17 Dec 2008  Lessons from the Classroom

‘Ted Levitt Changed My Life’

Many students say legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Ted Levitt changed their lives inside his classroom and out. "Ted Levitt was the most influential and imaginative professor in marketing history," HBS professor and senior associate dean John Quelch eulogized on the occasion of Levitt's death in 2006. Colleagues and students remember a life and times. From HBS Alumni Bulletin.

 

The details differ slightly, but the story, in its telling, is always the same. Ninety or so MBA students sit nervously awaiting the start of their first Marketing class. At the appointed time—not a minute more or less—a slight man with bushy eyebrows and an impressive mustache enters the room, slaps down his papers, and fixes his audience with a piercing gaze before choosing one unfortunate soul: "Mr. Brown. Begin."

Startled, Mr. Brown launches into a halting rehash of the day's assignment before he's cut short with a fierce directive: "We've read the case. Tell us something new." For the next eighty minutes Mr. Brown and his classmates are badgered, cajoled, and dazzled as the man guides them to a different, deeper way of looking at the issues. Dazed, they stumble out of the classroom determined to prepare better for tomorrow's class. Scared, even resentful in the early weeks (the man does not let up!), the students come to appreciate the intensity and rapid-fire humor of their teacher. Clearly, he cares. A lot. And by the end of the semester, something transformative has happened: They are better thinkers.

When HBS professor Ted Levitt died after a long illness in June 2006 at the age of 81, the Bulletin's Class Notes were flooded with dozens of tributes from alumni who recalled his passion and commitment in the classroom and his lasting influence on their careers. "I was clueless going into Professor Levitt's course and, frankly, expected to be bored," wrote Robert Sullivan (HBS MBA '61). "Levitt made me a convert. He taught that marketing is the guts of any business, that it's critical to understanding the connection between sales, manufacturing, finance, human resources, and interpersonal relationships."

Ted Levitt
Ted Levitt

"Ted Levitt changed my life," wrote Barry Koh (HBS PMD 30, 1975). "In our very first class he opened my eyes to how people are motivated to make decisions. Before, I thought as an engineer—the best attributes and the best price sells the product. From that day on I focused my attention on understanding what is important to the individual when he or she makes a purchasing decision."

What business are you really in?

Levitt's influence reached well beyond the classroom. "Ted Levitt was the most influential and imaginative professor in marketing history," HBS professor and senior associate dean John Quelch stated on the occasion of his death. "He was an intellectual provocateur but one whose insights were grounded in a profound understanding of practice." The author or coauthor of numerous articles and eight books, Levitt left an indelible mark on the business world with two pieces in particular, both published in Harvard Business Review: "Marketing Myopia" (1960) and "The Globalization of Markets" (1983). With nearly 900,000 reprints sold to date, "Marketing Myopia" posed a question that reverberates nearly fifty years later: "What business are you really in?"

"An industry begins with the customer and his or her needs, not with a patent, a raw material, or a selling skill," wrote Levitt, citing the railroads as one example of a business that lost its way. "They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. . . .They were product oriented instead of customer oriented."

As was so often true of Levitt's work, "Marketing Myopia" went well beyond the topic at hand, touching on big-picture concerns. A company's chief executive, he argued, is responsible for setting an organization's compass. "This is the first requisite of leadership, for unless a leader knows where he is going, any road will take him there [emphasis in original]. If any road is okay, the chief executive might as well pack his attaché case and go fishing. If an organization does not know or care where it is going, it does not need to advertise that fact with a ceremonial figurehead. Everybody will notice it soon enough."

In interviews with Levitt's HBS marketing colleagues, all brought up his love of a provocative argument and a good discussion, as well as the powerful breadth and depth of his mind. "He always said he didn't mind that people thought he was wrong if they listened long enough to give him a shot," says HBS professor emeritus Stephen A. Greyser. "Also, it's interesting to note that he didn't go to the academy to get his ideas accepted; his approach was to convince important people in the practical world of marketing. Then the academic community would pay attention."

"His approach was to convince important people in the practical world of marketing."

"It was always so much fun to talk to Ted, because his brain never stopped," remarks HBS professor emeritus Ben Shapiro. "His mind was truly creative, truly visionary. There was a freshness and exuberance about him, as well as a genuine concern for people." As an MBA student, Shapiro visited Levitt to consult about a possible career path in manufacturing. "It was the second time I went to see him," he recalls, "and Ted was visibly nervous. He said, 'Your voice. Your voice has a pleading quality to it that is not good. And it will affect you as a manager.' Ted was embarrassed and afraid of hurting me, but the devotion and urgency he felt to take care of his student outweighed every other concern. This was the ultimate loving-kindness of a teacher."

"As formidable as Ted could be in the classroom, he was an excellent counselor to people in private," says HBS professor emeritus Walter Salmon. "I miss him."

A simple idea

When she came to HBS, Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner (HBS AMP 90, 1983) had read all of Ted Levitt's books. "There were 132 people in my class; two were women. Naturally, the guys in my living group decided that I would be the social director!" The benefit was having a good excuse to invite Levitt, who was not teaching in the AMP program, to dinner. "We became good friends," she recalls, adding that she applied a number of Levitt's insights over the years in her role as president and CEO of Estée Lauder International Inc.

"Ted's writings taught me that relationship management is particularly relevant in a global business," she adds. "I knew every single department store owner in every part of the world we did business in. I always took a special gift from Mrs. Lauder and sat down for a glass of champagne. It really does work. We grew our business incredibly. Everyone benefited from what was a very simple idea." Wagner doubts that Levitt would have much patience for the froth of marketing advice available today: "When people write entire books about one tiny idea—he'd already done it, in a chapter. He would have cut right through it all."

Levitt's personal interest in students sometimes led to lifelong friendships. Michael Berolzheimer (HBS MBA '63), cofounder of the Duraflame firelog company, remembers hashing out some of the early principles of the company in an informal session at Levitt's Belmont home. Berolzheimer's family business was an industrial company, providing wood slats to pencil manufacturers; Levitt urged him to form a separate entity to focus primarily on the marketing of a branded, high-quality firelog, which continues to dominate the market.

"Ted had an intense desire for people to think, capital 'T' think," observes Berolzheimer. "He was tough on students who didn't use their imagination, and for that reason I didn't like him at first. It was only later that I came to appreciate that it wasn't personal." Levitt's habit of throwing chalk at the blackboard, he says, was a symbol for "think harder."

"He subjected himself to a greater discipline than he ever subjected his students," adds Berolzheimer. "I don't know if everyone was aware of that. Even his humor was carefully orchestrated to make a point."

Levitt's sheer foresight also came into play in the classroom; Beverly Brandt (HBS MBA '72) recalls one case discussion in particular that foreshadowed the rise of women in the workplace. "It was the only case featuring a female, but that fact was disguised," Brandt says. After letting the predominantly male class discuss the case and come to their conclusions, Levitt pounced, revealing that the protagonist was a woman. With this new information, Brandt's sectionmates immediately changed their original analysis, based on gender assumptions.

"Even his humor was carefully orchestrated to make a point."

"Levitt's summation was, 'Boys, you'd better wake up now, because there are going to be more and more women in management, and they're going to have an edge. You fellows are going to be so competitive with each other that the thought of collaboration is never going to cross your minds. Women will come in willing and able and ready, and you're going to lose,' " she remembers.

Brandt, one of 38 women in the Class of 1972, says she was "quietly and eternally grateful" to Levitt for that insight. "He had such great antennae. And he was brave. It takes courage to stick your chin out in the air and say this is what's coming. I always wanted to be prepared for his class. Not that I feared him; you just didn't want to be left out."

A hangman's noose

That level of preparation cut both ways. Peter Levitt, a lawyer in Boston, says that his father often fine-tuned discussion points while eating breakfast at a diner on Western Avenue. After a big meal, Levitt père would skip lunch: "Dad enjoyed food so much that he didn't want to be thinking about it during the day, although I do know that occasionally he liked to sneak across the river to Elsie's for a Reuben sandwich." Levitt also remembers a hangman's noose in his father's office—a gift from students. "He was hard on them, but by the end of the year they understood it was his way of getting them to be better. That meant a lot to him."

The youngest of five children, Peter Levitt describes a father who was similar to his classroom persona. "He loved to debate, argue, and discuss issues," he says. "The dinner table was always very interactive." There was a fun side, too. Peter remembers perching with a friend atop the backseat of his father's 1969 red Camaro convertible while Levitt zigzagged the car through the streets of Belmont. "That was part of who he was and his hardscrabble life growing up," notes Levitt. "The idea of kids wearing helmets to play soccer is something he would mock."

Another familiar part of the household was the clack of the typewriter coming from Levitt's upstairs office. From the moment he emigrated from Vollmerz, Germany, at age 10, Levitt seems to have understood and relished the power of the right words, in the right order. In fifth grade, he and the late humorist Erma Bombeck started a school newspaper; in high school and later, after serving in World War II, Levitt worked as a reporter and sportswriter for the Dayton Journal Herald, where he helped Bombeck get a job (she would go on to become a syndicated columnist and best-selling author).

Ultimately, the printed word brought Levitt to HBS, when Edward Bursk, editor of the Harvard Business Review, asked the young University of North Dakota professor and author of a recent HBR article, "The Dangers of Social Responsibility," to stop by the magazine's offices on his way to a job interview at Dartmouth College. As a result of that meeting, and subsequent introductions, Levitt found a home in the Marketing area at HBS. "That sequence of events had a powerful effect on him," remembers Peter Levitt. "He learned the power of writing."

Levitt deployed that power again and again in his books and numerous HBR articles, including "The Globalization of Markets." In it, he described "a new commercial reality—the emergence of global markets for standardized consumer products on a previously unimagined scale of magnitude." In a world made much smaller and more homogeneous by communications technology, Levitt drew a line between the multinational company, which adjusts its products and practices from country to country (at great cost), and the global corporation, which operates "as if the entire world (or major regions of it) were a single entity; it sells the same things in the same way everywhere." The piece, in true Levitt style, sparked immediate controversy.

"The article did succeed in stimulating a great deal of comment," Levitt said in a 2003 interview with Stephen Greyser on the occasion of a colloquium that marked the article's 20th anniversary and reassessed the status of global corporations, marketing, and brands. "I admit it's written in a provocative way, and that's one reason it gets assigned all the time." While Levitt's vision of a world where standardized products rule has not yet been borne out, the article is still read and discussed 25 years later.

"With Levitt's work, the medium is the message."

In a paper that evaluates Levitt's "Globalization" with the benefit of hindsight, HBS professors Richard Tedlow and Rawi Abdelal examine the flaws in Levitt's ideas while making their own case for the article's ongoing importance to managers. "With Levitt's work, the medium is the message," they write. "He does not offer a 'ten step program' systematically to improve the efficiency of marketing beyond the borders of the home country. Instead, he shouts: 'Wake up!' "

Throughout his career, in different ways, Levitt kept shouting. When HBS Dean John McArthur appointed him editor of HBR (a position he held from 1985 to 1989), he transformed the magazine from a more academic publication to one that targeted business managers with relevant, accessible articles. He shortened articles and even added cartoons, a decision that appalled some. His aim, Levitt told Marketing Business in 1989, was to be "more readable without being superficial, less intimidating, less predictable, more lively without being pop. At the same time, taking the reader seriously rather than pandering or patronizing." Levitt practiced what he had preached in "Marketing Myopia," letting the needs and lives of HBR's readers drive the magazine's content.

If Levitt never let up on his students, he never let up on himself, either, continuing to work and play tennis even as his body failed. "He loved tennis, but it was a constant struggle for him," remembers his son Peter. "We held his memorial service at the Belmont Tennis Club, and a woman who was a member came up and said, 'You know, Ted's tennis game ... he never got it.' That's what he loved about the club. People like that. Even though he had just died, people were still critiquing his game."

About the author

Julia Hanna is associate editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.