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Putting Theory into Action

At 1 am on Friday, January 31, our plane finally started to move. The plane had been sitting on the tarmac at Logan Airport for three hours waiting to be de-iced. Edrienne Brandon (NB), Wesley Brandon (NF), Jeff Norton (NG), Sheeba Philip (ND) and I were headed for the 12th Annual Babcock Marketing Case Competition at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

The competition started on Thursday afternoon at 3 pm. We didn’t arrive until 4 am on Friday morning, so the other teams had a 13 hour head start on us! When we arrived, we learned that our competition comprised teams from Columbia, Yale, UT-Austin, UC-Berkeley, Wake Forest, Cornell, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

The competition was designed such that we were responsible for analyzing a company’s position on an issue (purportedly a marketing issue), recommend a solution in a 25-minute presentation, and then participate in a 15-minute question and answer session. We didn’t know anything about the sponsor or the case until we arrived, but were excited to learn that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) sponsored the competition and the problem was handed down from their CEO, Bob Ingram. GSK sought advice on how to handle the PR problem they were having with regards to their HIV/AIDS policy in Africa, as they were facing a lot of heat from the general public and their public image was eroding.

As it turned out, we decided not only to design a new marketing campaign for GSK, but to also give them a bold new strategy for dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. We saw the case as not only a marketing challenge, but as a case that combined LEAD, LVDM, and Strategy, so the challenge of synthesizing the issues was paramount. Our apprehensions peaked when we learned that we would be judged by Dr. David Ho, the inventor of the AIDS cocktail and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, Steve Jones, Coca-Cola’s Chief Marketing Officer, and Dr. Claude Allen, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Health & Human Services, amongst others. Additionally, a team of top GSK officials would be on hand for the presentation.

We started working on the case at 7 am Friday morning, with only about 2 hours of sleep under our belts. With the exception of lunch, dinner, bathroom breaks, and a quick donut run in the middle of the night (Winston-Salem is the home of Krispy Kreme and we simply couldn’t possibly visit the town without making a “Hot” run!), we worked for 24 hours straight. Our rallying cry for those 24 hours was “helicopter,” a concept emphasized back in Analytics. It was a reminder not to get bogged down in the details but instead to focus on the big picture. During those long hours, we explored and defined the problem, formulated a solution, developed a detailed action plan, put the PowerPoint presentation together, and wrote our Executive Summary. We even managed to sleep for about 45 minutes before turning in our presentation!

We didn’t see the other teams’ presentations, so we had no idea how the evening would turn out. That night, at the banquet dinner, we were shocked to win! Although the winning felt great after such hard work and despite the challenges, the things I will remember about the weekend have nothing to do with winning.

First, this was the first time that I really understood the power of the HBS education. I have gone through some intense emotional highs and lows over the past few months and have at times wondered why I was here, what I was learning, and whether all of this debt was really worth it. For the first time, I knew it was worth it, and I knew that all that hype about what HBS is all about is actually true. At the competition, I could see a distinct difference between how I would have attacked the problem nine months ago and how our team attacked the problem at the competition. My learning here at HBS has come more from a synthesis of the material than from any one class. The value of the HBS education is in thinking boldly and understanding and attacking complex problems. I am convinced that our team’s ability to do this so well under extreme pressure was the reason why we won the competition.

Second, it was very rewarding to truly help a company interested in saving lives. We believed that this case was so much more than a typical business case, and we all felt very strongly about our bold recommendation. When the GSK officials told us after the competition that our recommendation would be forwarded directly to their CEO for consideration, it made the sleepless nights completely worthwhile.

Third, working with such a phenomenal group of people was an incredible experience. We worked hard but we had a great time doing so! One of the judges later told me that our team was unique in our ability to grab the judges’ attention and hold it with our intensity throughout the presentation and Q&A session. She told me that our chemistry as a team was, in her words, “amazing,” and it was clear to her that we cared about the issue, that we were in it together, and that we fully supported each other. I’ve been involved in some great and some dysfunctional teams in the past, but working with my HBS friends tops them all – we were truly far more than the sum of our parts.

Finally, we were able to dissipate some of the bad HBS stereotypes over the weekend. We were all conscious of the fact that some of the other teams might have been expecting us to act like the HBS stereotype (I don’t need to tell you what that is – just think back to what you thought before you came to campus for Admit Weekend), and we tried hard to show them what we already knew – that the stereotype was a myth. We were a little wacky, we brought the other teams donuts in the middle of the night, and one team member even painted the town red with the Wake Forest crowd the night we won. One of the competition’s organizers told us that we were “really cool” in a slightly surprised tone. It felt great to change people’s perception of HBS, even if only a little!

February 25, 2002
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