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Declaring My Major in Marketing

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Right now, I’m a student in Wharton’s MBA for Executives program. (WEMBA, if you’re nasty). What that means is that I travel to Philadelphia every other week or so for two pretty full days of classes. It’s somewhat questionable from a value proposition, as it is the Most Expensive MBA Program in the World (still I think, even though this article is dated). Whether or not it’s worth it or not is up for debate.

My conclusion- it is only as valuable or invaluable worthless as I make it.

(tried to go for parallelism there, but it’s like flammable/inflammable- same thing!)

In my case I’ve been exposed to ideas and people and opportunities that have permanently changed who I am and who I will be, in ways that are good. That’s all I can ask for, and almost no price is too high for the value I’ve already received. I can’t stress enough that going to WEMBA was a decision I don’t regret in the slightest.  If you’re thinking about WEMBA, go!  Go, go, go!

Of course, I’ve learned in marketing class that there is no such thing as value, only perceptions of value. I’ve learned a lot more in marketing class, and at this point I, as a finance, investment management and ops guy with a side of engineering, have all but decided to major in marketing. While majors are not necessary in my program, you can pick a major if there are sufficient electives offered to meet the requirements (our guide is here).

I came in thinking I would almost certainly major in Finance. After first term I was convinced I wanted the PE/VC individualized major. After second term I was pretty convinced I wanted to major in operations (OPIM) or even Statistics (though sufficient stats electives are never offered as a major to WEMBAs).

Now in the third term, we’re in the midst of a survey marketing course, and they’re throwing out all kinds of clever, interesting, gotcha concepts (perhaps as a marketing pitch to lure more future course signups?). And now, I’m 100% convinced I want to major in Marketing. I had zero interest until now, and granted, while the teacher is great, it’s the material that draws me in. It’s exactly what I want to study, for three reasons:

  • It’s the hard part! I’m pretty good at operations, statistics, and even strategy (though my strategy grade doesn’t show it). I’ve done the CFA program, and maybe because I’m somewhat familiar with the material, the finance classes are making me want to poke my eyeballs out. The one business concept I completely don’t understand is how to find, sign, and mind customers, aside from very basic and generic impressions I’ve gathered over the years. You can hire people to do anything, and hiring employees to achieve specific, measurable outcomes with clearly defined input processes is pretty easy – prepare an annual report, injection-mold a widget, or answer phone calls. How to go about those things is something of an art, but marketing is a unique business process because it has explicitly measurable deliverables, but means to achieve those deliverables are undefined pure art. There is (mostly) only one way to do GAAP accounting, but there are infinite ways to market a product. Throwing money at the problem makes it easier but there are winners and losers even among companies that buy Super Bowl ads. All art on the input (marketing strategy) and pure science measuring the deliverables (revenue) is a sticky wicket to… well, to do whatever people do with wickets. I want to master it!
  • It’s fascinating: This stuff is 100% pure black magic. If you haven’t delved into some of the reading, you have no idea how completely your every decision is understood, measured, and ultimately driven by marketing experts. It’s fascinating and scary!  I’ve put myself on a self-imposed media fast for the last couple of weeks because I am concerned with how our collective zeitgeist has become completely immersed in marketing and concerned by how sensitive I have become to it. You probably think you’re more or less immune from having your thinking taken over by marketers, but believe me, you’re not. Nobody is. When my 5 year old daughter sees an ad for something appealing on a carefully crafted TV commercial, you can see the desire engage in her mind like a switch. Within seconds she runs over and asks if she can have it for $NEXT_GIFT_HOLIDAY (Christmas, birthday, President’s Day, etc.). Here’s the problem: this phenomenon is not limited to kids. When you are barraged with thousands of images and messages as an adult, the same thing happens to you, more subtly. You think things like “when I’m successful some day, I will deserve a Mercedes.” Or “Valentine’s Day is coming up soon, I MUST spend a lot of money on flowers/ chocolate/ champagne/ fancy dinner/ pajamagram/ singing telegram/ animal actors, etc., etc. to prove how much I care. Or “geez the new fall lines are coming out, I better go buy new winter-y clothes and donate last year’s stuff to Goodwill.” Those are not your thoughts, they are marketers’ thoughts. You might independently think them yourself occasionally, but when you’re experiencing hundreds or thousands of these messages every day these thoughts begin to dominate your mind. Yes, they do. For you in particular. You have been immersed in this environment so long, you don’t realize you’re immersed. Yes, you! No, you’re not able to compartmentalize this stuff. Yes, you. I’m talking to you! Which is why productivity has doubled in recent decades but we still have a 40 hour workweek. Which is why everyone is beginning to accept that they’ll have to work until they’re dead. Which is why the work so you can spend more, then spend more on conveniences so you can work more mindset is universal. Which brings me to my next point…
  • It’s espionage: As you know if you’ve read my writing, I’m a bit of an anti-consumerist, and the chance to learn this material at an advanced level from serious experts almost feels like cheating. Will this material ultimately serve as fodder for my cause, or will the material change me in the end? There are always stories floating around about ridiculous juxtapositions, like a CEO of a sausage company being vegan or president of an airline who refuses to fly. I’d be surprised if Muhtar Kent or Indra Nooyi drink a case of their soft drinks a week, or if whoever the CEO of McDonalds is now eats McDonalds three meals a day? Maybe I can have it both ways, and end up someday as a virulently anti-consumerist marketing mogul?

Last weekend in class, we were talking about a website (I think it was gilt.com) that showed three handbags for sale. I think we were talking about the idea of avoiding extremes- if you put an expensive, cheap, and average handbag side by side, buyers will be drawn to the average priced one, and it also helps to put the “retail price” above the actual price because it makes it look like a good deal too. All this I could handle, but then our professor erased my mind by adding something like:

Studies have shown that these tactics help restrict consumer desire to perform research outside of the choice environment.

(the choice environment being the website or physical store)

This was a big revelation to me, as it connected the writing and thinking I’ve been doing all along with real academic research. Without knowing it, it defined all I’ve wanted to do on lifestyle – perform research outside of the choice environment, writ large.

At that moment, I knew I had found my major.

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