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Q&A: Translating A.I. Insights into Marketing Solutions Requires Balance of Business and Coding Skills

Northwestern Expert Says Automation, Analytics Will Continue to Drive Advertising's Transformation and Inform Tomorrow's MBA Curricula

The Super Bowl remains a spectacular annual showcase of marketing might, drawing millions of viewers who tune in as much for the big-budget ads as they do for the actual game. But much of the advertising business has shifted away from this model, and today's marketers are much more concerned with targeting a specific consumer with data-driven tools than they are with reaching millions in one fell swoop. 

Preparing tomorrow's marketing professionals to harness these tools is a challenge that Dr. Neal Roese of Northwestern University is currently tackling. 

“Whether we're talking about advertising and buying time in different media outlets, or how to craft a message for a particular target audience, all of these things have changed in a blindingly fast manner,” said Dr. Roese, SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing and Chair of the Marketing Department at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Headshot of Dr. Neal Roese.Dr. Neal Roese.

He's currently leading a task force that aims to update MBA programs to meet the emerging demands of the marketing industry, as part the AACSB International's MaCuDE effort, short for Management Curriculum for the Digital Era. The initiative is led by the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology, with support from PwC and participation from more than 100 business schools worldwide.

In examining current course offerings and speaking with industry leaders, Dr. Roese found that there were key areas for improving how universities prepare students for the marketing challenges facing business professional

What’s the role of marketing within today's organization?

Marketing is really all about thinking through entire strategic picture of a business with a primary focus on the end consumer. You’re using a set of tools that allow you to gain new, and more precise, insights about that consumer, so you can structure your entire business model around meeting those unique needs. So much of it is automated by artificial intelligence, which permits a degree of targeting that marketers have never had before, and that opens up opportunities for precision in terms of getting to exactly the right customer that you want to serve or to develop a relationship with.

What skills do students need to work with A.I. tools in marketing?

I keep hearing from industry leaders that they need generalists. They have a team that is either too focused on the analytics side or too focused on the old-school way of doing marketing, and they need somebody who has a sufficiently generalist point of view to embrace all these things at the same time. Being able to translate back and forth between these various aspects is what I see as a key challenge. We need to provide the business leaders of tomorrow with just enough statistical and coding knowledge to manage these A.I. systems, as well as an understanding of the overall framework of a successful business. At all layers of the organization, if there’s a shared understanding of what data analytics can and cannot do, it allows for a much more streamlined operation.

What does digital transformation mean for marketing?

We're able to learn things a lot more quickly than we used to. In the old days, if we wanted to understand shifting patterns of behavior, we used to send out surveys by mail or talk to people on the telephone. But now we have this kind of instant picture of what's happening on the basis of the digital data traces that are left behind. A rich set of data gives us tremendous opportunity to optimize business decisions in a way that is more efficient, easier, cheaper and quicker than ever before.

We need to provide the business leaders of tomorrow with just enough statistical and coding knowledge to manage these A.I. systems, as well as an understanding of the overall framework of a successful business.
Dr. neal roese, kellogg school of management

The reason why Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are such powerful companies is because they have such deep and granular data about each and every customer. That allows them to predict with a greater degree of accuracy than ever before, what a person will buy next. They've found this amazing way to monetize an information source that is simply being gathered automatically all around us. 

How do you prepare students to make business decisions based on data?

We use, for the most part, a case-based approach at Kellogg, which is essentially a simulation or practice run of being a decision-maker. We take a real business problem and gather as much information as we can get about that actual problem. Perhaps it’s data rich, but it’s never going to be complete, so you have to make a decision under a situation of uncertainty. This approach will continue to be a persistent feature of how we go about doing this because it allows us to put our students in the shoes of somebody who's working on a similar challenge.

How can business schools keep courses updated amid fast-paced change? 

The solution there, I think, is to have stronger partnerships with industry. No matter the school, there is an opportunity to forge some connections with local businesses. They can share current business problems that form the basis for a case study, and they can share their personnel as guest speakers or instructors. Having these different perspectives and experiences allows a class to be simultaneously rich and deep in its conceptual background, but also cutting edge and current in terms of its focus.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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