The Professors of the Education Partner Program

  • Ian Cross

    Ian Cross

    Senior Lecturer and Director, Center of Marketing Technology

    Bentley University

  • Courses Taught

  • Digital Marketing
  • Interview

Interview with Ian Cross - Bentley University

Hey, everyone. Thanks for tuning into the Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for the Education Partner Program. I'm Isaac Moche, your host for the podcast. Today, we'll be talking to Ian Cross, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Center of Marketing Technology at Bentley University. Welcome, Ian.

Thanks. Hi. Good to be here, Isaac.

Happy to have you in the office. That's the nice thing about having Bentley right next door. We're in the studio today.


Give our listeners a little bit of background on yourself, what you do at Bentley.

All right. Well, hi, everyone. My name's Ian Cross, as Isaac said, and I have been teaching at Bentley ... First of all, started off as an adjunct there for five years, and then, for the past 10 to 12 years, teaching full time. For the past about seven or eight years, I've been the director for the Center of Marketing Technology, which is a state-of-the-art marketing research and strategy center at Bentley University.

What's the purpose? So, you folks are focused on research, but you serve a couple different folks. What is the CMT all about?

Essentially, there are three functions of the CMT. The first one, and this is primarily why it was built, was to support the community, and by supporting the community, we want our students to be up-to-date with what is current in the marketing world, the tools, the processes, the techniques that marketers are using today. So we subscribe to Nielsen. We subscribe to databases like Mintel. We use Qualitap. We've got Euromonitor. Students can act like media planners and build their own profiles of customers. We use Qualtrics for surveying. As I said, we have our own focus group facility where we run live focus groups, which can be streamed to anyone, anywhere, as well as that. We're also using tools for customer journey mapping. We're using tools for social listening. The whole idea is that students get to learn the tools that are being used in the marketing world, so that when they leave Bentley, even as undergraduates, then they can hit the ground running and be productive right from the get-go. Many students have at least two, or sometimes three, internships at Bentley before they graduate, so we're actually preparing them to be productive with interns, and then, that internship experience often leads to a job offer.

I was just going to say it sounds like all of these things are converging on two points. It sounds like data-driven analysis is incredibly important and applied learning. Would you say those are your two guideposts for the CMT?

Exactly. Applied learning is our mantra. Bentley's a very experiential learning kind of university. Our motto is to help students get prepared. Not only do we teach this stuff and teach it to our students, but we actually do it. As I like to say, we eat our own dog food, and we do this by having the center also be a for-profit center. We actually do consulting and market research and strategic work for dozens of local companies, as well as international and national companies. The graduate students who work with me in the center actually get to work with real clients, real clients like citizens, like Converse. Thanks to the fantastic partnership we have with HubSpot, undergraduates and graduates get to experience creating content programs with HubSpot.

I was going to ask, does that port down to the undergrads? I think a lot of times professors can be nervous about doing that sort of applied work for clients as undergrads.

Absolutely. Undergraduates do get to work with real companies. It's one of the cornerstones of our whole business curriculum, is that all students have to do a business project. It has to be with a real company. One of the things I like about working with undergraduates is they are much more fearless than the graduate students. Somebody coming into my class at 19, 20, 21 doesn't know what they don't know. Somebody coming into my class as a graduate at 25, 26, 27 has kind of got a taste of what they know and are worried about what they don't know and don't want to expose that to their peers and professor in the class. While they actually do know more and can be somewhat more productive, when it comes to, if you will, the creative process, I always find the undergraduates to be much more exciting to work with.

That's one of your big things personally, right, is that you can't know everything and that things are changing so quickly? Do you feel that you ever have to deconstruct that for the students and knock them off their high horse a little bit?

Yes. You can't ever know. I like to start my classes, I always start with, "Okay, welcome to World of Marketing. We're in crisis, but out of crisis, out of chaos comes opportunity, to quote Little Finger from Game of Thrones there." Bentley is a business university, so most of the students who come to Bentley are there primarily to get qualified for the world of business, whether it's finance or marketing or management or IT. They tend to be a little bit more conservative, small c conservative. They think that it's potentially more dangerous to take risks, and it's my job to say, "The biggest risk that you're taking is just signing up for my class, because you don't know what's that to happen. Guess what? Neither do I. It makes the applied learning classes very exciting."

How do you develop the confidence to do applied learning? I think a lot of teachers struggle with that, because you are, in many ways, handing over control of your class to the students.

I'm very encouraging of my students to try and to fail and to pick themselves up and try again. As I say, what's the worst that can happen in the classroom? I'm just going to make fun of you mercilessly? Which, obviously, I will. That builds character, as we like to say. For professors, for teachers, I think you've got to trust that the students want to learn, trust that the students have a lot of innate abilities and qualities, particularly digital world. As users, they know more about using Snapchat and filters and Facebook and Instagram than just about anyone over the age of 40.

It's essentially tapping into their knowledge and their enthusiasm and giving them the confidence that you actually know more about some of this stuff than I do, except I know a lot more about the world of business and how to harness these skills, these raw, unshaped skills, into something that's going to have business value. Together, as a team, we can learn from each other and we can make progress and achieve great things. It's kind of like, hey, you guys are all great already about this stuff. I'm great at this other stuff, and together, we'll be even greater.

Anything that you've found either the hard way that you want to share folks or even just some insights on getting students to turn their heads a little bit and say, "Okay, wonderful, you know about Snapchat, but let's talk about how to evaluate whether that's having impact on your business." Any tips for folks as you're taking maybe a baseline thing that students understand and getting them to think about it from a more strategic perspective?

One of my chosen methods, which I'm sure many other people do, is to bring in experts. Bring in experts from HubSpot. Bring in experts from ad agencies. Bringing experts in from marketing firms. Don't think you have to know everything. To bring in experts, to share their points of view, to sometimes bring in experts that have conflicting points of view. I think what's really challenging today, and maybe has always been challenging, is there's a lot of ambiguity. As I said earlier, this idea that marketing's in crisis. Where do we bring value? The average CMO probably has a two- to three-year life span. I actually say to the students, "This is a good thing. This actually creates lots of opportunity for you." You can't be afraid of that. If you're going to be successful in marketing, you have to embrace risk. You have to embrace change.

How do you help them do that?

If you just tell them, "Just slow down. Just think about where we've come." The other thing I like to say is to think about technology similar to the rise of the automobile. One of my favorite things, stop and think, is the first car, what type of engine did it have? They go like, "I don't know. Gasoline engine or something?" I say, "No, electric. Electric engine, and the oil companies, the Standard Oils of the world, killed the electric engine back over a hundred years ago." Guess what? Always the new, cool thing today ... Volvo just announced that all their cars are going to be electric after 2019. Electric cars. It's all technology that has been rebooted and is now new, so what is old is now new again. I want the students to have the realization that the world is changing around them. There's always going to be a new innovation.

You've been teaching for about 15 years now. How have you seen your approach to teaching digital marketing and integrating that into your course change over the last 15 years?

What has changed, for me, is that, in a sense, I trust the students more. I think the students have got smarter. I think they come to university much more marketing aware, brand aware. They're much more savvy. They are much more equipped to deal with the world of technology, so it's kind of trusting them more. My approach is less prescriptive. Also, I don't want to use textbooks. I much prefer the flip classroom method, where they go watch the video, go read the slides, and then come to class and let's discuss it. My job is less about have you learned to dot the I and cross the T in a particular technique that we go through. It's my job to say, "Okay, what do we know? What did we learn about content management? What did we learn about persona development?" Then, it's to give them an exercise. Okay, let's develop a persona around X. What questions do you have?

They have to realize that the marketing process, in fact I would say the business process, is messy. It's not like textbooks. It's the experience. It's the experience behind experiential learning. To take some canned simulation and call that an experience, it's not. It's a simulation. We much prefer to actually work with the Converses of the world and their marketing departments or startup companies. We just had a startup company in the class last semester. Two guys who the students were convinced, after about five minutes, they didn't really know what they were doing. Great. Well, show them what they do need to do, but be respectful.

One of the things that I found interesting about the time that we've worked together is that you are constantly reinventing yourself and your program. What has that experience been like, as you have gone from taking over the CMT to, even just talking about our own relationship, integrating software into the course as part of the implied learning? Then, another experience that we're going to be working on, but how do you learn to adapt like that?

This sounds pretentious, but it's sort of like endless curiosity of, oh, wow, that's cool. Actually, it's worse, and I've been accused of this and worse, it's kind of like Jackdaw mentality like, oh, what's the next shiny, bright thing? Checking it out and maybe experimenting with it for a few weeks and bringing it into the class and having the students think how could we use this. Then, maybe like, wow, this stuff is really cool. Let's move forward. I'll give you an example that we're going to do next semester at Bentley, and that's with virtual reality and Oculus Rift and a relationship with Facebook.

I don't quite know yet what that might bring, but I think it's really interesting and cool and has lots of potential applications. Yet, already, there are naysayers saying, "Yeah, this is just not going to happen." It's two things. It's, one, having a sense of individual confidence. I'm going to try this, and I'm going to be honest with the students and say, "We're going to see what difference this makes." We had a social listening tool we brought in a year ago, which I'm very committed to social listening, but the students found it really hard, the one that we had, found it really hard to use and get insights from the results. So I'm thinking, hm, I can't do that. Rather than keep forcing it into them, maybe I need to get a new tool.

I'm so happy you brought that up, because that's exactly what I was going to ask you, is do you have an example of a time where you brought something in that wasn't successful but still ended up being a learning experience for you and the students.

Part of my mantra is never look back, which is not the same as saying don't learn from your mistakes. Yes, I make mistakes all the while. I sometimes bring companies in, projects ... We've had a number of startups that have stopped in the middle of a class, and I'm like, "Huh, that's interesting. What can we learn~ from that, and how can we move forward?" I like to think of my marketing classes, as you know, we've said this a number of times, of mirroring the real world. That when you go to work every day as a manager or director or VP of marketing, you're not really sure what's going to happen in three months' time. You've got a plan, you've got a strategy, but things are going to change.

If you were to sum up three or four words, what are those things that students leave with where you feel like they'll really be equipped for the real world?

In a sense, it's less about specific skills, although those are important, but it's more about confidence. What I want my students ... What will equip them best is by giving them experiences that will build on their knowledge and their experience and give them greater experience, which leads to greater confidence to take more risk and accept greater challenges. It's very general in sense, but I think that's really important. Also, that they are responsible. They are responsible for their own decisions. They decide to come to class or not come to class. They decide to engage with me, engage with the material, engage with their peers, engage with the company, the technologies or not, but every decision they make, positive or negative, has a consequence. That's also really important to me that the students learn, is all actions have a reaction and decisions have consequences.

On that note, I think we are spinning up what I would say is a pretty cool experiment for the fall that is going to tackle some of that. I don't know if you wanted to talk a little bit more about what that was.

What we're going to create in this coming semester, we're going to try it, is to actually create a team, one team of students, that work in an agency model, if you will, to develop a real campaign for a targeted, identified HubSpot customer. When I say HubSpot customer, a firm that is using the HubSpot platform. We're going to work closely with Isaac and the education team to see what we learn from doing this, and we're also going to work with a HubSpot marketing firm partner who's going to mentor the students in how you think about putting a proposal together, how you think about project management, how do you create what's a project scope, what are the deliverables. It's not as if I couldn't do some of that for the students, but I know the students will get a lot more out of working with professionals in the field, and they'll believe them more than they'll believe me. I mean, after all, what do I know, right?

To have some agency or consulting people come in and say, "Okay, this is how we plan our projects for our customers," it legitimizes the process immediately and gives it a lot more weight. We're very excited that we're going to, as I say, create this agency. We've done similar types of things in the past, where I've had a team of students just work on a particular marketing exercise, excuse me, marketing project for a particular company. One that springs to mind is we did some work for the TJX Company some years ago, where undergraduates did a whole sort of mystery shopping to understand store layout. That was so successful that it got presented to the president. I think we know that we can make this work. We're thinking of, for this one, we almost call it directed study, so that it's additional to their workload. So we're going to require that the students, that they will apply for a position in the agency, maybe six students. They must be HubSpot certified, and they will work with me and they'll work with HubSpot and they'll work with an agency partner over the course of one semester to develop an inbound campaign that meets the objectives of the campaign.

Two-part question for you. What are you most excited about for this, and what are you candidly a little nervous about?

I'm excited about the opportunity to work with real companies and learn what it is they find valuable about the HubSpot methodology, about what they've learned, and about the platform and learn with the students about what challenges a small to medium-sized business, that they would even consider working with a professor and his students at Bentley. Candidly, although I'm confident the students will do well, I know that I'm going to be asking them to go above and beyond their normal workload, so there's always the issue of the students ... Will they rise to the challenge? I think so, especially if we make good choices. Will they work well together? I think so, but maybe not. Then, ultimately, will they produce good-quality work that meets the objective of the client in an appropriate time frame?

Two things on that. One, it would be interesting to share those anxieties and have the students share those anxieties with the agency that will be sponsoring this. I'd imagine many of them are similar to how they feel when they take on a new client and how to mitigate those things, and how they work in teams on that would be really interesting. Then, the second thing for us that I personally am excited about is how do we build the right incentives to show that this is something that will really help them launch their career, that both the business that they're doing work for and the agency have the potential to hire them, that even if they don't, if they do well, they'll be building this incredible portfolio of work. Yes, there's more opportunity here, but only if you grab it.

If thy do good work, there's a chance that the agency, in this case New Breed out of [inaudible 00:22:39], might want to hire them. I mean, that's obviously an incentive for New Breed to work with us. Also, the client themselves, as is happened in previous project classes ... Nothing quite to the extent of real world as this one that we're doing, but yeah, I think it'll be a great experience.

Talk about an opportunity, though. Almost every single business or company that I talk to is just saying, "We are in pain. We are hurting for talent that understands how to analyze things and make decisions based off of them."

I think this dovetails very nicely with what I'm seeing in the business world and what my CMT board of advisors talk about, and these are guys that are running advertising agencies, running marketing firms, running consulting practices here in New England and Chicago and New York, et cetera, and Boston. They talk about the need for tri-digital skills. They are looking for students to ... It's great if a student knows how to do Google Analytics, but they also want them to be able to write well. They also want them to be able to present well. They also want them to talk, to converse. As we used to say back in the management consulting world, if I had to sit next to this person on a coast-to-coast flight, would I want to shoot myself at the end of it or not?

I'm lucky that we've got students that I think are really appropriately fitting this new desire in the marketing world for students that aren't just all digital and see the world as a Google Analytics data feed, but also can appreciate some of the traditional skills of what the marketing mix are. Appreciate that the whole world isn't just digital, but it can be print. It can be TV advertising. It can be radio. It's like what are the horses for the courses? What we're trying to do, or I'm trying to do, is say, "Okay, how do you evaluate which is the right horse for the right course?"

Makes perfect sense. Ian, we are at about time, so I wanted to thank you so much for stopping in and sharing your perspective on how you teach digital marketing.

It's a great pleasure, and keep up the good work, everyone.

Thanks again. Folks, thanks again for listening. This has been the Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for the Education Partner Program. The Education Partner Program provides college and university professors with everything they need to teach leading courses in marketing, sales, entrepreneur, and communications. That's software, resources, and a community of professors all for free. Till next time, folks.

Want to become an Education Partner?