The Practical Relevance of Marketing Scholarship
A Conversation between Tom Brown and R. Gary Bridge
This conversation came out of the Organizational Frontlines Research Preconference Symposium held in Orlando just before Winter AMA. The dialog is between Tom Brown of Oklahoma State and Gary Bridge, who attended the event and has a background both as a scholar and a practitioner. Additional reflections from this symposium and details about future OFR Symposia may be obtained by visiting a dedicated Linkedin group @ https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8172407.
A Conversation on the Practical Relevance of Marketing Scholarship
(R. Gary Bridge, with Tom J. Brown)
Tom: You recently took the time to read through the last four years’ worth of several of the major scholarly journals in marketing. How much of what you read would be useful to business decision-makers?
Gary: My guess is that about 10% to a maximum of 15% of the journal articles I scanned could, with further development, be relevant to anything that business decision-makers care about today. Firms care about the ability to improve efficiency (cost or speed) and effectiveness (quality), because those drive their primary goals – revenues and profits.
Tom: OK, that’s not very encouraging. Do you have any ideas about why there is such a disconnect between marketing scholarship and marketing practice?
Gary: At the nub of the issue are differences in goals and epistemologies between thinkers and doers. Few of the academic articles I scanned demonstrated a requirement to test their theories with real world data, and yet there is more real world data available than any time in history. Academic researchers often seem to make no attempt to connect their theories to actual real world data; they don’t feel the compulsion to “finish the thought.” Practitioners do, and deeply so, because there is so much at risk. What surprises me is that today we have oceans of structured data (in fact, they are called “data lakes”) and the tools to do powerful analyses, and yet the marketing discipline seems to rely, by and large, on methods from a different era.
Tom: Can you offer some examples of the kinds of methods that come from a different era?
Gary: Sure. Here are some things I noticed that would have little value to a practicing marketing manager: (1) small sample studies; (2) studies relying on “laboratory theater” to operationalize the independent variable; (3) studies that ask students to be pretend decision-makers after reading scenarios; and (4) theory articles that are totally self-referential. The theory articles might be interesting someday, given enough applied research, but until then they are largely irrelevant to time-strapped decision makers who are urgently seeking competitive advantage.
Tom: Let me push back a little here. Although I agree that the ultimate goal of marketing scholarship should be to have a positive influence on the marketplace, many of the tools you have noted have utility for theory development and testing, don’t they? I just want to make a bit of a defense for those who are working through theory tests (some of which use small samples, etc.) as their way of understanding why the world of business works the way that it does.
Gary: As an academic grandchild of Kurt Lewin (via Harold Kelley, Alex Bavelas, Morton Deutsch), I subscribe to Lewin’s thought that “nothing is quite so practical as a good theory”—I am steeped in appreciation for the function of theory in progress. But as a practitioner who measures and values outcomes in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, I am struck by how much effort goes into buttressing favorite theories without ever having to apply those theories to produce real world changes. The theory becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. It is not theory per se that I object to, it is aimless theorizing that produces papers but not genuine progress.
Many, if not most, academic theories seem to follow a predictable trajectory; the inventors, who typically invent a new vocabulary too, use their graduate students and fellow travelers to accrete small studies that invariably support their theory, which grows more and more delimited, dense, and self-referential (there is little attempt to crossfoot with extant theories). Some academic notoriety is gained, and then the theory fades from conversation, only to be replaced by a new theory. The reason is obvious: no one achieves academic acclaim by proving someone else’s theory; you have to make a “seminal contribution to human knowledge” [as my diploma said]. In the entire lifecycle of a theory (which becomes a school or thought, if it attracts enough followers) there never seems to be a time when someone says, “Here is what the theory allows you to do in the real world that you could not do before – here is the innovation value.”
The retort I hear often is, “That is someone else’s job.” Well, who is that someone else? How will they engage with brilliant scholars to produce brilliant results – changes in something that people and society value enough to pay for and cherish?
My tentative premise is that understanding “why,” which is the utility of theory, is important; but:
(1) One can make a lot of progress without knowing precisely why something works. Look, for instance, at progress in machine learning, which is entirely atheoretical – you let the algorithms find the pattern instead of theorizing.
(2) Much of what passes for theory building today is actually academic gamesmanship, where publication pages and citations are the currency of the discipline and buy academic status and rewards… there really is no serious intention of making a difference in the real world.
Tom: I find your comments on our discipline’s theory work to be biting—and spot on. I’m afraid that unless we realign our research to address more relevant issues there really won’t be much societal support for academic research in business in a few years.
Gary: My view is that marketing practice is making huge progress in the real world while theory builders are toiling to explain “why” what works works. Theorists have to accept the obligation to eventually address real world outcomes that people care about deeply. Without that final linkage to reality, theory building is an impotent, time and resource wasting activity, which distracts from real progress. That said, theorizing may yield some rewards for theorists, which is an end in itself; but that is insufficient reason for these investments. There is a real opportunity for a new marketing focus and new impact, but that will require culture change; and there are few short-term incentives for theory builders to change. Diminished relevance, fewer grants, and dwindling academic positions will eventually stimulate change; but by then disruptors will have captured the marketing flag.
I hope my comments are not viewed as mean spirited, because that is the opposite of my intention. I love learning and research, which have rewarded me intellectually and materially. And, I love equally the feeling of making a difference in something that someone cares about (which in the enterprise world means they will pay for it or fund it). It seems to me that the time is right for a new way in marketing that (a) builds on what has proven to be productive in the real world over time, and (b) embraces new analytic methods, which are fueled by oceans of data (and more to come, as we learn how to automate the analysis of unstructured data).
The “gamesmanship,” which rewards individuals but retards the discipline’s impact, needs to be reconsidered; but like all transformations, those who feel like winners in the current environment will be the very last to embrace new ways, which are likely to disadvantage them in the short-run. Has it ever been any different?
Tom: These are important considerations. Thank you for taking the time to dialogue with me about them.
R. Gary Bridge, PhD, is Managing Director, Snow Creek Advisors LLC. He has served as Senior Vice President and Global Lead of Cisco System’s strategic consulting arm, the Internet Business Solutions Group; and previous to that he was an IBM Corporate Vice President. Now, he is an investor and consultant.
Tom J. Brown, PhD, is Noble Foundation Chair in Marketing Strategy in the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University. He also serves as Director of the Center for Customer Interface Excellence. His research, which focuses on organizational frontlines marketing and corporate reputation, has been published in a variety of scholarly outlets.