Faculty Essay: A Marketing Class for the Ages

By Peter Fader

 

My daughter Shayna is a senior at the College and is taking Marketing Research (MKTG 212) this fall. That was the first course I taught at Wharton when I joined the faculty back in 1987. This realization has made me nostalgic for those old days. Many great students have come through my Wharton classrooms, but no single group of them could compare to the MKTG 212 students I had in 1991. They are now like a who’s who of Wharton alumni.

I am very proud of my association with that class, yet I wondered if they are aware of just how incredibly accomplished many of them have been since graduating. This thought led me to propose a “where are they now” profile. I brought this idea to Wharton Magazine, and they were happy to support my quest.

In preparing for the essay, I reached out to several members of that class. In so doing, what I realized was that MKTG 212 is a convenient point of connection, a starting point to a set of broader conversations about their Wharton experiences as a whole and how these experiences have shaped the successes they have enjoyed since then.

Perhaps their most engaging, and intriguing, responses to my inquiry had to do with them wrapping their heads around whether they were even a special class—and if so, why?

One strain of their thinking is that it wasn’t necessarily them, it was their timing.

“The macro market was hot, and we kind of hit it at the right time,” is how serial entrepreneur Scott Hintz, W’93, put it. When the dot-com bubble burst, Hintz continues, he and his fellow classmates were poised with prior experience to thrive in the next iteration of entrepreneurial boom time. (Hintz founded TripIt in 2006, exited well in 2011 and has served in senior roles with many other successful technology firms.)

Another strain of thought is about the caliber and kind of people who were attending Wharton back then.

“I think that era at Wharton was pretty magical,” says Jacqueline Reses, W’92, who manages the extensive array of M&A and Partnership activities at Yahoo as its chief development officer. It was a “really standout business environment,” she believes, at a time when Wharton was nearly alone in providing an undergrad business degree. The School attracted an “incredibly entrepreneurial cohort of people.”

“Back then, you went there because you were the geekiest, business-focused kid in your class,” she says. “I was always amazed at the kids who I went to school with; each person seemed brighter than the next. Kids would sit in Steinberg-Dietrich writing business plans and dreaming of enterprises that they wanted to build or run. It never seemed normal, just fun.”

 

Watch our “In a Minute” video above about Professor Fader and his teaching philosophy and motivations.

 

Then there’s the nature-nurture hybrid viewpoint.

Wendy Moe, W’92, G’99, GRW’00, professor of marketing and director of the Marketing Analytics program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says, “We were at Wharton during a recession. The stories of earlier alums getting large numbers of job offers each didn’t apply to us. But I think that just made us work harder.”

Moe worked so hard—and so effectively—that she came back to Wharton a few years later and was my first Ph.D. student.

“We were all paranoid. It was a time when it wasn’t clear if we were going to do well in terms of getting jobs,” agrees Sheena S. Iyengar, W’92. Iyengar also became a star professor and now serves as the Inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and new director of Columbia’s entrepreneurship program. Her book, The Art of Choosing, has been an influential best-seller. I’d like to believe that her MKTG 212 experience helped frame some of her work; however, her ideas are far too original and carefully constructed than anything I could ever conjure up.

Returning to the theme of the special time the early ’90s were, Iyengar remembers Wharton students as ambitious and trained to be well-positioned for the boom-to-come.

Josh Kopelman, W’93, founder and managing director of First Round Capital, told me he remembers working less with me in MKTG 212 than in an independent study we did on conjoint analysis of intent to purchase for his startup—when he was applying that training nearly simultaneously with his formal education.

“I was getting a good education inside and outside the classroom,” he says. In other words, he was a full-time entrepreneur long before that was a cool thing to do. Now, countless Wharton students are trying to emulate him with their own startups—and Kopelman assists them through the Dorm Room Fund, a great initiative that First Round Capital developed to support student entrepreneurs.

Kopelman remembers the early ’90s as a time when his classmates entered Penn without email addresses, only to graduate as the first to have them. The world of technology was a “blank canvas” and there were no veterans; Wharton students and young alumni were as well-equipped as anybody to shape the course of its future, he says.

I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but 25 years later, I’m never caught by surprise.
 

Andy Sernovitz, C’92, W’92, was another maverick who carved out new pathways—and entirely new sectors of industry. He founded the Interactive Television Association while still a Penn student, but that was before the word “Internet” meant anything to anyone. Today, Sernovitz is a world-renowned expert focusing on word-of-mouth marketing and social media in general.

For him, all of it ties back to his Wharton experience and MKTG 212.

“Without a doubt, the most useful part [of MKTG 212] was understanding the basics of what marketing research means,” he says. “Day-to-day, it’s that ability to recognize what’s meaningful when someone gives you the numbers. Along with the ability to catch b.s. in the research process. As a user of research instead of a practitioner, it was the exact foundation I needed.”

I am particularly pleased that Sernovitz and many of my former students can identify specific ways that my course has helped their careers.

Hintz points to the practical tools he learned in MKTG 212, like deciphering the market landscape or forced choice analysis—core components of marketing and product strategy that he’s used throughout his career. It’s been “invaluable” to have a quant framework to approach amorphous questions about markets, particularly startup markets, he says. Being familiar with the terminology and knowing which questions to ask were crucial when working with consultants, particularly as he conducted market research at Hotwire (where he worked prior to launching TripIt). Marketing consultants’ eyes would widen when he used the words “multidimensional scaling” and “cluster analysis.”

Moe deals in data—and leading-edge models to decipher them—every day. She credits MKTG 212 for bringing her back to Wharton for her Ph.D. and says that the methods she learned as an undergrad are still useful to this day to gain a basic, first impression of data, even as research techniques move away from simple surveys toward complex unstructured text analysis. Her recent book, Social Media Intelligence (co-authored with David Schweidel, C’01, GRW’04, GRW’06), is a perfect example of this ever-evolving array of marketing research methods.

Perhaps the most eye-opening and intriguing application of Wharton (and MKTG 212) knowledge came by way of Matthew Manion, W’92, president and CEO at Catholic Leadership Institute. Church leadership had asked his organization to collect data to measure the effectiveness of different parishes. This search led him and his team to build a model to track how a parish is spreading the faith—a “disciple maker index” that assesses where people are on their spiritual journey and how well a parish is helping them.

It’s wonderful to see my former students following such a wide variety of career paths, but still finding value in what I taught them. Overall, it is hard to believe that nearly a quarter-century has passed since I first met these extraordinary individuals. Even harder to believe is that I had them in class before I had kids of my own, but today both of my children—Shayna and Wharton freshman Corey—are strolling along Locust Walk every day.

Despite all these changes in my life and the world as a whole, some things never change.

Sernovitz offers a timeless perspective: “Overall, it’s the breadth of Wharton education that was most useful—knowing the core ideas on a lot of things. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but 25 years later, I’m never caught by surprise.”

Thanks for the memories, MKTG 212 Class of 1991, and keep up the good work!

Peter Fader serves as the Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor in Wharton’s Marketing Department and as co-director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative.

 

 

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