By John Shmuel, Financial Post
When professor Leyland Pitt assigns students their main presentation in his marketing course, there’s only one piece of instruction given to them: Present about anything you want.
The effectiveness of guerrilla marketing at sports events? Sure. Using Web 2.0 to create dialogue with your customers? Knock yourself out. Deploying satellites to act as billboards. Sure, why not?
Of course, the ideas won’t necessarily lead to good marks. But that’s the point, says Mr. Pitt, who is a professor of marketing at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business in Vancouver.
Just like in the real world, there are good marketing ideas, and then there are terrible ones. A future marketing executive should be able to tell the difference between the two. But Mr. Pitt says it’s not enough for a student to come up with a good idea — it needs to also be fresh, and sometimes, even radical.
“I abdicate a lot of the curriculum to [the students],” says Mr. Pitt. “I learn a tremendous amount from my students, and they learn a tremendous amount from each other, just by trying to identify things that are really important, really topical.”
Before you write off Mr. Pitt as some eccentric who can’t be bothered giving his class guidance, consider that Mr. Pitt is one of Canada’s foremost academics in the field of marketing strategy.
He has been an active presence in marketing for quite some time now, exploring ideas from guerrilla marketing tactics at major sporting events to the rise of the consumer in dictating marketing in an age of social media.
He stays at the forefront because he’s not afraid of change, and sometimes almost relishes the challenge that comes with adapting to it.
“I think that as an academic discipline, marketing sometimes tends to be a bit too conservative,” he says. ”Which I think is strange when you think about it … marketing is always at the forefront of change in the real world, and we should be keeping up with it.”
One of the big marketing trends right now that Mr. Pitt is watching is the tectonic shift of power from the corporation to the consumer. Whereas once academics believed technology would give corporations ultimate power over the consumer, social media has allowed consumers to complain about products and services to a huge online audience, forcing corporations to rush to try and appease them–or risk bad publicity.
“It’s literally evolving on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “And I’m very interested in the stances and responses organizations are taking to things like people complaining on Facebook or Twitter.”
Mr. Pitt’s fascination with the world of marketing began in South Africa, where he grew up and did his education. His initial experience with marketing, however, wasn’t born out of a childhood desire to study the discipline — instead, Mr. Pitt stumbled into marketing because he was presented with a choice to either take a marketing course or an accounting course to complete his major.
“I despised accounting more than anything, so naturally I opted for marketing,” he laughs.
Although Mr. Pitt says he got involved in marketing for all the wrong reasons, he eventually realized that the more he learned about it, the more he started to love it.
After he obtained his Master of Business Administration from the University of Pretoria in 1977, Mr. Pitt moved to Australia and began what would become the first of many teaching positions that took him around the world. He has since been a researcher and visiting professor to numerous education institutions in a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, Greece, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States.
In 2004, he arrived at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. After stints teaching undergraduates, Mr. Pitt says he relished getting back to teaching graduate students and executives — his preferred types of students — and bestowing upon them the finer points of marketing.
Of course, Mr. Pitt also came to SFU at a quite opportune time. He says that in the six years he has been at the university, marketing has changed more than in all the previous years he spent teaching it, which ensures his job is never boring.
“I always said we tend to think disciplines create and shape their tools, when I think it’s completely the opposite; it’s tools that shape a discipline,” he says. “That’s very clearly what’s happened to marketing. A lot of the technology is what’s really changed marketing.”
Mr. Pitt is now working on a number of papers and avenues of research exploring what that means for marketing strategy. His work focuses on issues such as how corporations are adapting to the slew of user-generated content online, especially the kind that dominates websites such as YouTube and WordPress. He is also paying close attention to which companies are aggressively enforcing copyright laws and which ones are leveraging user-generated content as free promotion.
“I’m still exploring it,” Mr. Pitt says. “I think there’s a right answer, but it’s not an easy right answer. Companies have to make sure they’re entirely clear on what’s happening and what the consequences will be — only then should they develop their stance. They also have to realize, though, that in marketing today, nothing can be static. Their policies and attitudes have to be ready to adapt.”
Even in the face of such a rapidly changing and increasingly more complex marketing environment, Mr. Pitt says he’s more than happy keeping up with the constantly evolving field of marketing strategy.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
This article was printed in the Tuesday, November 16, 2010 edition of the Financial Post.
Click here to read the article online.