Originally interviewed for International Women’s Day (8 March), but published on the interviewee’s birthday (23 May), this article is the second in a series of profiles of the female academics who currently lecture for the MSc Marketing Strategy & Innovation (2017) at Cass Business School. This series, titled ‘Women Mean Business’ explores the professional careers of each lecturer and (carefully) peeks into their personal lives, just enough to find out what makes each of them the woman they are today. This diverse team currently includes: Prof. Caroline Wiertz (featured in this article), Prof. Fleura BardhiDr. Stephanie Feiereisen and Dr. Irene Scopelliti.

Caroline cartoon
Caricature of Prof. Wiertz, drawn by her colleague, Dr. Paolo Aversa.

Caroline Wiertz: Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Entrepreneurship at Cass Business School, Co-founder of City Unrulyversity, Trustee of St. Martin-in-the-Fields’ Christmas Appeal, piano player (when no one is listening), and a woman who means business.

I’ve done my share of interviews, but this is the first that starts off with the interviewee clarifying: “If it’s off the record, I’m going to say that”. Given that my interviewee, Prof. Wiertz, was my lecturer at the time, I was all kinds of worried for what was about to come.

Expert in online communities

Having joined Cass Business School in 2004 just after finishing her PhD, Prof. Wiertz is now one of the core members of the school’s Marketing faculty. Much like her employer history, something that also hasn’t fluctuated is her academic expertise in online communities. The half-French, half-German professor has been studying the topic since her International Business Master’s programme at the University of Maastricht, which she graduated from in 2000.

She recalls: “I was just fascinated by how consumers collaborate online… and I’m really interested in how social norms play into that and how people basically collaborate even though it might not necessarily be in their rational self interest”. Her passion for the subject spilled directly over into her doctoral dissertation, also at Maastricht, under the supervision of Prof. Ko de Ruyter, who -funnily enough- recently joined her at Cass.

Digital Consumption Symposium
L-R: Prof. Fleura Bardhi, Prof. Ko de Ruyter and Prof. Caroline Wiertz having some prop fun at the selfie station of Cass Business School’s Digital Consumption Symposium in 2016.

But while her focus remained stable, during her studies, the context of online communities was far from. At a time when there was no social media, it seemed unlikely that the slowly emerging Web.20 of the early 2000s would amount to the abundance of participatory platforms we know today. Prof. Wiertz remembers: “I went to a doctoral colloquium in 2001 – a big European conference for marketing academics. I was presenting my topic there and I got so much criticism and so much bad, negative feedback. The faculty there was basically telling me, ‘Why are you doing this? These weird, techno nerds on their lists- nobody’s interested in this’”.

It was a combination of passion, curiosity and resilience to naysayers that got her through the uphill battles of her PhD. She remembers: “I had a really hard time defending my topic in the beginning but I think you need curiosity to do a PhD and to become an academic… One of the things I love about this career is that most of the time I have a genuine question that I want an answer to, and therefore, I need to do the research myself to answer it.”

Rebel with a cause

In addition to all of the publications she’s accomplished over the past decade – including her 2015 Twitter study, which was awarded the prestigious Sheth Foundation Best Paper Award – Prof. Wiertz is also involved in several organisations both in and out of academia. The freedom of her academic career, she says, affords her the room to be somewhat “rebellious”. After working within the relatively traditional boundaries of business schools, Prof. Wiertz admits: “I’m always a person who wants to do things differently”. She jokes: “I think when the [more senior staff] see me approaching them, they’re probably wondering ‘What does she want to do now?’. Pointing to a poster for City Unrulyversity, she says, “These kinds of things!”.

Together with Sarah Wood, the CEO of video ad tech company Unruly, Prof. Wiertz founded the almost always sold out programme of start-up seminars and workshops, branded as City Unrulyversity. The pop-up university, which focuses on communication and design issues affecting new businesses, features a blend of academic and industry-based expert advice with the aim of providing ideas that are directly applicable. Reflecting on the impact of initiatives like City Unrulyversity, Prof. Wiertz says, “I think it makes [Cass] a more exciting place. More broadly speaking, I really believe that we, as academics, have a public responsibility to try and make society better in many, many ways; obviously through teaching, but also through our research. It should be about things that matter.”

Prof. Wiertz (right) attending an event at City Unrulyversity with her Co-Associate Dean for Entrepreneurship, Prof. Costas Andriopoulos.

Another issue that matters to Prof. Wiertz is the growing number of homeless and vulnerably housed people in the UK. As a Trustee of the St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity Christmas Appeal, she says: “It gives me the opportunity to really make an impact. I can combine that somehow with my job, because I use this as an example in teaching and when students do dissertations that are relevant to charitable work”.

When it comes to discussing good marketing examples with her students, she shares an admiration for Dove’s inspirational campaigns with her colleague Dr. Stephanie Feiereisen. But a campaign that that does not sit well with Prof. Wiertz is Reebok’s ‘Be More Human’, which shows scenes of various people pushing themselves through harsh and sometimes extreme ‘fitness’ challenges. Prof. Wiertz fears that society has become more focused with body image than the actual brainwork that goes on within the body. She says: “I hate that campaign. I think [people] should be more worried about how they think versus how they look or how strong they are. People don’t engage in enough critical thinking anymore or in enough thinking about the state of affairs. That’s not great. You’re not going to be able to change anything if you accept the status quo.” Inspirational words from a professor who continuously challenges the system of academia for the benefit of her students and the wider community.

Caro & ihre Entrepreurinnen
Prof. Wiertz (centre) with female entrepreneurs in the City Launch Lab, a co-working space organised by City, University of London

All that matters

Perhaps her work is having an influence on her, because Prof. Wiertz seems to be an expert in communities both online and offline. But something that you probably won’t see her do either on or offline is play the piano. Despite playing since she was six, she only plays for herself. It’s one of the many de-stressing practices that keep her sane, along with “a little bit” of whiskey before bed every night, nature walks with her dogs, and chocolate (because, chocolate).

Regardless of what Prof. Wiertz chooses to dedicate her time to, there is one thing they all seem to have in common: it matters. It matters to her. It matters to the community. And granted she does have a decal on her office wall that reads, ‘Time is precious, waste it wisely’, her purposeful and positively impactful decision-making seems only fitting.

las vegas ama-8263
Prof. Wiertz at the Winter American Marketing Association Conference in Las Vegas (2016).

Looking forward to her future, the professor will likely be busy with her own research, teaching an ever-growing number of students and planning the next stream of City Unrulyversity events that should begin in autumn 2017. With her plate full, she prefers not to plan too far in advance. When asked where she’ll be in five years, she tells me: “I don’t have a plan really… It’s very funny- I used to [when I was younger]. Now, I’ve decided you can’t always plan for most things… I have certain goals and objectives, but I really don’t know what I’m going to do in five years.” My guess is: more ‘rebellion’.

Connect with Prof. Wiertz on: