MBA programs need more marketing

When Daniel Rabinowicz graduated from the MBA program at Montreal's McGill University 25 years ago, the sum total of his marketing and advertising knowledge was, in his own words, 'zero.' ...

When Daniel Rabinowicz graduated from the MBA program at Montreal’s McGill University 25 years ago, the sum total of his marketing and advertising knowledge was, in his own words, ‘zero.’

From the confines of the downtown campus, in fact, ‘you could argue that the world of advertising didn’t even exist,’ says the president of Cossette Montreal.

Much has changed in advertising in the intervening years. But one thing appears to have remained constant: MBA programs across Canada continue to produce graduates with little or no practical knowledge of marketing.

‘It’s woeful in terms of the preparation they’re getting from both a marketing perspective and an advertising perspective,’ Rabinowicz says.

‘None of it is based on anything that goes on in Canada.’ But that, too, is on course for change.

This year Rabinowicz along with Labatt Breweries of Canada president, Bruce Elliot, as co-chairs of CASSIES 2001, are spearheading an initiative that will see case studies of CASSIES winners integrated into Canadian MBA programs. CASSIES are awarded every two years to campaigns judged to be the most effective in generating results in Canada.

A program such as this addresses one of the key deficiencies in Canadian business programs: nearly all case studies available to Canadian business students are of marketing programs originating out of the U.S.

But this, says Arthur Fleischmann, president of Toronto-based Ammirati Puris, represents a significant gap in what students come to understand as real-world scenarios.

‘Marketing in Canada does not have the same economies of scale. So you have to be far smarter about accomplishing business objectives,’ says Fleischmann, himself an MBA graduate.

‘When you’re trying to build a packaged good in the U.S., a small share can be an enormous volume, but here in Canada, you don’t have the same critical mass. How do you deliver profitability in smaller production runs? The kinds of cases the students would learn would be business at its toughest in many ways.’

The CASSIES are in the process of determining which MBA programs it will partner with and just what form that partnership will take when the program gets under way in September 2002. One scenario will see up to five top cases compiled into a textbook through a cooperative effort between business professors and marketers. Winning agency or client representatives would then present these cases to students. But those details have yet to be worked out.

What is clear is that business leaders on both the agency and client side, along with top academics, see a need to provide students with a better foundation in marketing practice.

South of the border cooperative efforts between the business and academic worlds are commonplace. The University of Texas, for example, has customized an MBA program to the specifications of Texas Instruments to help train the manufacturer’s up-and-coming managers.

Such programs exist across the U.S. says Alan Middleton, a marketing veteran who now teaches the discipline at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

‘Marketing has a key role in these [programs]. I think the reason Canada has been slower is, frankly, our big organizations have not been very marketing savvy.’

Middleton attributes this to several factors, not the least of which is that there has been very little historical cooperation between business and academe in Canada. Unlike the U.S. where business has long been involved in funding and developing academic programs, Canadian education has generally been viewed as the sole domain of the public sector.

Today, however, companies are realizing that becoming involved with university programs serves as an excellent recruitment tool. Not only do they get to try out potential employees, they also give students a taste of the real world practice. In addition, businesses put their names top of mind when students leave the ivory tower and hit the streets looking for a paycheque.

For its part, Schulich is holding a conference in May titled ‘Taking the Classroom into the Real World’ that will focus on partnerships such as the one between Texas University and Texas Instruments to see how such programs might be adapted in Canada.

‘The closer you can give students experience of the real thing, the better. That means you look at simulations, you have internships, working periods. Traditionally most business schools, unlike medical schools, have not allowed students to actively participate in decision-making in a marketing context,’ Middleton says.

Other organizations have been picking up the ball as well.

Earlier this month, for instance, Saturn Canada announced the recipients of its Business School Project, a competition to develop a marketing plan to introduce the new Saturn VUE. A five-member team from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management was awarded $15,000 on April 11.

Eric LeBlanc, advertising and promotions manager for Saturn Saab Isuzu in Canada, says the Saturn program allowed the company to develop branding and marketing ideas aimed at its youthful demographic created by members of that very target group. Additionally, it allowed Saturn and General Motors to ‘look at new and innovative ideas by future business leaders.’

‘It provides [students] a benefit where they’re doing, to some degree, a real world exercise…which keeps them on the pulse of what’s happening out there rather than just [learning] through books,’ he says.

‘There’s a tremendous benefit, I think, for other companies to leverage this type of knowledge.’

It is, indeed, an area of growing interest. The Association of Quebec Advertising Agencies (AAPQ), for example, in partnership with the University of Montreal’s business school, launched an advanced training initiative last September. The program, taught by agency practitioners, is targeted at Bachelor of Arts graduates already working in marketing. It is accredited to represent 40% of an MBA.

As well, the Institute of Canadian Advertisers is currently looking for a university partner to create an undergraduate chair of marketing communications.

Beyond the training benefits, what intrigues Labatt president Bruce Elliot most is the ability of such initiatives to allow marketing-oriented businesses, such as manufacturers of consumer packaged goods, more direct contact with students.

These companies, he says, must recruit top MBA graduates in a highly competitive market and are being overshadowed by businesses such as consultancies and high tech firms because students consider jobs in those industries sexier.

‘The advertising community and a number of packaged goods corporations have lost touch with the university community in terms of the glow and the wow factor [associated] with other new and emerging segments,’ he says.

To that end, Elliot says Labatt itself might become involved in a much more formalized way with university programs down the road.

‘The business community, including ourselves, could be much more engaged in creating more competent business leaders when they actually land in the business community….we could do much more.’