Data driven: Professor introduces law students to 'market' place


 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
Nearly three decades ago, Fred Feinberg was doing a Ph.D. in “pure” math, and getting disillusioned by the extreme abstraction. He considered switching to cognitive science or linguistics, when a friend suggested marketing. 
“I laughed it off, but the next day, a professor from MIT called and basically convinced me to give it a whirl—that was ages ago, and I’m still at it,” says Feinberg, the Joseph Handleman Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business where he has taught for 15 years.
Feinberg taught a winter seminar in marketing as a visiting professor at the U-M Law School. The seminar was the brainchild of the associate deans in business and in law. 
“Lawyers and doctors and engineers are realizing they work in actual businesses, and should understand what happens to their ‘products,’ even if those can seem intangible or even sullied by the thought of marketing them,” Feinberg explains.
He made it clear on Day One that the course was “Marketing, for Lawyers,” not “Marketing for Lawyers”—“That is, a marketing course that has lawyers in it, not something that specifically pertains just to law firms,” he explains.
Feinberg enjoyed his first foray into U-M Law. 
“First and foremost, the students were eager and super bright. Because they self-selected into the course, they seemed especially jazzed about the material,” he says. “Also, because they’d not been steeped in business and business courses—like students at Ross—for years, it seemed like a real ‘value add’ for them, to use MBA terminology. They’d not had much stats, decision theory, psych, etc., unless one or another of them majored in those, so the course exposed them to many concepts and examples they’d probably otherwise not have encountered.”
While some marketing concepts are easy to grasp—e.g. consumers believe more expensive products are generally better (the “price-quality inference”), concepts based on statistics are more inherently challenging, Feinberg notes—“like how conjoint analysis allows you to decompose overall product preference into how an individual values that product’s specific attributes. But, generally speaking, students seemed to really ‘get’ it.”
Feinberg believes marketing is pretty interesting for anyone living in the real world, since—short of winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune—everyone has to buy things and work for a living. 
“Students tend to respond to ‘here’s a theory, and here are a bunch of examples,’ assuming they can relate personally to the examples,” he says. “I’m also naturally enthusiastic and I like explaining things that I personally think are pretty cool, either intellectually or empirically. And marketing combines both.”
Feinberg explains that law firms face the same challenges as any service: initiating and maintaining long-term relationships with clients and providers; ensuring consistency and professionalism; the inability to “store” unused productive capacity; dealing with an ever-shifting technological landscape; and generating positing outcomes and satisfied clients. 
“The only real differences are that in some cases they are dealing with people’s fortunes and freedom, rather than trying to get a new type of Pepsi into a regional market; and of course, there are massive regulations under which they must operate. But the marketing principles are the same.
“Customers want to feel guided, cared for, and confident in their provider. This is true particularly in law and medicine, to which people often must turn at the weakest points in their lives. A firm or lawyer who is ‘there for you’ and on top of their game is going to attract most clients far more than offering, for example, a low-cost solution, which many services—such as taxes—are moving to, especially with the trend to offshoring and automation.”
Feinberg notes that good marketing for services gets serious potential clients in the door on a low-risk basis, such as a “free consultation,” educates them about what the firm reasonably provides, then follows up in an unobtrusive manner. It also lets them know what specific reasons would lead someone to pick that firm.
“Another good marketing practice for services is networking—word-of-mouth has current clients actively proselytizing to their colleagues,” he says. “People trust their friends more than pretty much any amount of supposedly unbiased data.”
Feinberg outlines the trifecta of marketing: (1) theories, (2) models, and (3) data. 
“Theories need to get codified into models, which have to ‘confront’ data; if your data don’t fit, you have a bad model or a deficient theory, and you may need to re-think both,” he explains. 
“We’re also living in the age of ‘Big Data,’ and it’s quite literally a revolution, with web interfaces as its foot soldiers, and stat geeks like me as, if not its generals, then at least its captains. Actual industry people are finally beating a path to our door, because they can see that applying a little bit of modeling pays major dividends without huge capital outlays. It’s about time!”
Feinberg is especially pleased that his principal course, Marketing Engineering, is full to capacity, and students seem to be considering careers that are more data-driven. 
“In the past, many thought statistics was either esoteric or something to be endured, but Google, Amazon, and other data-based behemoths are changing the very nature of business,” he says. “It’s an especially good time to be a stats person.”
Senior editor for “Marketing at Production and Operations Management,” associate editor at “Marketing Science and Journal of Marketing Research,” Feinberg is co-author, with Tom Kinnear and Jim Taylor, of “Modern Marketing Research: Concepts, Methods, and Cases,” which took two years to write. 
“I found writing the book, with my co-authors, extremely time- and brain-consuming, but I learned a ton in the process, particularly how to integrate everything into something the newly initiated could digest, relate to, and put to use,” he says.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Feinberg was an only child of parents who weren’t university educated, but valued a college education. 
“I was a math nerd, and they had no idea what to do with me, but didn’t discourage it and, when I got into MIT, despite us having trouble scraping together the rent some of the time, my parents found a way to make it work,” he says. 
Feinberg and his wife, Carolyn Yoon—also a marketing professor at Ross—and their 5-year-old son, Benjamin, live in Ann Arbor, and enjoy the university city with a cosmopolitan feel. 
“There’s a music scene here, the restaurants are well beyond what you’d expect, and above all I have a great network of colleagues who, unlike some of their big city counterparts, are actually in the office day to day and available just to throw ideas around,” Feinberg says. “And of course U-M is a truly great school, nearly across the board. It’s my third academic job—5 years each at Duke and U-Toronto—and I often say that ‘Third time’s a charm.’”
Feinberg’s overriding hobby is piano music. 
“I play really badly, mostly classical, but have thousands of recordings, and follow pianists’ careers, which I find no one else ever wants to talk about. I make up for this by ignoring the existence of sports,” he says with a smile. “I also try to keep up with math, mainly number theory, which is like trying to keep up with being an Olympic-level sprinter—it’s just so beyond me.”
Feinberg is looking forward to next year’s first-ever sabbatical, part of which he hopes to spend in France. 
“Tearing ourselves away from colleagues, students, and friends here in Ann Arbor will be tough, but we’re looking forward to this all-too-brief adventure in a new culture.”