Theodore Levitt, poet laureate of marketing

Levitt_iiiHere he is in all his glory, the poet laureate of marketing, the now departed Theodore Levitt.  (I thank Pierre Berthon for the metaphor.) 

He was a magnificently clear writer, and, in this, a little like the poet laureate of anthropology, Clifford Geertz.  Both Levitt and Geertz wrote so well, they made the reader feel smarter by 20 IQ points.  Ideas seemed to move from mind to mind without intermediary, so transparent was the prose.

Geertz has the unhappy tendency of pretending that he is the only anthropologist.  His perfect little essay have a solipsistic quality.  Geertz does not cite other scholars and indeed he admits the data to his little crystal palaces only if they conduct themselves in strict conformity to the school master’s direction.  Yes, Geertz lets you think more…about less.

Levitt gave us clarity as a way to contend with messiness.  He wrote a disciplined prose for a chaotic world.  He blessed us with questions and strategies that improved our ability to manage what threatens now to be an imponderable world.

In the Marketing Imagination, he gave us the most compelling question of the profession: "what business are we in."  What a simple little question.  And how deceptive.  Ask this question and suddenly all bets are off,  all data welcome, every intepretive frame now possible.  Not so much a crystal palace as an English garden.  Not so much an English garden as a Ghanaian one.

Levitt prepared us for a world turned upside down.  "What business are we in," invites extravagant acts of intellect and imagination.  And not a moment too soon.  For this is what markets demand of us too.  (It’s worth noting that Levitt founded this question well before the sheer dynamism of the new capitalism can have been evident.)

More importantly, ‘what business are we in" anticipates a world in which things change so much and so suddenly that capitalism is no simple act of value extraction, with capitalists as mere miners, truding down the same shafts to the same coal faces in search of the same substance for exchange on the same markets.  Contemporary markets are now so liquid that the Levittian question is called for every day…because something crucial may have changed as we slept. 

Theodore Levitt, rest in peace. 

7 thoughts on “Theodore Levitt, poet laureate of marketing

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt

    Grant wrote:

    “Levitt prepared us for a world turned upside down. “What business are we in,” invites extravagant acts of intellect and imagination. And not a moment too soon. For this is what markets demand of us too. (It’s worth noting that Levitt founded this question well before the sheer dynamism of the new capitalism can have been evident.)”

    Just to play devils advocate here: could it be that Levitt’s question did not so much see something in capitalism (I might prefer “business enterprise”) that was necessarily there as help to constitute the form that capitalism now has?

  2. Candy Minx

    I am sorry for your loss, he sounds like an interesting teacher. Side note: just catching up on your posts of last couple weeks Grant and it has been a delight really fun to hear about your trip and work in Russia, thanks for sharing.

  3. pamela

    What a moving tribute, Grant. And beautiful prose: capitalists as miners, crystal palaces, English gardens, worlds turned upside down…all because we must think about “what business we are in” though sadly, marketing often reminds us the question is sometimes forgotten.

    Your description of Levitt and Geertz : “Ideas seemed to move from mind to mind without intermediary, so transparent was the prose” reminds me of something lovely John Quincy Adams said about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: “The mutual influence of these great minds upon each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world.” Ideas moving as mysteriously as magnets… Those revolutionaries.

  4. Auto

    I never understood the fuss regarding Leavitt. He alway struck me as a marketing guy who didn’t understand much beyond marketing.

    Take his famous claim about the demise of the railroads. Everyone repeated it as though it reflected some extraordinary insight. I took to be more the insight of a marketing whiz who doesn’t know shit about industrial organization.

    Let’s see, a capital-intensive industry, with enormous barriers to entry, highly specific assets in the form of tracks that cannot be redeployed, that’s been in decline in the US since WWI. And Leavitt gripes that had management realized they were in the transportation business, not the railroad business, they would have responded better to the emerging treat of trucking and airlines, two highly competitive industries with no meaningful barriers to entry.

    The railroads were doomed for structural reasons having to do with the cnaging American economy. No amount of marketing wizardry would have changed or saved them.

    But I keep hearing Leavitt’s line get repeated and repeated and I just don’t get it. My sense is, unlike Geertz, Leavitt doesn’t bear up under close scrutiny.

  5. Grant

    Daniel, I think the Levittian moment of self reflection was always there, it just came less often. But, yes, each moment brings the next moment nearer and all the moments helped install the innovation economy. Thanks, Grant

    Candy, Thanks! Grant

    Pam, thanks! I have to work on my magnet metaphors. Best, Grant

    Auto, thanks for this post, I am devoting today’s (Monday’s) to it. Many thanks, Grant

  6. steve

    I have previously made almost the same commnent as Auto’s on one of your previous Levitt posts. I just don’t get it.

  7. usman bulama

    As a marketing scholar living in a third world country, theo levitt almost made me to understand marketing just as i do of the daily diets that keep my body to function well.

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