, given what I have seen in MBA classrooms. A great number of students employ quantitative methods (even of the simplest kind) and rigorous logic only when placed under duress.

    This applies to many (though certainly not all) of those students with quantitative backgrounds in engineering and the like. Once they reach a rank where they can’t be called on it, they will happily indulge their every cockeyed notion and bypass relevant quantitative and logical constraints.

    I have seen the same thing happen to myself at times. I start to trust my intuition about certain kinds of models or processes ancillary to my main point and get sloppy about drawing conclusions. Of course, I know I’m going to face peer review, so I eventually find the counterargument or counterexample that refutes the error (I think!), but I can readily see how it’s easy to become lazy if you aren’t going to get called on it.

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