Deutsch-kanadische Eindrücke – Interview mit Prof. Markus Giesler

Work Hard, Believe in Yourself and Stay Modest – a talk with Prof. Markus Giesler

By: Anton Rizor

Professor Markus Giesler is a chair and marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business (York University) and the director of the Big Design Lab. Born in Iserlohn, Germany, Giesler managed his own music production company at age 17. After attending the University of Witten-Herdecke, he became Germany’s youngest professor. Giesler has been working and researching in Canada for over a decade now. He has been recognized as „one of the best recognized experts studying high-technology consumption“ (Wired), „one of 8 young business-school star professors on the rise“ (Fortune, CNN Money), „one the world’s 40 most business professors under 40“ (Poets & Quants) and one of „Germany’s 30 thought leaders under 30“ (Wirtschaftswoche). His work has been published in some of the most renowned academic journals, like the Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Marketing. He is frequently featured in newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. I was fortunate enough to meet Professor Giesler in Toronto and ask him some questions about his research, his career and the similarities and differences between Canada and Germany.

DKG: Your research and your ensuing publications have been applauded around the world. What is it exactly that you are researching and what is fascinating you about the topic?

Giesler: I am an expert in market creation customer experience design. It gives you an intimate look into how markets create value, how they create identities, how they ultimately create our lives and how we as human beings are profoundly shaped by the market. This has been a fascination of mine from the time when I was in the business with my music production company to today when I study and research this field.

DKG: You mention the creation of identities, which seems to have become a much bigger theme in a modern market. In one of your recent blog posts you argue that “Beautiful product design and sustainable business vision may be common ways to explain Tesla. But they only distract from Tesla’s real driver of success: the enduring quest for heroic masculinity.” Tesla’s owner Elon Musk has been portrayed in the media as an innovative genius and his company has received insurmountable appraisal for its modern vision – however you argue that the real force behind the company’s success is heroism and masculinity. What exactly do you mean by that?

Giesler:  There is two ways to the answer to this question. First, there is the classic economic answer. It would argue that markets have nothing to do with gender and instead they are guided by price and quality. This explains a fair bit of markets around us. However, I think that markets go much further than that. For example, as Germans, we are very familiar with the saying “you are what you drive”. This shows how much cars matter to who we are and especially to who we are as men. This relationship is often overlooked. This is, because consumption is often not very honest. Humans tend to give standard answers to questions for example about why they are driving what car. However, more often than not the reasons for why we consume these brands are much more intimate and emotional. In fact, so emotional that we do not like to talk about them. The Tesla blog post got me into quite a bit of trouble, because some hard-core Tesla fans could not believe that there was any meaningful relationship between their masculinity and their choice of car. However the emotionality of their response proofs my point that our consumption is a lot more driven by emotions and in this case by the idea of heroic masculinity.

DKG: So how much do emotions actually affect our decision making in our consumption?

Giesler: It is hugely important. Especially in the contemporary market, where there is so much competition. For instance, if you go into the supermarket and you want to buy hair shampoo, there is not only 5 brands, but there are 50. So, it is significant for every brand to distinguish themselves. In order to achieve that distinction, emotions matter greatly. And then for us as consumers in the market place, emotions also matter greatly. For example, looking at a right sharing market like Uber, emotions of costumers are highly significant. All consumers need to be nice, yet the situation often gets quite awkward. The entire idea is a very emotional affair and for marketers it is severely important to understand those emotions.

DKG: Next to your research, you are also well-renowned lecturer, what is your teaching style and what is important in teaching?

Giesler: My teaching style these days is quite different from other professors in my field. It is important to realize that I can just reflect on business schools. The standard philosophy behind teaching in a business school is based on case studies. So you take a random company or problem and dissect it apart. Then the student and professors develop solutions. I have done that for a long time, but I have started to embrace more of a venture-based approach. This is more like building your own platform. Students in my class are encouraged to create a platform (or market if you will) around a certain problem or issue. For example, if there is a group of students that is interested in making emergency rooms in hospitals more attractive, then they have to get in touch with hospitals, consultants, medical experts, consumers, journalists etc. Then they have to develop the emergency room of the future and not just write an exam or report about it, but rather publish it within their interest field. A conventional classroom has walls and invisible boundary with the professor on the one side and the students on the other. While this works well for a lot of education, the venture-based classroom has no walls, that has no boundaries and that is a more global project.

DKG: Was it difficult to break with the established case study model? Did it take long to convince the administration to implement the venture-based approach?

Giesler: It was actually very easy to implement this model. The Schulich School of Business at York University has an openness to innovation. The dean always challenges us to be as innovative and disruptive as possible. He would be the first to support everyone if their idea was new and potentially challenging the status quo. In this particularly case he was very open and supportive. This openness and toleration of innovation is a very Canadian characteristics and one of the reasons why I am here.

DKG: Let’s talk about those reasons. How does one go from Iserlohn, a small town in Germany, to the University of Witten-Herdecke to York University in Toronto, Canada?

Giesler: When I was 17 I started my own music production company. However, I realized that studying was quite expensive and I had to make some money first before going to university. Then something very interesting happened in the music industry – Napster, the first peer-to-peer downloading website, emerged. This totally disrupted the industry. All of a sudden everyone got nervous about how this would alter the market and the consumer. Being in the music industry, I wanted to understand what the future of the music industry would look like. For me the key to that was marketing, because in my naïve definition of marketing, it meant the creation of markets. In a situation where a market was turned upside down, I wanted to learn from marketing experts how to remake a market. That eventually led me to Chicago to a famous marketing expert, Philipp Kahler, from whom I learned a lot. From there I embarked upon an academic career. I sold my business and instead focussed on research in marketing science. As it is often the case, there is a very institutionalized and systemized job market that takes place with all the different universities recruiting young talent. Fortunately, I got several offers, one of which was from the Schulich School of Business at York University. I had been in Toronto before and loved it here. The school was in a great shape, as they had just received big endowments. The opportunities that York could offer me were fantastic and so I ended up here.

DKG: The Schulich School of Business at York University is a well-renowned business school in Canada. It competes with Rotman Commerce at the University of Toronto, the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University and the Smith School of Commerce at Queen’s University to name a few. How do the Canadian business schools compare and what makes York outstanding?

Giesler: Canada is in a very fortunate position to have a number of outstanding universities and business schools in particular. What makes Schulich unique is its tradition of curiosity and innovation. While Rotman Commerce (at the University of Toronto) is a more conservative and traditional institution, Schulich is open to unorthodox thinking. Schulich and York in general has always been a little bit of an underdog, however we have found a way to compete globally thanks to our dean’s fantastic intuition for up-and-coming ideas and people.

DKG: Academia is a very unique field of work – how big is your impact on business and would you consider switching career paths back into the industry?

Giesler: I don’t necessarily have to consider that, because I am in the middle of it all. A lot of the research that I do gets implemented right away. This is certainly a perk that a business professor has, that maybe a researcher in a different field does not. I have had the privilege to work with a lot of globally leading companies, for instance the consulting firm McKinsey. Also, my research caught the interest of many other firms from all sorts of different sectors (automotive, pharmaceutical or entertainment). This is why I have always emphasized the importance of working with managers or executives in companies. This work has also helped me and my research, because I get a better insight into the practical application side. Therefore, it is a symbiotic relationship. However I have noticed that traditionally research and practice are dichotomous categories that are not necessarily easy to bring together. This might be a German thing. Here at Schulich, it is not only important to be productive scholars, but also to matter.  It is absolutely crucial to have an impact. We get measured on how much our research influences the decision making of people in the industry. So I don’t have to go back, because I continue to be in the middle of it.

DKG: You seem very content at York University and in Canada in general. Would you consider moving back to Germany?

Giesler: I went back to Germany for my sabbatical to work at the University of Witten-Herdecke, my alma mater, where my heart and soul is still in. However, I would probably not go back for good. By now I have become so deeply integrated in Canada. I have friends and family here. Also, everything I work on is very North American. But of course I always love going back to Germany to be with friends and family there.

DKG: You mention the University of Witten-Herdecke. The university is a pioneer as it was one of the first private universities in Germany. Now, a host of private universities exist in Germany. However, some are in financial troubles, others struggle with losing the reputation that the traditional academic establishment gives them. What is your opinion of the private universities and their difficulties?

Giesler: This is a very interesting topic. I believe I have changed my opinion about it over the years. I started out thinking that private schools are amazing, because they enable a different way of thinking. This meant to be outside of the German university bureaucracy. Witten, especially, was a pioneer in that regard, because the way we learnt was very different from traditional, powerful universities. Over time I have come to question the bigger picture of it all. The status of education in Germany as a public good is an accomplishment that a lot of states around the world are envious of. There was a phase in my life, where I thought we should privatize all education, because knowledge needs to have a price. After all, people would only appreciate it if it had a price. And I still believe that this is true to a certain extent. However with global inequality becoming a growing issue, education is the key to prosperity, wealth and health. Though Witten has been a bit of a contender, I think the tuition free access to education in Germany is extremely important. I believe the best thing that can happen is a landscape of free education with a few private schools.

DKG: Do you think that Canada should take Germany as a role model to abolish tuition?

Giesler: Generally speaking, education is the key to well-being. All nations compete with each other about the best engineers, doctors, business men etc. At some point it becomes a question of strategic competitiveness on how much you want to make education accessible. Canada, fortunately, is not suffering from a scarcity of new talent, but education should always remain affordable. It has to always be possible for people from lower income families to be able to get an education. While something like an MBA should remain an investment, a basic college education I believe should be tuition free.

DKG: There appears to be a movement towards the masters being the new bachelor. It seems like fewer people will get hired with only a bachelor degree, making a bachelor a new baseline of education. How do you feel about that dramatic shift?

Giesler: I am pro-market guy, an economist by training and I am also a capitalist at heart. I really believe in markets. And as a capitalist I believe that education as a free good can be a competitive asset in the competition among states. It is important to attract talent and low education can be very important to do that.

DKG: You were the Germany’s youngest professor and you have received a lot of media attention as being one of the brightest, young German academics. How does your decision to leave Germany factor into this?

Giesler: I often get framed as a posterchild of this new, liberal and privatized higher education system. So people and the media like to portray me as the youngest, best etc. However, I would never have gotten to where I am, had I not received a free public education in Germany, in the 1980s. So I think that there needs to be a healthy balance between public and private education.

DKG: Finally, what advice would you give to a young person wishing to have a similar career as you?

Giesler: First of all and I think this is very German, you have to work incredibly hard. This might be challenging for Generation Y kids that may be more concerned with getting their voice heard. However, hard work behind the scenes is incredibly important in research. Secondly, you have to believe in your ideas. You need to go your own way. There will be a ton of people telling you what to do. But you need to have a strong sense of confidence in your own ideas and convictions. Lastly, it is tremendously important to be modest. I see a lot of my colleagues that publish something and reach a certain status of recognition and then become unapproachable. Just because academics have degrees and a certain social status, it does not mean that one should judge over others. In academics it is easy to overlook the situation that 98% of the population is in. As an academic one has a tremendous deal of freedom and opportunities and it is important to deal with that responsibly and with modesty.