top of page
  • Writer's pictureFarhana Tabassum

Don Lehmann – Forever 21

Updated: May 1

Written by Farhana Tabassum, Post Doctoral Researcher in Marketing, IESEG

The Leonardo DiCaprio of our discipline - always young in spirit. Read the story of the living legend.

Was I starstruck when I met Don Lehmann in person? Yes! He is Professor Emeritus in Marketing at Columbia Business School. This interview is not about accolades for contributions to his field, which he has garnered many, it is about his journey to becoming Don.

The Chronicles

Tell us the story of your start in the Marketing discipline.

''My bachelor’s degree was in Mathematics. I was set to work as a Fortran programmer for GE in Pittsfield Massachusetts right after my undergrad degree when a professor told me that schools were giving scholarships to PhD students. The professor also suggested I should go to Purdue.

Donald Lehmann, Professor Emeritus in Marketing, Columbia Business School

My wife and I thought it would be a nice adventure. My wife also wanted to complete her degree there. I started as a PhD student in Finance and switched to Marketing later. The name of the PhD program was Industrial Administration. I took three courses in Finance. For a very high-reactance person like me, Finance seemed very stylized. I found it a bit constricting. But in Marketing, I could study almost anything that interested me. I didn’t have any idea how influential Prof. Bass (Frank Bass of the Bass Model) who ended up being my dissertation advisor would be.''

How did the job market come along?

''When I was in the job market, I had no papers. I had an outline of my dissertation and that was just it. Still, the market was growing rapidly (luck beats skill) so I ended up with multiple offers.

I chose Columbia partly because I was still thinking about going into industry, and New York seemed to be a pretty good place. That never happened and I spent 54 years with Columbia.

Except for some sabbaticals and visiting positions in places like Michigan, Cornell, NYU, Dartmouth, etc., I have always been based at Columbia.''

You have a very eclectic research identity. Why?

''I’d rather call myself an opportunistic researcher. I switched from Finance because I believed I’d have a competitive advantage in Marketing. Topic-wise, I do not have a specific. Anything that seems to be interesting to me, I simply work on. Areas of focus emerge rather than are planned.

Prof. Bass was a modeler. I thought I’d do some modeling and include the human behavior aspect in it. I started doing a dissertation on the optimal allocation of advertising budgets but realized I didn’t know what the dependent variable should be. The first major publication after my PhD was about how viewers chose television shows. It was an application of a multi-attribute choice model, based on a sample of over 1200 people in a mail panel. I chose the topic because Prof. Bass told me that if you do an analytical dissertation, you won’t know when it will be done until you get a finding. If you do an empirical dissertation, you can pretty well plan it out. He also said he was about to run a major survey for another project that I could join. At the time my wife and I had a child, so we wanted to get the thesis completed and start having an income.

My whole career has been non-planned. It’s been about what is interesting and what happens to show up.

Now many people think I’m more of a Consumer Behavior person than anything, although some people think I am a Strategy person and I like people to think that of me. Occasionally I still do mathematical modeling or methods. I do what I am interested in, I always have. If I had published only in one of these areas, I’d have got bored very easily.

Another thing is I always have wanted to help other faculty members and Ph.D. students in the areas they are interested in. One of my papers came out of a pure chance encounter in an elevator with Dip (Dipayan Biswas) which was about making choices while smelling, tasting, and listening. I find it very rewarding to work with other people. Many of my papers have started with a comment like, why don’t we do something together (e.g. with Kopalle, Weinberg, …)?''

What paper of yours is your favorite and why?

''I love all my children. That said, there are at least 20 of them which I especially like. I like my fairly recent paper with Jeff Parker in AMS Review on diffusion where we were interested in the post-peak part of the diffusion curve. Although most people are interested in the pre-peak part, I think that the post-peak part is crucial and that the paper made a decent conceptual contribution. On that note, I believe the probability of making a major contribution is close to zero. A marginal contribution can be highly impactful. I like the fact that many people pursue similar kinds of research because then we can do a meta-analysis of the results and establish empirical generalizations and what the limits to them are. As a researcher, I do not always try to think out-of-the-box. Instead, I like to entertain ideas that are at-the-border-of-the-box. I’ve got a paper with Jacob Goldenberg, where we showed that when the ideas are too wacky then the chances of success are low. You need to find the sweet spot.''

You have taught for many decades. What’s your take on the challenges when it comes to teaching the new generation of students?

''I’ve always enjoyed being a coach. I coached high school football (American style) until two years ago and I get along very well with the players. About Ph.D. students, I find coaching them is not very different from coaching high schoolers. I give them the basics and nudge them to build on their strengths and make sure they become good enough. Some students are self-starters so coaching them is easier for me thanks to their intrinsic motivation.

Nevertheless, the MBA student groups whom I predominantly have taught are the most difficult ones. Maybe because I am two generations ahead of them now. They are hard to please and hold very high expectations in terms of entertainment and instant understanding, especially in schools like Columbia, North-Western, and Stanford. They like current stuff and being exposed to celebrity speakers (something I am clearly not) that such schools invite in quite often. They are more enthusiastic and articulate than they used to be which makes it very hard to grade them. However, some of them might not be ready to struggle to learn.''

One idea from marketing that you would like to retain.

''The importance of the customers. One important function of marketing is to grow revenue organically which comes from customers. That’s where I see the tie between customer behavior and strategy. You need to understand how the customers react to your products, and how they perceive your brand. You need to think about how you can retain them so that they spend (hopefully more) money on you next year.''

Up Close and Personal

You are one ‘phenomenal’ athlete so to speak. Tell us about your passion for sports.

In action with mentees

''I was never that good at sports. I was good enough to be a backup for any sport but never a star. I am competitive. One of my friends says that I play till I bleed or till another person bleeds. I have coached football teams for 50 years. I enjoy basketball as well. I play tennis in summer, go swimming and sailing. I love to go downhill skiing in winter. Downhill gives me a thrill. Cross-country, to me, is tiring, boring, and makes me sweat.''

First thing you do in the morning.

''I get up and do a little stretching and weightlifting and some days I go for a walk or run. That’s how I start my day.''

A person you would like to have lunch or dinner with.

''Jeff Parker is one. He’s pretty informal like me. Others include Jacob Goldenberg, Jeff Inman, and Kevin Keller. There are others. What they have in common is they are very smart, broad, and unpretentious.''

What would you be if you were not an academic?

''What else could I be? Museums, restaurants, gardens – nothing appeals to me as much as the work I do does. It is rewarding to hear when people tell you that you do good work. It’s a feeling somewhat like what actors feel when they receive awards. However, I would be happy as a “real” manager, a coach, or a builder, an architect, or a carpenter. I have been fortunate to be in a profession where I still put in 60 hours of work but where I get to choose when to spend 30 of them and what to work on for 30 of them. I even thought of entering politics but not doing that is one decision I don’t regret.''


This article was written by

Farhana Tabassum

Post Doctoral Researcher in Marketing

IESEG School of Management

806 views0 comments


Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page