From marketing to robots: the endless intellectual exercise

At 17, Stefano Puntoni dreamt of being an architect. “In high school, I had a very good art history teacher who inspired me. The only hiccup was that my drawing skills are non-existent.” Today he is a professor of marketing at RSM, researching the role technology plays in consumer behaviour, in particular automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI). He shares his broad interests and enthusiasm for diverse subjects, such as philosophy and statistics, with his students.

What is it about your work that makes a positive change?
“I knew early on that I wanted to be a professor, I just needed to figure out the path to become one. I was first exposed to MBA-level teaching at London Business School during my PhD; the school provided a lot of guidance and courses for best practices and I learned a lot. I started teaching myself when I came to RSM. Yes, teaching is about sharing knowledge and practical things so students can become the best they can be as marketing managers, but it’s more than that, it’s about building character.

"AI’s new ability to take on many of the cognitive tasks that make up many middle-class jobs raise important questions for companies and public policy."

“Up to 2014, my main research focus was studying diversity from a marketing perspective. I looked into marketplace inclusiveness and the implications of increasing globalization and diversity for brand strategy and marketing practice. Around that time, I was reading a lot about history and culture, particularly Why the West Rules for Now by Ian Morris, and became interested in the broad issue of social development in the coming decades. While interest in the topic of AI was still limited in the social sciences at that time, notable successes at companies such as IBM and Google were starting to demonstrate this technology’s potential.

“Since the first industrial revolution, the centre of economic activity has increasingly moved from physical labour to cognitive labour. AI’s new ability to take on many of the cognitive tasks that make up many middle-class jobs raise important questions for companies and public policy. I try to explore what these technological developments mean for us as humans, and our value in a world of disruptive technology. For example, I have research projects on the psychological consequences of technological unemployment, on how human involvement in production makes products more attractive to consumers, on the public’s perceptions of companies that are automating or offshoring jobs, and on consumer reactions to automated products or product features.”

In addition, Stefano is currently helping coffee farmers from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais improve their branding and marketing, bringing this activity back to RSM by getting students involved, and by creating a teaching case.

Why do you do it?
Stefano uses a piece of paper to show me his illegible handwriting and to prove he could never have made it as an architect.

“I wanted to be an architect to nurture both analytical and creative skills. A building has to stand up but also to look good. Only much later I realized this is the same reason why I was drawn to the fields of marketing and consumer decision making. Marketing requires a lot of data analytics, so it’s important that you understand numbers, but you also have to be creative in order to do something different with your results.

“I like the discovery element of research, the independence, and the purpose."

“During my bachelor in statistics, I made an unconventional choice to do one course from each of the six tracks offered at the Faculty of Statistics of the University of Padua (Italy). That’s where I was first exposed to decision-making and consumption, which were the most fascinating aspects of marketing for me; I like deciphering data to see what people want.

“I like the discovery element of research, the independence, and the purpose. You decide what to do, how to do it, and with whom to work. The hope, of course, is that you contribute something useful, that you discover something that other people can build on. It’s also a very exciting intellectual exercise; I learn something new every day. While I do enjoy the security of being a university professor, I am also a bit of an entrepreneur. I try to explore my new ideas without anyone telling me what to do. You try to steer your research in ways that allow you to help solving problems that companies or society are facing.

What do you hope to achieve with your lectures?
“I hope that my lectures trigger bigger questions. Do my students – and others – understand what they want to do and why they want to do it? It’s not only about being aware of the ethics behind marketing efforts. I hope they reflect on the grey areas and think about what characteristics and moral fibre might bring about good decisions, particularly when faced with difficult trade-offs.

“I want students to think about a career that will make them happy 10 years from now, not just about salary. I do see a shift in what students look for – they don’t take big corporate names at face value now; they ask questions about why they should work there.”