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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

Five Lessons from Peter Zarry


Among all of the extraordinary professors from which I was fortunate enough to learn while I completed my undergraduate degree, there was perhaps none more extraordinary than Peter Zarry.


I didn't know him as an advertising legend, although his posthumous induction into Canada's Marketing Hall of Legends (and the write-up celebrating that achievement) certainly confirms that he was.


I knew him as a very gregarious, kind-hearted Professor who loved to talk about marketing.


This month is the 20-year anniversary of his death, and I thought it would be appropriate to share five lessons I learned from him during our interactions over the course of two years.



Lesson #1: Theatrics can be Effective

I met Peter Zarry during my fourth-year "Brand Management" class; he was the instructor for the course. The classroom was U-shaped, and for the first day of class, I managed to secure a prime seat in the front row, facing the front of the room. I didn't know at the time that this position would put me right in the line of fire.


Most of the class was interesting but relatively uneventful. That is until the end of the class when Professor Zarry started talking about the importance of brands and how top brand companies recognize their brands as their most important assets.


"Procter and Gamble," he said loudly, "would never assign an intern to work on Tide!"


Except... that wasn't accurate at all. And I knew this for a fact because I had just finished a summer interning at Procter & Gamble, and had spoken with the intern who was assigned to work on Tide several times. So I raised my hand, and when I was called upon, said, "Professor, I don't think that's true, because I know a P&G intern who worked on..."


But I wasn't given the opportunity to finish.


"NEVER!" Zarry screamed, turning beat-red, and approaching my seat rapidly, wagging finger outstretched. "NEVER, NEVER, NEVER! THEY'D NEVER DO IT!"


"Well, that's it," I thought to myself. "Now he hates me, and I just failed this course."


The class ended shortly afterwards, and I thought it would be best to try and get out of my Professor's bad books. So I approached the lectern where he was packing up his papers, and said, "Professor, I didn't mean to contradict you earlier, but I just finished a summer interning at Procter & Gamble, and they did have an intern on Tide..."


He looked at me, gave me a big smile, and said, "I know. I was just trying to make a point."


Theatrics can be effective.



Lesson # 2: Be Bold

Despite my first-day interaction with Professor Zarry, I ended up doing quite well in his Brand Management course, and my appreciation for him grew with every lesson I attended and every interesting career story he told.


When I finished Brand Management and decided I wanted to take additional classes with him, I learned that teaching wasn't Peter Zarry's primary responsibility at the Schulich School of Business: he served as the Executive Director of the school's "Division of Executive Development", or what today is known as the Schulich Executive Education Center.


But that gave me a crazy idea: what if I were to ask Professor Zarry for permission to audit an Executive Development course from start to finish in exchange for writing about my experience for the school's newspaper, "The INSIDER"?


It was a bold ask. Even back then, Executive Development courses were quite expensive, and while the "hard costs" associated with one extra person in a class were negligible, my participation could set an unwanted precedent with future opportunistic students.


But I decided I had nothing to lose, and booked a meeting to make my pitch. And when the time came, I positioned the idea as a benefit to the Executive Development division.


"The Executive Development center doesn't really get much exposure," I argued, "and a center-spread feature in the school's newspaper could help you sell more courses..."


"... and you would get to take a course for free," he finished, wryly.


So much for my brilliant positioning.


Then he laughed and wagged his finger at me, "You're a smart one."


But he clearly admired my initiative and agreed to let me audit not just one, but two Executive Development courses of my choosing.


It took a few months, but I delivered on my commitment to Professor Zarry: I wrote a comprehensive two-page feature about my experience as an Executive Development student which appeared as a center-spread in The INSIDER.


Professor Zarry over-delivered on his part of the bargain. He not only granted me access to the courses but also ensured I was treated the same as every other student. That was somewhat of a mixed blessing: it meant I wasn't just sitting in on those classes, I was also expected to complete every class assignment and fully participate in all class discussions alongside those who had paid to be there.


But at the end of each course, Professor Zarry arranged for me to be presented with a framed Certificate of Completion, just like each of my classmates.


When I questioned why I had gotten a certificate without having paid for the courses, he replied simply, "Well, you did all the work, didn't you?"


I had thought my bold ask was too much, but Professor Zarry appreciated my initiative and decided to reward it. In doing so, he taught me the importance of asking for what you want, no matter how bold the ask might appear to be.



Lesson #3: Communication is Critical

I ended up making one additional bold ask of Peter Zarry after I requested permission to audit those Executive Development courses: I wanted him to sponsor my independent study.


I'm not sure if this is still possible today, but back when I was an undergraduate student, Schulich allowed students to earn a full course credit by completing an independent study on the topic of their choosing providing there was an instructor who was willing to serve as a Sponsor for the study (and grade the final paper).


Back then, e-commerce was in its infancy, and I wanted to learn more about how business could be done on the internet. So I approached Professor Zarry and asked if he would sponsor my Independent Study. He agreed, partially because by then he had grown to like me but mostly because he also recognized the emerging importance of e-commerce, and thought my Independent Study would serve as a strong basis for an Executive Development course he could then sell. Win-win!


But it turns out that there was a big problem with having a big-ideas thinker like Professor Zarry sponsor my study: every time I met with him, the workload increased. In my first meeting, when I proposed the idea, I thought a 40-page report would be a good target to earn full course credit. By the end of our next meeting, it had become a 60-page report. Then it was an 80-page report. I realized that the more I met with Professor Zarry to discuss my project, the more work I was given to do.


So I stopped scheduling meetings with him.


This approach seemed to work really well for six months; I simply set my independent study aside and focused on my other courses.


But I knew that eventually, I'd have to hand in my Independent Study if I wanted to graduate, so in early April of 2000, I decided to check in with Professor Zarry and ask when I should deliver the final report. I stopped by my office, and said, "Hey Professor!"


To which he very loudly replied, "YOU!!!!!!"


Uh-oh.


That's when the screaming commenced. "You're lucky you came by today! I was about to phone the administration and have them flunk you on your course! Where the hell have you been for the past four months?!?"


Professor Zarry was angry (to put it mildly) I had put my report on hold because he was counting on my work to serve as the basis for the course he was planning to sell; my ghosting him had halted progress on his development efforts.


So he told me, in no uncertain terms, that the report was to be delivered to his house in ten days; any later would result in me failing the independent study, which would prevent me from graduating. "And it better be good...." he growled as I left his office in fear.


I didn't sleep very much over the next ten days. But I finished the report (which ended up at 123 pages) and delivered it to his home one rainy evening in mid-April.


I learned a lot about e-Commerce in putting that report together. But I learned even more about stakeholder management, and about the importance of effectively communicating with everybody involved in your project. Not coincidentally, that was the very last time a project manager wasn't kept up to date on the progress of my work.



Lesson #4: There's Usually More You Can Do

A few weeks after I handed in my report, I got a phone call from Peter Zarry: he thought we should meet and discuss it.


I asked him how I had done on the paper, but he said we would discuss that during our meeting. To this day, I suspect that was a bit of revenge for my failure to communicate with him in the months leading up to my April meeting. I didn't like it, but I certainly deserved it.


We met the following week, and the situation wasn't nearly as dire as I had feared: he had assigned my paper a B+ grade. "It definitely wasn't bad," he started, "but it would have been much better if you had let me given you some feedback throughout the process!"


Then he made me an interesting offer.


"If you want to just be done with this thing, you can take the B+. But if you make the changes I suggested throughout the paper and resubmit it to me... I'll give you an A."


I was very appreciative for the chance to improve my grade. I thanked him for his support of my independent study and for his written feedback on the paper. Then I decided to be bold.


"Professor... what can I do to earn an A+ on this paper?"


Not unexpectedly, he began yelling at me. "ARE YOU KIDDING ME? There's NOTHING you can do to get an A+!!! Do you hear me? NOTHING!!!"


Then he paused for a moment that felt like an eternity. And then, in a normal tone, he said, "Fine... if you make all of the changes I suggested in the margins throughout the paper and include a section on Permission Marketing, I'll give you an A+."


I bit my lip to suppress a smile, and instead, readily agreed to his terms.


Two weeks later, he had a final version of my report... and I had my A+.


I also had my fourth lesson: if you're motivated enough, there's usually more you can do.