We have a few weeks left before school starts, and I thought it would be great to get familiar some of our professors ahead of time. This week, I had a lovely talk with Professor Andrew Stephen, the L’Oréal Professor of Marketing and the head of the marketing faculty at Oxford Saïd.
You will cross paths with Professor Stephen. Not only does he share many interests with our incoming student body, but he – along with Professor Rhonda Hadi and Professor Cammy Crolic – also teaches the core marketing class that we will all take.
Below is a lightly edited text of our discussion.
You’re like us, Professor, as a relatively new addition to the Oxford community. What brought you to Oxford Saïd?
I joined Saïd Business School just over a year ago, in June of 2015. I came to Oxford for a few related reasons.
A big one was the opportunity to lead the development of a new kind of marketing faculty and marketing curriculum here. We’re building a very future-focused curriculum that reflects the changing nature of professional marketing as a strategic business function. As we all know, technology keeps on advancing and all facets of business are being “digitally transformed”. Marketing is too, and we’ve designed a new curriculum for the MBA that looks at this.
Another major reason to come to Oxford was the diversity of the student and faculty populations, which enriches life here in many ways on a daily basis. Lastly, probably the other big reason for me was the greater university – this is Oxford, and that means that we have some incredibly exciting things happening all the time throughout the university.
What should incoming students be sure to do so we can get the most out of our MBA?
Everyone will tell incoming students that they need to make the most of every opportunity, network, find their passions, and so on. And these things are true.
However, one piece of advice I’d offer everyone coming into the MBA this year is to keep an open mind and trust your professors. You’re going to be exposed to lots of ideas, frameworks, concepts throughout all your classes – some of which you’ll be familiar with from your prior experience. And sometimes you’ll probably wonder why something is being taught or why something is relevant. That’s normal.
But resist the urge to dismiss something – a topic, a case study, a whole lecture, or whatever else – and instead try to think about how it relates to other things you have been studying and thinking about. How does it fit into the bigger picture? Part of learning is “connecting the dots” between seemingly unrelated concepts so that you can see the bigger picture. But that requires open mindedness, trusting your professors, and time.
So give yourself time for the dots to be connected, so to speak.
What should students look forward to about your core marketing class?
Keep an eye out for a lecture I’ll be giving on this point during your MBA Launch, but here’s a preview: the overarching theme of the core marketing course is the broader strategic, value-creating role that marketing plays in modern business.
To some incoming students without a marketing background they might think it is just about advertising and sales, but marketing is much more than these things. As students with marketing backgrounds will know, marketing is about creating value for customers and for the firm, and growing and managing that value over time.
But how do you do that? How do you know what will be valuable? How do you measure the value? How do you acquire and retain customers? How do you build strong brands? And how does this work in a constantly evolving, technology-enabled environment? These are just some of the major questions we address in the core.
How about other marketing-related electives? What should we expect to learn from those?
For the electives, we have a portfolio that includes:
Our elective portfolio is designed such that cutting-edge topics and concepts are covered, in line with our focus on the future of marketing – to best equip our students with the perspectives and skills they need for the future careers. Also, our marketing electives aren’t just for students who want marketing jobs – they are open to everyone.
Let’s get a bit more technical about your research for a moment. Consumers hate retargeting unless—as you remind here—they feel in control of their information. What should advertisers and ad platforms be doing better to win more trust from their users?
This is a big, unanswered question. There’s this creepiness factor (e.g. with retargeting) that upsets many customers. And there’s also often a lag in the updating of relevant data – or the data is not easily linked – and that makes brands look like they don’t know what they are doing.
For example, suppose you looked at a pair of shoes on a retailer’s website last week and then, later in the week, purchased them in a physical store. Retargeting will probably mean that all of this week that pair of shoes is stalking you in display ads whenever you browse the web – despite you having already purchased them. But the retargeting algorithm doesn’t know you bought them, so you keep seeing the ads. This is a problem that arises all the time, particularly in an omnichannel retail context without a single view of a customer across channels (which is typical). It creates wasted ad impressions, makes brands look bad, and bolsters the creepiness factor in some consumers’ minds.
The challenge for brands and ad platforms is to figure out ways to make this more useful, less creepy, and less wasteful. Giving consumers some level of control can help, but that often doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is about a lack of understanding on the consumer side of how these systems work. And there are problems with “missing data” that make the targeting algorithms operate suboptimally.
But even if we were to educate consumers on how platforms use their data to improve ad targeting (for example), it still wouldn’t be perfect because these systems are increasingly complex and always changing – and there will always be missing data. Time will tell how this plays out, but algorithmic approaches to advertising (i.e., programmatic ad buying) are not going away.
As with any new technology, it takes some time for people to adjust and understand, and we’re still in that phase. To win more trust from users, brands shouldn’t shy away from these approaches; rather, they should make sure that what they do makes sense from the consumer perspective, tries to be useful to consumers, and is not excessive.
Thank you, Professor Stephen! We’ll be seeing you soon.
Thank you, Sagar. I look forward to meeting everyone in the MBA 16-17 class very soon!
 Digital & Social Media Strategy
 Digital Transformation of Marketing, Media, and Advertising
 Marketing Analytics: Data Driven Marketing
 Strategic Customer Insights
 Branding in a Digital Marketplace
 Retargeting is what the online ad industry calls having an ad follow you around on the Internet after you’ve somehow indicated interest. Thought of buying a pair of jeans and then seen those exact same jeans advertised to you on all sorts of other unrelated websites? That’s retargeting.
 Note: this article by Professor Stephen came out last October and is a highly readable review of current research on this topic. I recommend it to anyone interested in online advertising or consumer behavior.Back to top of article