MIT Sloan School of Management Dean emeritus Glen Urban, a professor of marketing at the school for 46 years, announced recently that he is retiring from teaching — but certainly not leaving.
Although Urban, the David Austin Professor of Marketing and the chairman of the MIT Center for Digital Business, will no longer teach, he will continue a career of groundbreaking marketing research by leading a two-year project quantifying the value of new media advertising.
In addition to his continued mentorship and support of MIT Sloan students, Urban and his wife, Andrea, announced Sunday a $1 million gift to establish the Glen L. and Andrea W. Urban Unitrust, which will support a PhD fellowship at MIT Sloan in the area of marketing.
“Glen has supported MIT Sloan’s students throughout his career — with guidance and mentorship, but also by offering students spots on world-class research teams working with leading firms,” said David Schmittlein, John C. Head III Dean of MIT Sloan. “With this gift, Glen and Andrea continue their commitment to MIT Sloan, its students and marketing science. And they show how the academic leaders of one generation can support the brightest and most promising leaders of the next.”
“MIT has been good to me,” Urban said. “Where could you go where you can do whatever you want, whatever way you want, with the support and intellectual resources that you need? We were able to convert some of that into some economic gains … I’d like to give some of that back to perpetuate the structure that I have benefited from.
“I really like to invest in educational capital,” Urban continued. “A PhD fellowship has the potential to leverage young people to do exciting things, and it’s endowed so it will go on for a long time.”
Urban arrived at MIT Sloan in 1966, at 26 years old, a Wisconsin native who earned his own PhD at Northwestern University. His friends and colleagues describe him as an energetic and optimistic researcher with an uncanny ability to deliver productive research and marketing tools, even on risky projects.
“What Glen does best is design the model and then design ways to go out and do research to calibrate the model,” said Institute Professor John Little. Urban, he said, is adept at partnering with major firms to develop his models, which often require large data sets and multi-year studies.
“He acquires funds for his research from industry,” Little said. “This is very common in the rest of MIT. It is very rare here at MIT Sloan. But Glen has raised money for all his projects.”
Perhaps Urban’s greatest academic achievement was ASSESSOR. Invented in 1978, ASSESSOR was a predictive model for packaged goods — products you would find in the aisles of a drug store or supermarket. Urban developed ASSESSOR at the request of Gillette, which was seeking a less expensive way to pre-market test its products.
“It saved millions of dollars,” Little said. “A test market for the packaged goods industry cost $1 million, which at the time was a lot of money. And ASSESSOR cost $60,000. So it took off.”
Urban won a William F. O’Dell Award — one of the marketing discipline’s highest honors — for ASSESSOR and another for a study that compared the ASSESSOR predictions with the actual results a year later for a complete set of 18 cases and found a remarkably close correlation. ASSESSOR has been used in more than 3,000 new product launches by companies.
Great achievements and a respected mentor
ASSESSOR is just one of the larger items on Urban’s extensive résumé. In addition to the O’Dell awards, he also received the 1999 Charles Coolidge Parlin Award — given for a body of work in marketing research — and earlier this year was honored with the Buck Weaver Award for Marketing, established by MIT Sloan in 2003 and co-sponsored by General Motors.
With Little and Leonard Lodish PhD ’68, Urban formed Management Decision Systems Inc., which later merged with Information Resources Inc. He co-founded Management Science for Health Inc. (later John Snow Inc.), Marketing Technology Interface Inc., and InSite Marketing Technology Inc. He founded Experion Systems Inc. in 2000. He is relentless at publishing research, and has partnered with seemingly every key marketing academic except Little, who he once wrote is a “mentor” who “influenced every one of my works through his example, comments and criticisms.”
Urban built a reputation as a mentor himself. Fareena Sultan, a graduate of MIT’s Operations Research program, said Urban has been a recurring character in her professional life, one who served first as her master’s thesis advisor and later steered her toward marketing for her PhD work.
“I’m a marketing academic because of Glen Urban,” said Sultan, who is now a professor at the College of Business Administration at Northeastern University and holds an O’Dell award of her own.
Sultan said Urban gave her key spots on research teams, and that offering those opportunities to graduate students was the norm for him. Though she began her PhD work at MIT Sloan, she finished at Columbia University due to family reasons, and Urban supported her in the transition. He later worked with her when she was a faculty member at Harvard Business School, visiting at University of California at Berkeley, and later when she joined Northeastern.
“I always felt that Glen was there for me not only in professional advice, but in personal advice,” Sultan said. “There are many good researchers in marketing. But to have that combination personality-wise, skill-wise, and to have the will to see people succeed — that combination is rare.”
A leader, an expanded school, and a tough choice
Urban became a full professor at MIT Sloan in 1978. His ability to manage diverse teams — faculty, MBA students, computer science students — allowed him to pull off large research projects with major firms and corporations. So he did not ignore the challenge to lead MIT Sloan.
He served as a deputy dean from 1987 to 1991. He was named dean in 1993 and remained in the position until 1998. Under his leadership, MIT Sloan grew the faculty, scaled up the school’s MBA program, established partnerships with Tsinghua University and Fudan University in China, and fostered the culture of entrepreneurship the school is heralded for today. MIT Sloan had long held the rigor and academic standing of its larger peer schools. Now, the school had the size and breadth to match.
“Glen’s years as dean grew MIT Sloan’s impact on the world,” Schmittlein said. “Two decades later, we’re seeing the returns in a larger, more engaged alumni population and a diversification of our students’ interests and goals.”
Urban published seven papers while he was dean. Most academic administrators at a deanship level do not continue research, or do so in only a cursory manner.
Still, the dual roles were a weight. Urban had a future in administration, but he remained drawn to research. After a sabbatical — in which he sailed to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico and Florida — he landed on the latter.
“It became clear after five years that I was either going to have to choose to be a professor or an administrator, that I wasn’t going to be able to choose to do both,” he said. “I just felt — I’d rather do the professor side. Let me tell you, it’s the most advantageous position at MIT: to be free and do things with no hierarchy and pressure.”
Returning to research and teaching, Urban studied the world’s newest marketing tool — the Internet — in earnest. With Sultan, early on he explored the role of trust in online marketing and later worked with her and other colleagues on large scale projects with companies such as General Motors and Intel.
In 2002, he included a prescient understatement in a personal essay published in Journal of Marketing: “The Internet is a risky area for research, because it is so volatile and we do not have much research banked in this area, but I believe that it will be a major additional channel for marketers in the future.”
Without classes to teach, Urban will turn full time to research. For his next project, he will work with General Motors in an attempt to quantify the value of new media advertising in relation to old media advertising. He will, as ever, lead a team of researchers that includes MIT Sloan PhD students, MIT Sloan MBA candidates and other students and faculty from across MIT.
He will also give more time to sculpture. The son of a steel building agent, Urban has long been comfortable around metal and inclined to art. In addition to metal, he has worked in stone, marble and wood. Urban’s art is primarily large form, the sort that resides outside.
“Glen is not afraid of metal,” Little laughed. “It’s all over his yard.”
Urban said he prefers abstract work, searching for novel approaches to old problems, not unlike his academic pursuits.
“Marketing science is a lot like art,” Urban said. “You’re trying to find a breakthrough in conceptual space. You’re taking an unstructured problem and trying to structure it.”