Marketing can benefit from a touch of all that jazz

Academic and musician stresses the need for improvisation and fun. Matthew Reisz reports

June 2, 2011

A lecturer claims to have transformed the study and teaching of marketing by literally blowing his own trumpet.

Noel Dennis, principal lecturer in marketing and recruitment at Teesside University, has been playing the trumpet since he was eight and trained with Gerard Presencer, widely acknowledged as one of the world's finest jazz trumpeters.

However, in an unusual fusion, Mr Dennis now combines his academic work and a PhD-in-progress on jazz and marketing with workshops and modules on strategic marketing based on musical demos and their lessons for business.

Through a workshop titled Jazz: A Creative Approach to Business, for example, he takes a jazz quintet into companies and offers a tailored consultancy service based on the premise that the arts can help to foster creativity and improvisation.

Some of the core issues come down to questions of "teamwork, collaboration and communication", he said.

"You may have a nice idea but need others to turn it into a brilliant idea. You can't create a great solo without a good rhythm section. A competent board of directors is a bit like the rhythm section."

Another lesson from jazz is the importance of "letting ideas flow freely".

Although strategic business and marketing plans are necessary, "we need improvisation around such plans - they should be used as basic guidelines to be embellished", he said.

He added: "It is hard to stick rigidly to plans in the current climate. What isn't articulated in the marketing literature is the need for improvisation. Music can bring well-known lessons to life in a way a textbook can't - we need new ways to hammer home our messages.

"Education and learning, and indeed working, have to have an element of fun."

At the heart of Mr Dennis' thinking is the distinction between "jazzers" and "readers".

The latter might be traditional orchestral musicians, for example, who need a deep knowledge of the repertoire but stick rigidly to the score and expect to be led by a conductor. Jazzers, by contrast, have all the same technical skills but also the ability to read the audience and their fellow musicians, and to alter their approach in real time.

But although there is no one telling them what to do, they must not "overimprovise" or stray too far from the basic harmonic structure, since that leads only to chaos.

The same distinction can be applied to businesses, Mr Dennis argued.

Reader organisations focus on keeping to their plans, whatever is happening inside or around them, but are too bureaucratic to adapt flexibly.

Jazzer organisations need to be just as professional in building up knowledge of customers and competitors and putting in place detailed plans, but they are also able to deviate creatively when the situation arises.

Like a true jazzman, Mr Dennis is in no doubt which is the better model.

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