Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

June 22, 2006

On teaching: Business school prof teaches real-world marketing

“I’m probably more of a CEO than a teacher,” admits associate professor of business administration Bob Gilbert as he describes his role in leading the business school’s undergraduate Projects in Marketing class. “As CEO you don’t manage things, you kind of oversee them.”

Each spring and fall’s class pairs with a corporate client of California-based EdVenture Partners to tackle real-world marketing challenges. “Their business model connects clients with university classrooms to do real-world projects with these clients,” he said.

The class of marketing majors is organized as its own marketing firm. On a $2,500 budget, students get real-world experience while clients get real peer-to-peer marketing to the Gen Y age group, which is notoriously difficult to reach via traditional advertising techniques.

“It’s a fun class to teach, but it’s certainly unconventional,” Gilbert said.

He initially integrated an EdVenture project for Citibank into his advertising sales promotion class three years ago. “I quickly realized to do it right, it deserved to be a class unto itself with a relatively limited number of students,” he said. After assuring himself that EdVenture would be able to provide a steady stream of varied corporate partners, his Projects in Marketing class was born. Students have tackled marketing assignments for clients as varied as Chevrolet (helping to introduce the Cobalt model), the Recording Industry Association of America (informing students about alternatives to illegal music downloading) and the Central Intelligence Agency (letting students know it’s also an employment option for more than aspiring intelligence agents).

This fall, the class will develop a program in partnership with an investment firm to impress upon students the importance of saving and investing early in life.

Gilbert’s most recent class of 22 students garnered nationwide attention by raising awareness of Honda’s new Fit compact car. Their work took top honors in the Honda Fit Challenge, which had 17 university teams competing to be among the top three invited to present their work to Honda’s management and ad agency executives in California in early June. The Pitt team not only made the cut, but came home with top honors and a $5,000 prize.

Variety is a key safeguard for the originality of each team’s work. “It works as long as there’s a supply of new and different clients. Next semester, a car company would not be so appealing,” Gilbert said. Tackling similar projects in too short a time frame might result in students being influenced by what their predecessors had done. “It would steal some of the learning purpose from the whole endeavor.”

Prior to the first class, Gilbert “interviews” students by phone. They find out where in the organization they’ve been “hired” when they arrive in class. He names the coordinator (equivalent to a corporate chief operating officer), assistant coordinator and the department heads who collectively become the management team with whom he works closely. The remaining students fill positions in research, advertising, strategy and public relations “departments.”

Gilbert takes on the role of CEO: part coach, part dictator, part nervous parent. As such, he walks the line of ensuring that students get a good educational experience and that they experience many of the real consequences of their decisions.

Just as in the real corporate world, “It’s not a democracy,” he said. “I set the ground rules for the agency.”

Coaching rather than lecturing forms the basis for the class. “It’s tricky because I’m as opinionated as the next person. But I can’t get my fingers too far into it or I’m doing the work for them,” he said.

Gilbert admits he will “suggest” actions students might want to consider, but leaves much of the responsibility to the students themselves.

“I’m reluctant to butt in,” he said, admitting he balances the hands-off approach with some guidance to steer the class away from major time-wasting blunders. “You want them to suffer through some of that; you don’t want to sterilize it so that it’s not the real world.”

His approach is to motivate the students, set clear objectives for them and let them work. “I make it clear that it’s their job to come up with an answer. I only tell them when I don’t agree…. That’s the way it is in the real world,” Gilbert said.

Throughout the semester, students gain insight into budgets, organization issues and personnel management. They learn the logistics of getting customer approvals and following timelines, skills all transferable to the workplace.

And they can show tangible evidence of their impact through pre- and post-campaign surveys. “I wouldn’t do the program if not for the research component,” Gilbert said. “Otherwise it’s just a big event planning exercise.”

Lauren Feintuch, coordinator for the Pitt Honda team’s campaign, said she found the course to be the most beneficial of her academic career. “Different courses touched on management or on marketing; this was totally different. It maximized the impact of my coursework by 1,000. It’s definitely my favorite course by far.

“It’s a great stepping stone,” added the spring graduate, who already has landed a business banking position at PNC Bank. “You still have guidance and a student atmosphere. You don’t have to worry about getting fired. But this is Honda’s money and we want to make them feel their investment was worthwhile,” she said. “It matured me professionally so much.”

As the coordinator, “It would be me running the class, but [Gilbert] would interject things to guide us. I coached the class; he coached me,” Feintuch said. “It seems like a very hands-off coaching, but he’s a very good adviser,” she said.

Feintuch, who aspires to management, found the time Gilbert spent mentoring her invaluable. She learned the difficult job of managing her peers and honed her decision-making skills. “You can’t have 22 people making one decision,” she said. “But you have to think of ways to make everyone feel part of the decision. That was something very important and beneficial that he taught me.” Presentation skills are another area in which Gilbert’s coaching helped the students shine. His emphasis on the importance of scripting the entire presentation and teaching students to look professional and comfortable — regardless of whether they felt that way — paid off with compliments from the Honda execs, Feintuch said.

Gilbert finds he’s learning as each term passes to appreciate students’ resilience and commitment to getting the work done. He admits that he worries about their preparation prior to important client meetings and likely will continue to pace like a nervous father while the presentations are underway. Admitting that there’s a bit of a generational difference at play, he said, “I would be better prepared earlier than they typically are. But kids are kids,” admitting his worry always turns out to have been needless. “Every time they’ve pulled it off like champions.”

He’s not quite ready to give up on his nervousness yet, but “I’m learning to be more flexible, and maybe more trusting that they’re going to pull it off.”

Typically, the class meets three times with the client: first when the client spells out objectives for the campaign; then mid-semester when students present their plan in a marketing strategy meeting, and again when they make a final review of what they’ve done and analyze post-campaign results.

Gilbert has detected a pattern following that initial client meeting. The client goes away and students act as though they know what to do. Next comes a moment of panic-stricken silence and “What are we supposed to do?” as they realize they’re on their own.

Sure, the uncertainty’s painful. “But it’s really useful,” Gilbert said. Prior to students’ subsequent client meetings, “I always ask them to think back to that moment,” he said.

“I ask them to take measurement of where they were and where they’ve come…. It’s really kind of remarkable.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply