Memories of

Professor Robin Wensley

 

Extract from Academy of Marketing – In Memoriam Robin Wensley

Biography

After reading Natural Sciences at Cambridge and working for a time in industry, Robin completed his master’s degree at London Business School. Delivering executive education at Ashridge was his first foray into academe. Soon after, he became a lecturer at London Business School, before going on to complete his PhD there. In 1986, Robin was appointed as professor at the University of Warwick, where he remained throughout the rest of his working life. He served as Chair of Warwick Business School from 1989 to 1994 and was Chair of the Faculty of Social Studies from 1997 to 1999. After a stint as a Board member of the ESRC Research Grants Board between 1991 and 1995, Robin was appointed to the Council of the ESRC from 2001. Between 2004 and 2011, he was Director of the prestigious £30m ESRC/EPSRC AIM Research initiative, a role that played to his interests in bridging the gap between academe and practice.

Robin was a great networker, who loved to travel, enjoying sabbaticals at UCLA (twice) and the University of Florida, amongst others; visits he would recollect with great fondness. He forged strong and enduring research and writing collaborations with academics who inspired him, advising others to “work closely with colleagues who have challenging and different perspectives” (Wensley, 2017, pp. 302). He was also Chair of the Council of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations from 1998 until 2003 and a member of the Sunningdale Institute between 2008 and 2011. After his retirement from Warwick, Robin continued his academic interests through a fractional post at the Open University, an institution he admired for its social justice agenda and for making education accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to study.

Before entering academe, Robin worked at RHM Foods and Tube Investments, a period in his life which underpinned an ongoing fascination with management practice, an interest he continued to pursue through undertaking consultancy and management development for many major organisations. Robin was particularly interested in the translation and application of knowledge in practice, and in the challenges involved in achieving impact. These he put down to the heterogeneity of both management research and its audiences, arguing for creative approaches that make considered use of language and arguments, to meet the needs of each audience.

Prestigious achievements

Robin achieved many prestigious accolades during his career. He was a Fellow of the British Academy of Management (FBAM), the Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM) and the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS). In 2006, he was awarded the Academy of Marketing’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the British Academy of Management Richard Whipp Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. His significant contributions to strategic marketing were recognised by twice winning the prestigious Journal of Marketing Alpha Kappa Psi award for best paper; in 1981 for his paper Betas, Boxes or Basics; and in 1988 for his paper with George Day on Assessing Advantage. He also won the Millennium Prize for the best paper in the Journal of Marketing Management.

Beyond these personal contributions, Robin was a democratic and highly effective academic leader, as well as an inspirational mentor. He was especially committed to nurturing the careers of the next generation of business and management academics, devoting vast amounts of time and energy to supporting his doctoral students and to those who were early in their careers.

Academic outlook

Robin had a rare intellect and an irrepressible intellectual curiosity. He was exceptionally well read and could quote with ease from sources that inspired him. He was naturally inquisitive, with an innate ability to view problems from different angles. And long before it became trendy, Robin was interdisciplinary in his thinking and in his approach to his research. Reflecting his eclectic interests, Robin’s first office at Warwick was stacked high with books and papers, interspersed with handwritten pages. The brilliant insights these sheets contained were recorded in his distinctive handwriting, which was illegible to all but the trained eye. ‘I really must sort this out….’, he would say when his office’s untidiness reached epic proportions, but I am not sure he ever did.

Describing his approach as ‘contrarian’, Robin drew on a panopoly of ideas in his research and writing, everything from post-Keynesian economics and option pricing theory, to decision support systems, strategic investment decisions, and even the search for order in chaos. The great cook Mrs Beaton and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were particular favourites of his. His approach resulted in outcomes that invariably were original and sometimes surprising. In one of his last publications, Research in the gap between the obvious and the improbable, which appeared in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, he spoke about living in a world where, “There can be little doubt that we seem at the moment to be in a political economy where the obvious and the improbable actually co-exist, but it is difficult to work out which is which” (Wensley, 2017, pp. 315). How right he was.

Humanity and integrity

Above all, Robin was marked out by his humanity. He was charming and fun; his booming laugh would fill the corridors and his rueful smile was never far away. You knew when Robin was ‘in the building’ and the days when he was, were richer for it.

He was a man of great integrity, with a deeply rooted social conscience. Treating people with equanimity came naturally and he had time for everyone, irrespective of their career stage, profile, or where they fitted within the academic hierarchy. He was slow to judge and always respectful of people’s ability to know what was right for them.

Robin also loved to talk and in those wonderful conversations he gave his full and undivided attention. Ask him an interesting question and he would lean back in his chair, gaze into the distance in thoughtful contemplation, and then the cogs would start to whir. These discussions might last for hours; they were inspiring and developmental in equal measure, moments to benefit from his extraordinary intellect and really learn how to think.

Although Robin in full professorial flow was inspiring, he was also empathetic and understood the difficulties people face in their lives, going out of his way to help if he could. So many colleagues and friends have shared touching ‘Robin’ stories of moments when he helped them out of a fix or just took the time to listen. Such help would be offered without drama or fuss and with absolute discretion. There was never a price to be repaid later.

Family and home

Away from work, Robin was a great family man, a proud and devoted husband, father and grandfather. He liked travelling and walking, and relished time spent with his grandchildren. He was a great respecter of women, and his love and admiration for his wife, Sue, were readily evident. He needed little encouragement to speak with warmth and enthusiasm about his children and grandchildren and was clearly fascinated about who they were and would become.

Robin loved his home and garden and was also surprisingly practical for a professor! An able mechanic, who could strip down engines and an enthusiastic baker of bread, which he said he found enormously therapeutic.

Robin was an incredibly special human being. He touched many lives and leaves a community that will always be grateful for his wisdom, inspiration and academic legacy to marketing. But more than that, he was warm and funny, thoughtful and kind. 

Professor Sally Dibb, Coventry University

Wensley, Robin (2017). Research in the gap between the obvious and the improbable. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 9(3), pp. 302-318.

 

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Lesley and John Inglis

Unlike many of those who’ve written so warmly about Robin, we were not among his professional colleagues. What brought Robin and us together was pregnancy. 45 years ago, Lesley became a social worker at Paddington Green’s Children’s Hospital in London and found she had a wonderfully cheerful, enthusiastic, smart colleague called Sue Wensley. As they became friends, they discovered not just a shared vocation but that they lived not far apart in North London and both were soon going to have babies. And as a result, we had the immense good fortune to be drawn into the circle around the warm and wonderful tribe of Wensleys and Horners and Ryburns. To us, Robin and Sue were awesome friends – in both the old and new senses of that word. They had loads of friends, which as new arrivals from Edinburgh we did not. They already had children, the lovely and exuberant Helen and Ruth, which we did not. They had a rather nice house, which we certainly did not —The Lancet medical journal didn’t pay its editors much more than when it began in 1823 — and yet the Wensleys were thrifty and impressively practical. Robin would casually mention …

Keith Sissons, Emeritus Professor of Industrial Relations, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

I’ll leave to others to talk about Robin’s academic achievements. I’d like to say something about Robin the human being. Those who become Chairs of Business Schools aren’t always nice people. But Robin was a very nice person. He was easy going and always had time for people. Above all, you could trust him, knowing that he had the organisation’s interest at heart rather than his own personal advantage. …

Ianna Contardo, Freelancer for e-REAL by Logosnet & Olson Zaltman Associates, Former Associate Dean at SPJAIN, School of Global Management

In the vast cosmos of academia, there are mentors and then, there are guiding stars. Robin Wensley, was the celestial figure that illuminated my journey through the intricate constellation of knowledge during my PhD thesis. Imagine academia as a grand tapestry, each thread representing a nugget of wisdom, a fragment of insight. Robin, to me, was the master weaver who helped me thread my ideas into this intricate mosaic of learning. He was not just a mentor; he was the loom upon which the fabric of my research was artfully woven. His guidance was the gentle hand that pushed me to explore uncharted realms, much like a skilled astronomer navigating the cosmos. Robin’s approach to mentoring was like that of a seasoned gardener tending to a rare and delicate orchid. He provided just the right balance of nourishment, care, and freedom for my ideas to blossom. Robin’s encouragement allowed my research to bloom in ways I had never imagined. As I delved into my thesis, Robin’s influence was like a compass guiding a sailor across the boundless sea of knowledge. He didn’t just impart knowledge; he ignited a thirst for it. His infectious passion for research was akin to …

John Benington, Professor of Public Policy and Management, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

ROBIN WENSLEY: AN APPRECIATION OF HIS WORK AS DEAN OF WBS, AND AS A FRIEND   I first met Robin in 1988 in George Bain’s study in the (then) School of Industrial and Business Studies (SIBS), when they were encouraging me to transfer from Birmingham University to set up a Local Government Research Centre at Warwick. George allocated 50 minutes to negotiating one of his seductive, magnificent deals (“We’ll welcome you to Warwick and give you active support within the University, but you’ll have to raise all the funding to set up LGC as a self-financing research centre, from day 1 “). Robin was suffering from a bad cold/nasal congestion that day, so he didn’t say much, but I found that George trusted Robin implicitly as his deputy dean, and left him to implement this deal. And over the next 20 + years at Warwick I came to understand why. When George moved to London Business School, and Robin was elected to succeed him as Dean, I began to appreciate Robin’s qualities as an academic leader not just as an implementer. This deepened into a closer working relationship when later Robin (and Robert Dyson) put themselves on the line …

Jane Miller, Director of Taught Programmes, Warwick Business School, Warwick University

Robin was Deputy Dean when I joined WBS in 2002.  He was not a remote figure, but someone that was visible in the School and always warm and willing to chat.  Shortly after, he became a member of our Group, the Institute of Governance and Public Management, and was a regular contributor to the public sector programmes I worked on.  I was therefore fortunate to work with him frequently.  He always had a smile and jovial interaction to offer.  He taught strategic management and the students warmed to him very much and enjoyed and appreciated his teaching.  He was patient, supportive and available.  OK, he had a tendency to doze off when facilitating a evening guest speaker, but that never stopped him waking at the appropriate point to ask a pertinent and interesting question 😊.  Overall, I would characterize him as a kind and generous person, who cared deeply about people and enjoyed the human interaction that is actually the most important thing about our work.  He was astute and good fun to be with.  We missed him very much when he retired.  My sincere condolences to his family whom he always talked of with deep affection and pride. …

Liz Daniel and Siv Vangen, Professors at the Open University Business School.

Robin joined the Open University part-time in 2013, undertaking roles which drew on his considerable experience, his interest in supporting and mentoring colleagues and his patience and kindness. A particular role was to mentor colleagues, particularly early career academics, in the Department of Strategy and Marketing with their research. He met them over extended periods, offering advice on papers, research areas and career development. His breadth of knowledge of the management domain always helped colleagues develop their thinking and ideas. Many have expressed how they benefitted significantly from this mentoring and support. Robin was an active supervisor of research students and also convened and chaired the Professorial Forum in the Faculty of Business and Law. This time senior colleagues, benefitted from Robin’s breadth of experience and ability to discuss, analyse and take action on the challenging issues facing the Business School. Robin retired from the Open University in June 2020.  He will always be fondly remembered for his support and kindness and his willingness to share his wealth of knowledge of management studies and of being a highly successful and respected academic. …

David Wilson Professor of Organisation Studies, The Open University

I have known Robin as a work colleague and as a friend for over 35 years. The majority of that time was when we were both at Warwick Business School and, in the last few years, at the Open University Faculty of Business and Law.  He was a character in all the positive aspects of that description and I’m sure colleagues will have described many of those (including unlaced trainers and an office full of piles of paper which seemed chaotic, although Robin was invariably able to retrieve relevant papers immediately). I want to concentrate on how Robin governed as a Dean, with humour, humility, care and consideration for others and,not least in my view, very successfully. I’ve selected four areas where Robin shone as a leader of a large Business School and a fifth point describes his sterling contributions at the Open University Business School. He was not only a great leader, but also a loyal and supportive follower. It is ironic that I served under Robin as a Professor during his tenure at WBS and that he subsequently served under me as Deputy Dean (2007-2009) and as Acting Dean (2009-2010) as the then Dean (Howard Thomas) left to …

Phil Stern, Professor of Marketing, Exeter Business School, Exeter University

This memory of Robin is about how he influenced and supported me in my academic career – something he did for a significant number of others. He always made time to listen and was gently constructively critical; “The research is clear: a little bit of stress is a good thing”, is a message I heard and internalised. I first encountered Robin when I was in my second year at London Business School studying for my MSc/MBA in 1981. I took an elective he ran and was enchanted by his ability to challenge and help us students learn new things in a unique way. He didn’t advertise the fact that it was a great year for him, with his Journal of Marketing paper ‘Strategic Marketing: Betas, Boxes, Or Basics’ being published, but that was typical diffident Robin, who became one of my three career mentors. A couple of years passed and his academic standing was recognised with an offer he couldn’t refuse, jumping from lecturer at LBS to Professor at Warwick. I was at Kingston Poly learning how to be a lecturer with help from Annik Hogg (my second mentor), when Robin told me that there were opportunities to join …

Lyndon Simkin, Professor of Strategic Marketing, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University

Odd socks, colour clashing ties, an office to lose people in for weeks at a time! But such a smart, shrewd and supportive boss. Without his perseverance, perception and at times provocation, I would not have remained in academe after my PhD and short post-doc at Warwick. Robin and Peter (Doyle) were an awesome double act under whom to learn my trade. Warwick was so fortunate to attract such expertise at a time when it was transitioning from a small department within Social Studies to a major international business school of repute. Robin led the MSM Group and as Dean WBS onwards and upwards, and in the process helped shape the careers of so many ECRs and PhDs. In my early days as a young lecturer I managed to over-commit. At a time when my mother had just died and life was a muddle. An external contract with a data house was causing me sleepless nights. I could not clear my head enough to deliver the contract, but I could not afford to pay them back! It was very stressful. Robin noticed my plight. I’m not sure how, as it wasn’t something I was discussing. He reached out, came …

Peter McKiernan, Professor of Management, Department of Strategy and Organisation, University of Strathclyde

In the late 1980s, Warwick Business School was a dynamic environment. It had risen rapidly from its origins in the old School of Industrial and Business Studies (SIBS) to be rebranded and repositioned as a leading European institution with first class teaching programmes and facilities, and outstanding research centres, e.g. CCSC. Then, George Bain, its virtuoso Dean, departed to LBS and the search began for someone who could stabilise the School and ready it for another period of energetic growth. George was a hard act to follow and, unperturbed, in stepped Robin Wensley; a remarkably able academic and polymath with an air of old school charm, of grace, mystery, emotional intelligence and a baggy green pullover. If he wasn’t spotted behind the sprawling debris of his official office, he was on the floor of a yoga class, and you could step over him on your way to your own office. Watching him govern was a masterclass in placing humans at the centre of an organisational process. I used to wait for him after work to drop him off in Leamington on my way home to Stratford, possibly via a local inn, I can’t remember. One evening, I sat in …