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Philip Kotler, the Father of Modern Marketing, Will Never Retire

Philip Kotler, the Father of Modern Marketing, Will Never Retire

Hal Conick

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Philip Kotler is 86 years old and will never retire; he doesn’t believe in retirement. “Do I ever relax?” he asks in the epilogue of his latest book, an autobiography titled My Adventures in Marketing. Perhaps Kotler relaxes in his own way, but he prides himself on activity. He answers his own question: “I just enjoy producing more than consuming.”

And produce Kotler does; he still works as a professor of international marketing at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, and he continues to write. He’s written more than 60 books, has more than 60 “episodes” (or chapters) in his autobiography, and for a chunk of time, he may have been the only octogenarian who regularly updated a blog. 


Kotler also travels enough to make most marketers homesick by proxy. At the time of Kotler’s conversation with Marketing News, he had just returned from a speaking engagement in Italy and had plans to travel to Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Bahrain soon after. Each trip brings new friends, he says, to go along with new experiences and the possibility of a much thicker new book. “I could write another 60 stories that have happened to me in the last few years that would be of interest to people,” Kotler says.   

Q: What do you consider to be your career’s most exciting moment?

A: My Adventures in Marketing shows a lot of the exciting moments: the time we created the World Marketing Summit and brought it to Bangladesh and had [thousands of] people in that country getting excited about marketing. I’ve also received a lot of honorary degrees—I think about 20. I remember being in Krakow, Poland, to receive the honorary degree from Krakow University; I looked like a pope or something the way they outfitted me. The whole ceremony was done with a real touch of showmanship. 

Of course, my favorite experience has been meeting and marrying my wife, Nancy, and having a wonderful family of three daughters and nine grandchildren.

Q: The story about you and Nancy traveling to India early in your career was unique. Most marketers don’t get the experience of seeing how other countries’ markets work. What have your travels added to your view of marketing?

A: The question I’m always asked is whether marketing is done professionally in the same way in every part of the world. My experience in India, China and Indonesia shows that there are different levels of customer consciousness, different values and different practices, some not so good. We encountered a lot of corruption in some of those countries, which is a price that the public pays. Corruption keeps them from the rate of economic growth that they deserve. I wrote about corruption in the new book, but in my textbooks I don’t mention corruption, partly because I don’t want it to be used. That’s an aspect of marketplace behavior that I don’t want to illuminate for anyone to misuse. 

The message we’re trying to get out in those countries is that companies can perform better in profits, sales and in their treatment of their workers and employees if they define what values to bring to each group. Marketing is about value creation, communication and delivery, so the country or the company needs to think not [of how] to manipulate the consumer, but what consumers would benefit from, then deliver and communicate it. 

​​Q: You wrote a lot about your influences in this book, saying that people like Peter Drucker, Milton Friedman and even Leo Tolstoy have influenced your career. What can learning from great minds of the past bring to a marketing career?

A: Marketers must understand the evolution of their own field. I know a great deal about economics, which has a longer history than marketing. The history of economics goes back to Adam Smith, who wrote his book The Wealth of Nations​ in the same year as the American Revolution, 1776. Every economist needs to know about Adam Smith and David Ricardo all the way to modern economists like John Maynard Keynes. Marketing’s history is shorter, only 100 years. The textbooks on marketing were first written by economists—not by marketing people. Since then, we’ve produced people like Drucker, Theodore Levitt and John Howard. 

Ideas often come from great thinkers. To know more about them is very important. I’ve met some of them, like Drucker and Friedman. They encapsulate a lot of the newer ideas and can use the force of their personality and reasoning to drive these ideas into in the mindset of most economists and marketers.

Q: Do you think this kind of change comes from the strength of the ideas or the strength of individual personalities?

A: Yes, on both counts. We often hear a speaker who has written some great pieces of thinking, but then we are disappointed that their personality is insufficient to carry these ideas further. We take someone like Friedman: He was passionate about the free marketplace, was so articulate in debates and had ideas that were so persuasive that he had a huge following. The question historians often ask is, “Is our history made by great people or great ideas?” I must unconsciously believe that there is an impact of great minds on public thought in this world.

Q: In your book, you wrote that marketers must leave the world a better place for the kids and grandkids of future generations. How can marketers do this?

A: Companies should be more than profit-making machines. They should be aware that they are using resources and that they’re trying to convert resources into value, so they should make the lives of their target markets better. They should not be wasteful. There are companies that show a lot of waste; they aren’t lean marketers. I like the concept of lean marketers because everything counts. I get the idea sometimes that when things are left over from a job and are thrown away, whatever was thrown away could have been used as ingredients or turned into something else that’s valuable. 

Marketing should be about efficiency and effectiveness. Marketing started with corporate and social responsibility as a big idea. We had some evidence that companies that work well in corporate social responsibility take performance environmentalism as a mindset, try for no waste and make the lives of their employees and their customers healthier. That field of corporate social responsibility often leaves the companies [that] practice it more profitable.

The argument could be made that maybe they’re just profitable for other reasons, therefore they have extra money to give away for corporate social responsibility, but I think it’s subtler than that. Companies that have a broader mindset, a mindset of trying to develop a good world, not just a good product, are my favorite examples. There are leaders who respect that companies can do more good than making money.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you have for marketers?

A: People practicing marketing have to go back to the original ideas of creating, communicating and delivering value to their target market. New people coming into marketing have to decide where their interests and capabilities lie. Is it in the field of research, where we always need information about every group we want to serve? We need the tools of focus groups and questionnaires. That’s one opportunity, but others may want to be in the role of sales, getting close to buyers and serving their needs. Others may want to be more digitally oriented, where they believe in the value of data and have the mathematical tools to unearth insights about how marketing is working and what drives results. 

I see marketing as a mansion of many rooms. We really need product managers, growth managers, pricing specialists and advertising specialists. It’s important for someone interested in marketing to see the latest that’s happening in their room of the mansion.​

Learn more about Philip Kotler and his research.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.