Q&A with Executive Director Carl Mela

In July, Carl Mela began his two-year appointment as MSI’s Executive Director, succeeding Kay Lemon of Boston College. He is the T. Austin Finch Foundation Professor of Business Administration at Duke University.

Carl is a data scientist best known for his work on the effects of marketing activity on brand equity as well as the role of the internet and new media on consumer and firm behavior. He has received or been a finalist for thirty-five best paper awards, including the INFORMS John D.C. Little and Long Term Impact awards, the American Marketing Associa­tion’s William F. O’Dell and Paul E. Green awards, and the Robert D. Buzzell MSI Best Paper Award.

An inaugural MSI Young Scholar in 2001, Carl is the academic facilitator of MSI’s Advanced Analytics Roundtable and has spoken at many MSI conferences.

Q: What are the critical challenges for marketers today?

Marketing has transformed dramatically. Prior to the new millennium, firms were able to reach a large frac­tion of their potential market through a few mass communication channels. Manufacturers could obtain broad distribution and maintain pricing power because retail channels were numerous and fragmented. Before social media, firms had greater control of brand messages. Selling was person to person, so relationships and customer loyalty were more enduring. Product innovation cycles were long, enabling companies to recover capital investment.

For capable marketers, it has never been a better time to be in marketing.

Now, firms face a radically different world. Media channels are fragmenting and distribution out­lets are consolidating, so firms have less direct contact with consumers and customers. As manufacturers’ direct communication lines to customers sever, chan­nel intermediaries increasingly “own” the customer via their direct interactions. Markets are fragmenting into increasingly smaller micro-segments at the same time that social media enhances the ability of customers to appropriate brand messaging, so firms have a fur­ther disconnect from markets. Owing to the reduced cost of online marketing, more firms (both domestic and global) are enhancing the array of options avail­able to consumers. This intensifies competition, low­ering margins.

However, where there is disruption, there is oppor­tunity. While these recent changes might seem antithetical to marketing goals such as increasing prof­itability and market share, the ability to market one to one with the right message at the right time through the right vehicle represents a fantastic opportunity to create customer value. Relatively new firms like Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Tencent sit at the center of this revolution in customer information and are now among the largest companies in the world. Others with excep­tional market capitalization, like Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, and Charter, have radically different business models from a decade ago.

Opportunity in disruption

Each of these firms taps into a wealth of individual-level consumer and customer information to enhance the customer experience. Firms can augment these internal data with third-party sources and experimentation to better understand how to attribute market­ing touch points to sales. Increasingly, companies have the capabil­ity to develop a 360-degree view of the consumer from first touch (e.g., online ads via multiple channels) to last (innovation in pay­ments to beyond purchase). The ability to create outstanding engagement at the customer level has never been greater, thanks to this wealth of information and new channels to engage directly with them.

The ability to create outstanding engagement at the customer level has never been greater.

Of note, customer information offers an inimitable point of differ­entiation. The more a firm knows about its customers, the better it can deliver value to them, and the less competitors can mimic these strategies. In sum, though the marketing game has become more complex, smart and nimble firms can distinguish themselves via savvier market intelligence and more effective implementation. For capable marketers, it has never been a better time to be in marketing.

Q: Where does MSI fit into this picture?

MSI is well positioned to exploit recent marketing innovations owing to the pas­sion, capabilities, expertise, and involve­ment of its members and academics. This complex marketing ecosystem is one in which our marketing scientists can thrive. Responding to the dramatic shift in this landscape, MSI has a number of short- and long-term initiatives to further align its priorities with those of its members and academics.

First, our webinar series continues to attract a large number of academic and business participants, and we will be hosting more webinars on topics related to creating and capturing customer value in dynamic marketing environments.

Second, each year we conduct two large conferences, one explor­ing innovations in quantitative modeling and the other addressing consumer behavior and behavioral decision theory. In the former, we will focus on the role of marketing analytics in converting data into insights and strategies. In the latter, we will link the latest approaches in consumer behavior research to the customer journey.

Third, this fall and winter, we are hosting several hands-on work­shops on topics including customer retention and salesforce man­agement. These events reflect a shift in emphasis from the product to the customer and/or consumer, and the attendant data and approaches to generate deeper insights into their decision making.

Fourth, I am particularly excited about our fall Immersion event. In addition to two of the leading senior voices in the field, three “Poets and Quants 40 under 40” professors are participating. This speaks to MSI’s remarkable ability to tap into the best and brightest minds. The hands-on format enables attendees to bring actionable insights from these top scholars back into their firms. Immersion has been one of MSI’s most popular events since it was introduced in 2008, and this year there has been record interest from members.

Smart and nimble firms can distinguish themselves via savvier market intelligence and more effective implementation.

Aligning to new challenges

On the academic side, I hope to ensure that our mission is aligned to the new challenges faced by our member firms. For example, I hope to stimulate more research on market innovations such as digital advertising and omnichannel distribution, reflecting the shift in marketing budgets toward digital spend and the shift in consumer and customer expenditures across channels. Ideally, I would like to see insights linked to return on marketing investment. The importance of these and other member concerns has never been higher to our aca­demic community; reflective of these changes, this year’s MSI Clayton Dissertation Proposal Competition shattered the previous record of submissions.

Several new research initiatives are in the planning stages. First, building upon the suc­cess of our Young Scholars program, we are launching a Scholars conference aimed at the leading academics in the mid-point of their careers. This is a period when academics are beginning to set the research agenda for the field, and by engaging them MSI can help ensure that academic research continues to be relevant to market­ers’ concerns. MSI would welcome member sponsorship of this event, where member firms will be able to engage directly with top academics approaching the zenith of their careers.

More broadly, I would like to facilitate the connection of top research teams with interested MSI member companies in order to advance marketing science in practice. For example, I am develop­ing a policy for linking member company data and problems to academics with relevant research skills and solutions. This initiative is becoming more and more important with the increased availabil­ity of data in member companies and a concurrent need to turn these data into insights.

Finally, I hope to broaden participation of academics beyond marketing. So-called foundational discipline contributions to marketing are increasingly realized in the fields of psychology, computer science, statistics, economics, information systems, and others. I will be working to expand our reach to these disciplines, including a conference on new perspectives on mar­keting. Ideally this should open a new frontier in member access to the top minds in the academy.

More about Carl: 6 Favorites 

  1. Non-academic pursuit: "Time with family, including my twins (brand extensions) who are high school seniors, so my wife Rebecca and I will soon be empty nesters.”
  2. Leisure activity: "I run 8-10 miles per day in the mornings, but my real passion is skiing and mountain biking."
  3. Bike trail: Aspen Alley in Breckenridge
  4. Ski trail: Lake Chutes to Double Barrel in Breckenridge
  5. Cities: "For beach, Sydney. For mountains, Santiago. For architecture, Rotterdam. For fun, LA. For marketing, Silicon Valley."
  6. Team: Red Sox. "I am a Boston (Arlington) native."

Q: What are your impressions of MSI after several months as executive director?

I have had a long affiliation with MSI (beginning in the 1990s) and, like many of my colleagues, I have benefitted from its programming and funding. Yet none of this prepared me for the enthusiasm for MSI I have witnessed from academics and members alike. On the academic side, I have received many unso­licited offers of help. The passion on the member side has been equally remarkable, with numerous ideas for initiatives and confer­ences. I hope members will continue to reach out to me with addi­tional ideas and support. Moreover, both members and academics give countless hours of service to this community. MSI is only as outstanding as its members make it, and fortunately we have outstanding members. It is inspiring to be part of such a well-regarded institute.

Last, but not least, I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the MSI staff. They are creative, agile, committed, selfless, and incredibly hard working. The team pulls in the same direction, never hesitating to encourage each other’s ideas to forge a better outcome. I also have benefitted tremendously from the wisdom of past Executive Directors, all of whom have been iconic scholars (including Don Lehmann, who was on my dissertation com­mittee). Thanks to this world-class team, my time in Boston has already been delightful.

Q: MSI is a bridge between academics and marketers. What does each gain from the other?

Prior to joining the Ph.D. program at Columbia, I had spent four years in professional marketing roles. Having been both a marketer and an academic, I understand and appreciate the synergies between the two and how MSI facilitates them.

Academics benefit markedly from busi­ness. Marketers hire faculty’s students and provide inspiration and support for faculty research. Few of my papers would have existed without issues and data gener­ously shared by practitioners. Thus, aca­demics are grateful to marketers, and this is one reason they have shown such enthusiasm for MSI.

For practitioners, academics have pioneered a number of innovations to improve the efficiency of marketing, ranging from customer insights to customer orientation. As a product manager, I spent countless hours reading Kotler’s Marketing Management text, finding useful frameworks from academics to help me manage my products. Academics have the luxury of thinking for months about a problem and developing frameworks and tools to create enduring insights that span industries. The resulting innovations often find their way into practice (including recent innovations such as multi-touch attribution, neuro-imaging, and machine learning).

Given the extent of disruption in the marketing landscape, it is more important than ever to stay abreast of innovative marketing solutions in order to advance revenues and margins. Innovation and networking are at the core of MSI’s mission, and I am looking forward to connecting members and ideas to create value in our evolving markets.

Related links

TV Viewing and Advertising Targeting
Yiting Deng and Carl F. Mela (2017) [Report]

Carl Mela Receives Top Journal Awards (2017) [Article]


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