Chris Hackley: Return on investment

Academic study of marketing pays real dividends, says Chris Hackley

January 24, 2013

I was once interviewed for a part-time post on a regulatory body, in the House of Commons, by a Lord. He graciously showed me around the House, ordered us scones and tea in the Commons tea room, and we chatted. All of a sudden his tone changed and he blurted, “But marketing isn’t a proper subject, is it?”

Unfortunately, I was wrong-footed by this ploy, a favourite of old-school interviewers, and failed to offer a response of sufficient poise. Defensiveness is decidedly infra dig in such company. I was not appointed. Ever since, I occasionally drop into a reverie in which I parry his artful cheek with a pithy retort, winning my interlocutor’s awed admiration. Ha. Zzziiing. Take that, Lord Pea-Brain.

Sadly, his sentiment is shared by many, even within the academy. Marketing isn’t rocket science, granted, although the statistical pretention of most research articles in the field-leading Journal of Marketing might make you wonder. But neither is it a set of easy-to-learn, bullet-pointed techniques for doing marketing. Now, the idea that practical marketing is easy to learn in a classroom may be the source of its popularity as a subject of academic study, but it is an outlandish claim. You can’t learn how to do business in a classroom. Anyone who tells you different is probably, erm, a marketing professor. But not this one.

Anything you learn in the classroom of a higher educational institution, referring to books, theories and such, counts, in my opinion, as education. I believe in education as a force that can change lives, develop personalities and nurture good judgement. Grand as this might sound, I think studying management, business, marketing or indeed any other subject can support these aims, provided that the course is challenging and intellectually engaging.

I will concede that traditional subjects can confer a deeper intellectual training than business and management studies, provided, of course, that they’re taught, and learned, well. I also admit that business and management subjects lend themselves to hack treatment and sharp educational practice, and that this can make them useful servants of ideology and instrumentalism in universities.

But, being defensive again, I will claim that marketing doesn’t necessarily deserve the intellectual snobbery often meted out towards it by many academicians of “proper” subjects.

I began my career teaching GCSEs in business studies and economics after I studied for a business studies degree at a polytechnic, so, unlike many marketing academics at research universities, I didn’t descend into the subject from the intellectual high ground of a PhD in anthropology, sociology or somesuch. I simply wanted to make my teaching more meaningful to me, and to my students. Marketing students come to courses already primed with a sense of its immediacy in their lives. It is a pity to waste this engagement on business cliches. True, their sense of engagement comes from a vague notion that marketing is darkly clever and glossily glamorous, a view quite at odds with the gruelling working hours and Darwinian hiring practices of the reality.

Nonetheless, this sense of engagement is useful; you can do things with it. Marketing studies lends itself to all manner of intellectual treatments, from the Frankfurt School to Festinger’s cognitive dissonance, from Foucault to phrenology. The fact that marketing is a subject that doesn’t really have a centre helps. There is no unchallenged set of shared questions or assumptions, no undisputed body of scientific knowledge, and there are no universally agreed core principles. What there is, is 100 years of surprisingly diverse scholarship, intersecting with every discipline you can think of and reaching out to all manner of pressing social and cultural policy questions.

You can get a flavour of what I mean from the December 2012 copy of Marketing Theory. Papers cover topics such as the brand mythology of Kylie Minogue, the cultural meaning of the stuff in your garage, racism in marketing, and the ritual force of the quintessential TV talent show, The X Factor, along with more traditional issues such as business-to-business and service marketing.

I grant you, much teaching and research in marketing in universities does not deal in this kind of interdisciplinary scope or methodological quirkiness. But if it doesn’t, it probably isn’t really a university level of education. I take it as given that students are asked to read proper research articles as part of their course - if they’re not, then that isn’t a proper university education, either.

This eclectic approach is sometimes labelled critical marketing, in the sense that it values critical thinking and intellectual engagement in topics connected with markets, management and consumption. It is also critical in an oppositional sense, since a North American-inspired natural science model of research, bolted incongruously on to an anecdotal style of how-to management teaching, still dominates academic marketing and dictates many business school career paths. I’m grateful to have been able to teach and write in the way I prefer.

So, if I had had the quick-wittedness to respond to my interviewer’s cheeky question with the following quote, it might have served me better all those years ago.

“The Philosopher, indeed, and the man of the world differ in their very notion, but the methods, by which they are respectively formed, are pretty much the same … If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world,” in the words of John Henry Newman.

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