HBS Showcase: How Jay-Z Sparked Innovation at HBS

The signs were everywhere last Tuesday. On vending machines, Coop Store mannequins, running tracks – everywhere you turned you were liable to see something familiar but nonetheless out of place staring back at you.

It wasn’t the latest notice about a Euro Club party or a CPD presentation. No, the familiar looking pages strewn about campus marked the unveiling of a new pedagogical initiative at Harvard Business School known as HBS Showcase.

HBS Showcase is the brainchild of Senior Associate Dean and Chair of the MBA Program Youngme Moon. The new initiative is designed to highlight innovative new case studies being developed for classes taught in the EC year.

“The idea is to try to create more excitement around the enormous work that faculty do in trying to develop new material for the EC,” said Professor Anita Elberse, whose case was the first to be featured. “That’s really where many of the faculty put in a lot of effort, and where they show their latest research findings – and yet only limited numbers of students ever have access to that work.”

In the RC year, case studies are eminently visible; 900 students read each new case and several professors lead case discussions on the material. It’s a different story in the EC year, however, where even highly coveted classes like Elberse’s Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries (SMICI) are available to limited numbers of students – 180, in the case of SMICI.

“In the RC, everybody knows what everybody’s doing, because everybody’s doing the same thing,” Moon said. “In the EC you have all this phenomenal stuff happening in all these courses, but it’s essentially invisible if you’re not taking that course.

“And so it occurred to me that we could create a mechanism where every year we highlighted something going on in a few of these courses, and we could give students who weren’t taking the course a window into that subject matter.”

HBS Showcase isn’t just a big marketing ploy, however. Both Moon and Elberse stressed that the manner in which each Showcase would be unveiled was intended to complement and enhance the school’s case study learning model.

As an example, they pointed to the first case to get the HBS Showcase treatment, Elberse’s new SMICI case, “Droga5: Launching Jay-Z’s Decoded.”

The case describes the award-winning campaign surrounding the release of the rapper Jay-Z’s quasi-autobiography, Decoded, which was designed by New York ad agency Droga5. The campaign was released to wide acclaim throughout the advertising community, and won the coveted Outdoor Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions in June 2011.

“The campaign was a scavenger hunt,” wrote the ad industry trade publication, Adweek. “The agency hid all 320 pages of the book (mostly blown-up versions) in outdoor spots in 13 cities, in locations that related in some way to the text on each page – at the bottom of a pool in Miami, on cheeseburger wrappers in New York, on clothing racks, in subways, on rooftops, on traditional billboards, in the lining of a leather jacket, on the felt of a pool table, etc.”

Under the guise of an HBS Showcase, Elberse worked with Andrew Essex, the principle architect of the campaign at Droga5 and the case study’s protagonist, and the Vermont-based ad agency Fuse, to design a proxy of the Decoded campaign, in which the 25 pages of the Droga5 case study would be hidden around campus.

“The Showcase is not just some sort of crazy gimmick to draw attention. The idea is to give students a flavor of what it was like to experience and participate in the campaign,” Elberse said.

For his part, Essex confirmed that the experience HBS students would receive via the Showcase was “pretty close” to the experience of the actual Decoded campaign – but he quickly noted that it was “exactly the same in spirit.”

“Clearly the Showcase is a slightly different order of magnitude, but it’s exactly the same in spirit in that it allows individuals to participate in the process of discovering these pages and putting the pieces together,” he said. “In that regard it’s an exact replica.”

As it happened, the idea to release the case this way actually originated with Jay-Z’s manager, John Meneilly, in a meeting with Elberse and her co-case writer, Kwame Owusu-Kesse.

“At the end of our interview with John I asked if he had any other thoughts as to how we could make this more exciting for him, and he said, ‘Can’t you launch the case the way we launched the book?’” Elberse recalled. “Kwame and I just looked at each other and said, ‘that’s a great idea! I can’t believe we hadn’t thought of that!’”

Upon hearing Elberse’s pitch to release the case study this way, Moon suggested that Elberse work with other EC professors to find other case studies that could be opened up to the wider student body, albeit perhaps in completely different ways. The current plan is to have two other HBS Showcases in the winter semester.

For Moon, Elberse and even an outside observer like Essex, the truly exciting element of the Showcase is that it reinforces the school’s continuing commitment to pedagogical innovation.

“The new normal for any organization that exists in a context that’s evolving rapidly has to be innovation,” Moon said. “Innovation can take many forms. It can be big innovation which you see at HBS in things like the FIELD program, or it can be small innovation – and I think it’s equally important to have both forms.

“I would take the HBS Showcase as little drips and drops of innovation that infect the culture. It brings us alive in a different way, it challenges students in a different way, and it energizes faculty in a different way.”

* * * * *

Missed the excitement last week? Fear not! Additional pages of the Droga5 case study will be released around campus today and tomorrow.

The Harbus can share two clues on where to find these pages directly from Elberse: “Load up on calories at lunch, and trust that John Harvard is alive and well – and now hanging out on our side of the river.”

RC and EC students alike are invited to participate in discovering pages. The first student to find a page and tweet a picture of it to @HarvardHBS with the appropriate page-specific hashtag (listed at the bottom of each page posted around campus) will win a copy of Decoded among other potential prizes.