Innovating and Going Back to Basics at the Same Time
Heading into a sabbatical to work as a senior economist at Amazon Ads, one of the largest advertising platforms in the world, Elea Feit, PhD, thought she’d be working on a “solved problem.”
“My team was tasked with designing a system to measure ad performance,” she said. “Many of us have written papers on this, and we thought it was already solved. It turned out to be harder than we expected.”
Among the big questions she and her team grappled with: How do you do this at scale for thousands of campaigns? How do you communicate results to marketers with a wide range of technical sophistication?
Feit came away from her time at Amazon with new perspectives on the importance of data, the value of partnering with companies on research and her own portfolio of academic interests, all of which will shape her role as LeBow’s Associate Dean for Research.
Returning from Amazon has given her a chance to reframe her research agenda.
“Before I went to Amazon, I was focused on ‘Which ads work?’. Now, I’m looking to expand that into research that answers the question, ‘How do ads work?’. For example, we don’t yet know how long the effect of an ad lasts and whether that varies based on the medium.
“That’s what I hope all our research-active faculty are doing from time to time: stepping back and thinking how they can create knowledge that advances business practice.”
Beyond these new insights on approaching big questions and delivering real-world impact, Feit said she felt refreshed by returning to work in a corporate setting.
“It was great to work in a corporate environment. It had been 15 years since I had, and it reminded me that we have to prepare our students to live and work in today’s world of Zoom, Slack and Google Docs.”
It might be surprising to learn how important written communications is at an innovative, tech-driven company, but Feit found herself constantly writing notes and emails and sending messages via Slack. She also had to produce Amazon’s famous “6-page docs” to propose new initiatives. These docs are silently read by stakeholders in a meeting before an in-depth discussion.
In this unique-to-Amazon setting, Feit thought of LeBow students and what awaits them as working professionals.
“There’s a lot more writing that our undergraduates need to be ready to tackle,” she said. “We need to be sure that they can write a technical document, that they can write a business idea from beginning to end or that they can write copy for a website.”
Feit might not have foreseen all the writing that awaited her, but one thing she did know to expect was an immersion in data and an introduction to the scale of big data used by a global leader.
“The data is so large that you really need specialists to handle it and to come up with the right software and the right source.”
She contrasts this with how many undergraduate students might think of data.
“In Stat 101, you might get a dataset to analyze as a homework assignment in a spreadsheet. At Amazon, they don’t think of data as something static — it’s a flow that they’re monitoring on an ongoing basis.
“It was so interesting to be dropped into that kind of organization, and it made me think a lot about what our business analytics program should look like.”
Business analytics graduates at Amazon, mainly from the MS in Business Analytics program, are largely working in data science roles, setting up systems that provide relevant data — say, titles of movies and how many streams they received on Amazon Prime — on an ongoing basis to executives— in this case, ones looking to recommend new titles for Amazon Studios to greenlight.
This focus on data at Amazon and other large companies presents opportunities for students from across Drexel — from data science majors in the College of Computing and Informatics to software engineers in the College of Engineering to business analytics students at the undergraduate and graduate levels at LeBow — and Feit hopes to make data and its uses even more central to the LeBow academic experience.
“We need to migrate curricula to help students understand the role of data in marketing and how that’s changing marketing, and we have to teach them how to be a good consumer of data within a data-oriented organization.
“That’s going back to basics and instilling fundamentals, and that’s the kind of thing that universities do when we’re at our best.”