From a childhood in the Netherlands to a career in the US, Anita Elberse has travelled far. She is acclaimed for her research on strategies in digital media.
She is an associate professor at Harvard Business School, where she teaches a course on strategic marketing in creative industries to second-year MBA students. She also teaches as part of the Women’s Leadership Forum, an HBS executive education programme that brings together successful business women to encourage innovation and enhance leadership skills.
She holds a PhD from London Business School, an MA in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an MA in Communication Science from the University of Amsterdam. Her research has been published in a number of journals, including the Harvard Business Review, Marketing Science and the Journal of Marketing.
Q1. What is your earliest / favourite memory of school?
I remember that when I was six and in elementary school in the Netherlands, where I grew up, I performed so well on a test that the teacher allowed me to spend the day with the students in a higher grade. It made me feel like a genius - for that one day. It was right back to my own seat the very next day though.
Q2. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
The biggest lesson I have learned in my academic career is that it pays to follow my passion - and not the herd. I’ve always focused on topics that I am passionate about, which has led to some relatively unconventional choices. Most of my colleagues in the field of marketing specialise in certain principles, be it pricing, product development, or branding. I’ve in many ways gone in the opposite direction and have focused on a set of verticals in the entertainment businesses. It’s certainly the path less travelled, but I think that has worked out well for me so far.
Q3. Who are your business influences/heroes?
I have so many! I am surrounded by some of the most acclaimed business thinkers here at Harvard Business School. And through my case research, I’ve met many smart and interesting business leaders. If I were forced to single one out in my area of research, I would say I most admire Alan Horn, the president of the film studio Warner Bros. He pioneered the “event film” strategy in which the studio makes a few, relatively large bets on the most promising films each year and supports those with significant resources. The Harry Potter films are one example. The strategy has been extremely successful in the past decade - so much so that most other major studios have sought to emulate it. But Alan Horn’s influence on me goes beyond his success at the box office; he is also a very kind and considerate man. He’s a great leader.
Q4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I am proud every time I hear that a manager in the creative industries - my area of study - finds my research useful. I mean, I am happy every time I succeed in publishing my work in an academic journal, but ultimately I mostly aim to help managers make decisions. That’s my main motivation and it is wonderful to see my work have an influence. One example is my research on the “long-tail” hypothesis, which helped debunk the idea that the niche entertainment offerings made available through online channels will lure consumers away from blockbusters. Another piece of research I am proud of deals with the negative implications of unbundling in the music industry - the shift from offering full albums to selling individual songs on those albums, a phenomenon facilitated by digital channels such as Apple iTunes.
Q5. What is the worst job you have ever had?
When I was 16 and in high school, I landed a job in a performing arts centre to earn some extra money in the evening hours. My job was to pour wine and coffee. On day one, I was instructed to set up tables with glasses of wine—and at the end of the night to take the glasses that had not been consumed and pour them back into their bottles, so they could be re-used for the next event. The following evening, I was asked to re-use coffee that was prepared the previous night by pouring fresh coffee on top so that it was warm and then serve it to customers. I thought it would be best not to wait for the next set of instructions. I quit the job so fast I never even got paid.
Q6. When did you know you wanted to teach?
I’ve had many great teachers and I always knew I would enjoy teaching, but I really fell in love with it when I saw the case method in action at HBS. Teaching cases is very interactive and the energy and the engagement in the classroom are contagious. When I realised that, I knew I wanted to spend a significant amount of time trying to become very good at it. And what I’ve found over the years is that I learn a great deal about the material every time I teach. In fact, the best part about teaching at HBS may be that we professors learn just as much as the students.
Q7. What is the last book you read?
I am reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. He describes the increased complexity of all kinds of activities and argues that even the greatest experts in their fields can benefit tremendously from working with checklists. I’m probably not doing it justice by describing it in such simple terms; it’s a truly thought-provoking book.
Q8. What is your favourite business book?
My favourite business book is well over a decade old: Robert Frank and Philip Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society. It shows that the few people at the very top of their professions (such as athletes and businesspeople) earn much higher rewards than others and explains why that is the case. Although it was written well before some of the technologies emerged that are now changing our markets, many of their observations still hold true today, so this is a book I keep going back to.
Q9. What inspires you?
On the one hand, my inspiration comes from managers in the creative industries. They inspire me with the questions they have - for instance, about how technological advances will transform the competitive landscapes in which they operate. On the other hand, my students inspire me - they ask extremely smart questions and I am doing my best just to keep up with them.
Q10. What would be your plan B? (alternative career)
I don’t believe in putting much thought into a plan B. I believe in going all out to make plan A happen; I don’t really have a plan B. Not a realistic one, that is: playing for Arsenal Football Club strikes me as a terrific alternative career, but I am pretty sure the team’s manager, Arsène Wenger, has other ideas.