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  • Writer's pictureMarie Brand

A Journey Through Academic Leadership with Sönke Albers

Updated: Feb 22

Written by Marie Brand, PhD Candidate at WU Vienna


Inevitably Connected


When you do your PhD in Marketing at a German-speaking university, it’s impossible to not hear the name Sönke Albers, even if you are a consumer behavior researcher. The first time I heard my colleagues in the quantitative marketing track talking about going to a conference called SALTY (Sönke Albers Lehrstuhl- Treffen), I was told it’s a sort of “Christmas for the Sönke Albers academic family”. It’s a conference for former doctoral students turned professors, their doctoral students, and so on of Sönke Albers (his academic family), which by now consists of around 100 professors, junior professors, and doctoral students.  Attendance is not optional for the family members, as someone in the know confided in me “if you’re in the field of quantitative marketing in Germany and part of the Albers academic family, you better be there, or people get offended”.


Surprisingly, having a conference based on your academic offspring it is not even the most interesting thing about Sönke, whom I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing. Even if he started the interview off by insisting that “it might be more interesting to read interviews with people who are younger than me”. Stay tuned...





A history lesson on the evolution of academia in Germany


Sönke Albers has been in the field of marketing for a long time. Originally from Bremen, Sönke started his career in operations research, before pivoting to marketing, where he earned his doctorate in 1977 from the University of Hamburg. Reflecting on his goals during this early phase of his career, Sönke says he always wanted to get a doctorate but was not exactly set on a career in academia from the start.


“Back then, there was a great societal value placed on a title, which is why I strived for my doctorate. It was especially important for having a successful career in Germany. Nowadays, I don’t feel like that’s the case necessarily. In my private life, I feel like it might even be a little detrimental, coming across as too aloof”.

– Sönke Albers


Sönke talks about the academic climate in Germany at the start of his academic career, emphasizing how different it was. In the 70s, Germany was not on the map, as far as international academia was concerned, even being described as a “black hole” of business research by one of his colleagues. Nobody was publishing in English and going abroad for a few years or even only for a research visit was not done at the time. But despite this, having found a mentor who encouraged him to go the international route, Sönke earned a visiting scholarship to Stanford. There, he found a different perspective on scientific research and was able to form close ties with the community. After returning to Germany and settling down, Sönke worked on promoting this international orientation. This was a real challenge within the somewhat isolated German university system, which back then was characterized by strict hierarchies and nepotism. He encouraged his doctoral students to attend conferences and look for research visiting opportunities abroad. Sönke says he saw a shift in the German academic culture starting around 2000, finally following his footsteps and becoming more internationally oriented.


Building a Legacy


Sönke's strong mentor role during his academic tenure paid off with an academic family which, when Sönke received the EMAC Distinguished Scholars award in 2011, was called “Albers country”.


“The most important thing for me always was to make sure our social interactions were based on friendship and respect and to keep rivalry out of it. We had no space for personal animosities and unfair competition. I think that’s what made my network so successful.”

– Sönke Albers


In 1984, he was appointed as a professor in private service at the WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management in Koblenz. Since the WHU was newly established when Sönke joined the faculty, he was able to develop his skills in the management of universities and organizations. This stood him in good stead when he took over more management positions during his career. He transitioned to a marketing professorship at the University of Lüneburg in 1986. In 1990, he became a professor of business administration at the University of Kiel, also serving as the director of the Institute of Business Administration.

In 2010, Sönke Albers accepted a position at the private Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, where he was appointed Dean of Research.


“The management aspect of academia always fascinated me. I never wanted to go into management as a full-time job, but taking on a bit of responsibility is a good thing. That's why I was on the board for EMAC for many years and also the chairman of the Association of Business Administration Professors in Germany."

– Sönke Albers


During his decades-long research tenure, Sönke's publications focused on sales management, budget allocation and marketing planning. Besides bringing a novel international focus to German academia, this was another novelty for the time, since especially research on sales management was not yet prevalent.

I was the first in Germany having done research in sales management, which was somewhat difficult because selling has a strong negative connotation among students although many jobs in marketing end up in the sales department.

– Sönke Albers


Sönke Albers at his retirement celebrations.

Chess controversies and alpine retreats


If you missed SALTY and are looking for a place to meet Sönke, there are a few likely spots: a hiking path in Meran, South Tirol, where he and his wife love to escape from the summer heat or an online Chess platform.



Sönke Albers on holiday in South Africa.

+Talking about the latter, although he qualified for the German Championships, Sönke’s relationship with chess has not always been without controversy. Before the advent of the internet, when you wanted to play chess with somebody not directly in front of you, you played correspondence chess.  With a special postcard, you had three days to indicate your move and send it to your opponent, who in turn also had three days to make his next move. Sönke played correspondence chess throughout his time in the German military service, which at the time meant playing with people in Poland or Romania, then the Eastern Block.


“I was living in the military barracks and one day, the company commander visited me, exclaiming, 'For heaven's sake, Albers, what have you done? The Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) is here.' He questioned me about my actions, as the MAD had my postcards. All I had written on them were chess moves F3 to G5, or something. He asked me 'Are those military secrets?' I replied, 'No, just chess moves'. Of course, everyone in my company was horrified. No one had ever been brought in for a game of chess. But luckily, in the end, there were no consequences."

– Sönke Albers

 

Having retired some years ago, it might seem like Sönke spends all his days hiking, traveling or winning chess matches (hopefully this time without the involvement of the military counterintelligence service). While he has played a crucial role in shaping the landscape of marketing and has been a steady force of change during his long tenure in the field, today he is still actively engaged in the community. He’s a prolific attendant of conferences and contributing to research on topics such as digital products and streaming platforms, showcasing a dedication that transcends retirement.


 

This article was written by

Marie Brand

Ph.D. candidate at the WU, Vienna





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