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  • Writer's pictureFarhana Tabassum

On trailblazing and enterprising: Stefan Stremersch

Written by Farhana Tabassum, Post Doctoral Researcher, IESEG

Follow the trail for mastering the science of idea generation.

For many (including your writer), finding an impactful research idea could be a difficult and time-intensive endeavor. My conversation with Stefan Stremersch revealed his trajectory as an ideation architect. Currently, he serves as Chair of Marketing at the Erasmus School of Economics.

Generating Great Ideas

As an IJRM best paper awardee and the EMAC Distinguished Scholar in 2020, you were invited to write a paper for IJRM. What motivated you to select the topic of how to generate great research ideas?

"For the last 20 years, I have done ideation work with companies. Companies use very sophisticated methodologies to come up with ideas, unlike academia, which does not actually train people on this skillset. It was around 2018 when we developed some tools and techniques that came out of an adaptation of the tools and techniques that we were using in our ideation consulting work with companies.

I intended this toolset to be a guide for faculty, especially young faculty, and wanted the postdocs and doctoral students to be a bit more conscious about the ideation process they follow and how they ideate. 

The adapted version of what we call idea napkins was piloted and applied in about 20 different universities."

Professor Stefan Stremersch, Chair of Marketing, Erasmus

What is unique about investing in ideation skills?

"The way we train PhD students is unidimensional. They just come out of college but there is no training for them on professional soft skills like how to collaborate in a team, how to present and develop ideas, and how to do time and project management. We assume that we need to train people once in their lifetime for four years in a row and then they are done. The occasional eureka moment cannot be sufficient to nurture ideas. They can do much better if they are better trained also on so-called soft skills. I think it’s an important attitude that PhD students see their academic career as a company that needs to be managed."

You put a lot of emphasis on ‘news and conversation’ in the paper. Is that where you derive inspiration for your research?

"Definitely! I like to follow what’s happening around me, mostly using LinkedIn. It gives me a very good pulse on what people do professionally, what companies are developing and launching, etc. I think LinkedIn today is replacing newspapers in terms of sensing what topics are emerging, what topics are important, and what is happening in society. I also typically spend quite a bit of time working with companies on important challenges they face, which allows me to sense what challenges are timely for senior professionals in marketing and innovation.

Although cultivating research ideas depends on personal choice and expertise, I am a huge fan of domain exploration and prefer it to domain exploitation. That is, I believe researchers should have an open mind to explore different methodologies to ensure that specialization does not hinder research innovation. Collaboration can be a great way to explore and learn diverse topics. Of course, you cannot continuously explore, because then you lose depth. There is a fine line of balance a researcher needs to draw in."

Give us the essence of the ideation practice process.

"Research can be initiated with a white-horse approach, i.e., the most conventional solutions that we come up with when we think about solving a problem. Starting with white-horsing is fine, but idea generation should not be stopped until the dark horses are out, i.e., unconventional solutions that may seem infeasible at the onset. Once we have dark-horsed the ideas, it is important to land ideas through visualizations. Ideation can be solidified via idea-napkin templates where the researcher sketches out the pain point of the customer, the solution, and the benefits the solution offers. Such idea-napkin templates allow a researcher to evaluate and compare the projects leading to the selection of the best."

Is AI a friend to researchers?

"Yes, it is. But not to the point where you rely exclusively on AI to generate creative ideas. It needs to be an interplay between human ingenuity and AI as a creativity-sparring partner. Sustaining innovativeness in research is ultimately a researcher’s responsibility to continuously surprise and remain eternally curious. The routine or specialization tasks could be assigned to and carried out well by AI to speed up the research process."

Curious to read the paper? Find it here.

Cite the paper

Stremersch, S. (2024). How can academics generate great research ideas? Inspiration from ideation practice. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 41 (1), 1-17.

A Tale of Two Glories

You had an intriguing PhD journey with two outstanding achievements, the first one being a conceptual paper that later won the Journal of Marketing Best Paper award. How did that happen?

"It was very unusual to write a conceptual paper as a doctoral student, something which most people would recommend against. It was Gerry Tellis, my advisor at the University of Southern California, who had the craftsmanship to teach me that kind of writing. I had studied the literature on price and product bundling quite well when I came to USC. At that point, the US government was suing Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer inside the operating system. He challenged me to explain that case to him.

My first attempt was not very good. So, he asked me to write it up on the second attempt and that was the starting point of the paper. It turned out to be a stage-setter that spans different fields such as consumer psychology, economics, and law.

The paper presented a broad view of a narrow topic like price and product bundling and received more than a thousand citations over the years."

The second remarkable thing during your PhD is founding your consultancy firm MTI2. Tell us more about how MTI2 was born.

"I was approached by a business school that wanted to have some methodological help with a research project. The school received an endowment from a consortium of companies to do research in a certain area. One company from the consortium ended up asking me to teach entrepreneurial skills to its R&D people and make their innovation more customer-centric. Eventually, many other companies wanted to do the same thing and were referred to me by that first firm. Later a couple of my former PhD students showed interest in a consulting career. This is how the company developed and grew. Today the company is carried forward by some of these former PhD students and I don't always know anymore the ins and outs of all our assignments. Sometimes, I get surprised by how much impact some of our people have  on client companies and it is great to learn from them how they have approached assignments."

What is the essence of marketing in your opinion?

"Innovation. There should be a continuous search for new ways of doing things that improve the world, people, and their experiences. We should never stand still and always keep on moving and innovating. In the words of the great philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger: move – move – move."


Slice of Life

Perhaps I can guess this. If you were not an academic, would you like to be an entrepreneur?

"Yes, partially, especially in professional services such as consulting. I like to work with multiple companies on multiple projects. Because, in a way, it keeps knowledge fresh and helps with not getting bored or boring."

I know there’s an exciting story behind your commitment to athletics…

Out and back

"I played tennis and soccer at a reasonable level when I was young. Then I had a couple of injuries one after the other and moved to college at the same time. I was mostly sedentary since the age of 21, but I picked up sports again at the age of 44 and started running. I took part in 13 marathons or so since the first marathon in Barcelona in 2016, among which majors such as New York, Boston, Berlin, and London.

After a while, I got bored with marathon running and started duathlon and triathlon. I focus mostly on the long distance and completed 5 Iron Man full-distance races as well as 2 World Championships long-distance duathlon (my best result is a top 10 position here in my age group, so I am not very good but I still like the experience a lot and it keeps me in the training mindset). Gradually, I also moved into more extreme versions of long-distance running, duathlon, and triathlon. Typically, this includes swimming in cold water (e.g., 11-12 degrees)  at a high altitude, more altitude meters in cycling (e.g., more than 5000m throughout 200 km) and uphill running (e.g., 2000-2500 altitude meters over a marathon distance). I also partake in winter duathlons that include a fight against nature; the most famous of those is organized in Belgium and is called “The Hell” (15km running – 125 km Mountain bike – 30km running) and has AC-DC’s Highway to Hell as a race song..."

How do you manage to be in the thick of things?

"At work my first thing in the morning is coffee. I first handle my e-mail (people who e-mail me know I like to be a “fast, but short”-responder. Then I like to check LinkedIn just around for 5 minutes to see if something interesting popped up overnight. I have two associates assisting me with keeping track of recent academic and managerial work appearing across multiple fields, so they may also check in with a reading deck.  I typically spend the first part of the day going from meeting to meeting, often digital, with academic collaborators or with companies I am working with (I tend to block those in the morning). My favorite time of the day is early afternoon when I gradually get some time to do my own thinking on my personal projects (it's also biologically my best time to do the best thinking). I often do a workout somewhere between 5 and 8 pm (typically a biking or running session), which is the perk of being an academic. I return to the office work and attend to the remainder of the day or some communication work for LinkedIn, e.g. on innovation, AI, or sports. Typically, I have dinner around 8 pm with my wife, son, and daughter. Before going to bed, I may put in one more workout (like a light running session, a swim, or a core workout)."

Anyone who you would fancy having lunch with?

"Elon Musk. I'm way too slow for him, I believe he is a bit of a nutty genius, but it would be nice to ask him about his vision of the future of business, capitalism, and humanity."


This article was written by

Farhana Tabassum

Post Doctoral Researcher in Marketing

IESEG School of Management

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