Marketing

Festschrift for a great teacher

Harish Bhat | Updated on October 04, 2018

Sketch by Chetan Sharma   -  anandy

How best should marketing be taught and learnt? Lessons from IIM-A professor Abhinandan Jain

Last month, we celebrated Teachers’ Day. During the same month, I also had the privilege of participating in a unique event for one of the greatest teachers of marketing of our times.

Prof Abhinandan Jain, who has taught over forty batches of students at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, was retiring after 44 years of a most distinguished career.

Hundreds of his students, including myself, came together at the elegant corporate headquarters of Hindustan Unilever in Mumbai, to say farewell to him.

Amongst the audience were the Directors of three IIMs, CEOs of leading companies, and a host of marketing professionals. One of his students, Rama Bijapurkar, who is today amongst India’s foremost thought leaders on marketing strategy, put together a unique farewell gift for Prof Jain — a festschrift.

A festschrift is a collection of writings to honour a great scholar, containing contributions from the scholar’s colleagues, former pupils and friends. In her foreword to this festschrift, Rama Bijapurkar points out that this is a tribute to “a teacher who insisted on and inspired us to always do the best that we possibly could.”

Bhaskar Bhat, Managing Director of Titan, and also Prof Jain’s student, gifted him with a unique, custom-designed, watch created specially in his honour — a rare occurrence that symbolises the very special place that Abhinandan Jain occupies.

This event got me thinking about what creates a great teacher of marketing. How best should marketing be taught and learnt ? Here are a few thoughts on this subject.

All about the consumer

I still vividly recall Prof Jain’s classes, from my student days in IIM-A, over thirty years ago. He would walk into the class, take off his chappals, sit on the table, glare at us, and begin discussions of whichever case-study was on the agenda that day. There was little reference to complex mathematical models or high-powered marketing frameworks. Instead, all his focus was only on one simple subject — the customer.

The entire class would revolve around what the customer needed, did not need, or may need. It would then probe, deeply and relentlessly, how best the company being studied could add value to this customer. He taught us to always remember that the customer is at the heart of business, which is the greatest learning of all.

Rama Bijapurkar says — “I think a great marketing teacher is one who says junk all the formulae you know, let’s discuss the connect between the business and the customer, whichever way you want to define the customers for your business.”

Rigour of thinking

Marketing is not rocket science. Instead, it is common sense, and simple, powerful concepts, applied with great rigour. Great teachers of marketing, therefore, encourage you to sharply identify the problem at hand, ask only the right questions, and then seek the best possible solution.

They urge you to abandon superficial thinking, which may initially be seductive, but is quite likely to lead you astray. They force you to delve deep, repeatedly peeling away layers of the onion until you reach the very core of the problem.

I recall that every time I opened my mouth in Prof Jain’s market research class, to convey some nugget of insight which I thought was conclusive, his favourite retort was — “So?” And so I would have to think again, and again. As another of his students, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, who went on to co-found naukri.com and Ashoka University, recalls of the Professor in his essay in the festschrift: He would finally say — “Never half a point in my class. Think it through. Don’t be a lazy thinker.”

Indeed, many follies of marketing arise from lazy thinking, so this is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that a teacher can convey.

Virtues of preparation

Abhinandan Jain was a terror to all of us. He would challenge the class, call up students at random to speak, ruthlessly maul our inadequate answers, and, if someone had not read the case-study being discussed in class, his raised voice would simply say — “Get out”. He did all this in inimitable style, and it generally led to the desired result — adequate preparation.

However, behind this terrifying façade was a dedicated man who invested huge amounts of time in his own preparation — in writing incisive case-studies, guiding classroom discussions superbly, and teaching younger faculty. Prof G Raghuram, now Director of IIM Bangalore, writes in his essay about how Prof Jain would always seek the required data for analysis, and came so well-prepared to meetings that, during discussions, he easily connected the thread with minutes of earlier meetings.

He was a walking lesson in the virtues of meticulous data analysis and regular preparation, particularly in a vast subject like marketing, where consumer needs and trends are changing all the time.

These lessons have kept shaping so many marketers who have studied under Prof Jain, throughout our long careers. Thank you, Professor.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of “The Curious Marketer”. These are his personal views. bhatharish@hotmail.com

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Published on October 04, 2018
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