Al Silk

Alvin J. Silk (1935-2021)

Alvin (Al) J. Silk was a remarkable scholar and teacher, whose contributions spanned over six decades beginning in the 1960s and extending into 2021.  Al published one of his early papers (exploring overlap among self-designated opinion leaders) in Journal of Marketing Research in August 1966.  His last two publications were earlier this year (2021) in Marketing Science (exploring trends in outsourcing marketing with Birger Wernerfelt and Shuyi Yu), and in Foundations and Trends in Marketing (digitization of advertising with Ernst Berndt).

Al earned his Bachelor degree with honors from Western University (Canada) in 1959, his MBA (with distinction) in 1960 and his Ph.D. in 1968, both from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Al began his professorial career in 1963 at University of California at Los Angeles, and then was a faculty member at University of Chicago, MIT and finally at Harvard Business School (HBS.) At the time of his death, Al was Lincoln Filene Professor Emeritus at HBS.

Al’s scholarship is elegantly summarized by Glen L. Urban, David Austin Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School and MIT Sloan School Dean Emeritus, ISMS Fellow, and a long-time friend and colleague, “Al was a behavioralist, but he had a real knowledge of models and an unforgiving sense of rigor in model structure and validation.”

Al’s arrival at MIT in 1968 began an extra-ordinary two decades of impactful contributions to scholarship, mentorship, and institutional leadership. Glen has this to say, “In 1966, I met Al in person, and he was very welcoming to me as I interviewed at UCLA and he had some really insightful comments on my thesis on new product forecasting.  Although I went to MIT instead of UCLA, we recruited Al to MIT later and I was very pleased.  After he arrived, we began joint work on ASSESSOR (a new product pre-test market forecasting model for frequently purchased consumer goods).” 

Glen recollects Al’s pioneering research output and his synergistic partnership thus, “It was a great partnership.  Al had in-depth behavior knowledge and I specialized in model building. Al was a master of measurement which was critical to the success of the modeling system, and we integrated the first LOGIT model utilization into the measurement methodology.  Dan McFadden and Moshe Ben-Akiva   were just beginning their maximum likelihood algorithm development and I remember how Al integrated constant sum measurement with the heuristic LOGIT estimation procedure.” 

Now hear from David (Dave) Montgomery, now Sebastian S. Kresge Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, a former colleague of Al at MIT, and an Inaugural ISMS Fellow, “Al joined MIT as one of the first four faculty additions to the MIT Sloan School Marketing faculty after John D.C. Little arrived. Glen and I joined in 1966, and Al joined from the Chicago faculty in1968. My personal research collaborations with Al were all during this early period at MIT.  First an article on Clusters of Consumer’s Interests and Opinion Leaders’ Spheres of Influence in Journal of Marketing Research and two lead articles in Management Science: DETAILER a Multiple Product Sales Force Allocation Model and Estimating Dynamic Effects of Marketing Communications Expenditures.  In each of the Management Science papers contrasts were made between what might have happened if the model or measurements had been used in management decisions versus what actually had happened.  I believe this aspect of these papers were early examples of trying to assess the value of the management science approaches. Al’s most notable paper was the 1978 ASSESSOR paper with Glen Urban which won the O’Dell Award in 1983 as the Most Significant Article published in 1978 in Journal of Marketing Research.”

Al’s work on new product forecasting (with Glen) has been seminal. Russell (Russ) Winer, William Joyce Professor at New York University and ISMS Fellow observes, “Al’s work on new product forecasting was very influential and was an important paper to me early in my doctoral program”. 

Gurumuthy Kalyanaram (GK), composer of this and other profiles, doctoral alumnus of MIT Sloan, and an MIT Education Counselor nw has this observation: "Al was so prolific in his intellectual output for such a long and sustained period that it organically partitions itself into distinct time-periods. First time-period dates from 1960s to about 1990.  The second time-period dates from about 1990 to 2021. As there is no one better than Glen to inform us of Al’s contributions in the first time-period, there is no one better than Ernst Berndt to describe Al’s contributions in the second time-period. Al’s sustained intellectual productivity in the second time period is particularly remarkable, given his decline in physical health in the last 15 years of his life."   According to his partner Keri Jones, Al was first diagnosed with wet macular degeneration in 2006, initially in one eye and then in both eyes, and in December 2011 he was declared legally blind.

Ernst (Ernie) Berndt, Louis E. Seley Professor Emeritus in Applied Economics at MIT, is effusive in his recollection.  “Between the 1990s and this year (2021), we coauthored ten published manuscripts – eight in peer-reviewed journals, one in an edited volume, and one Harvard Business School case study.  Our early joint research emanated from Al’s curiosity of why was it that advertising agencies were steadily evolving from full-service to holding company organizational forms, from selling bundled media and creative services to unbundling them, and how did the advertising and marketing services industry adapt its organizational forms because of conflict-of-interest norms?  Al believed the economic theory of cost and production in multiproduct firms could shed light on these developments, and since in much of my early professional career I worked on applying and econometrically implementing the economic theory of cost and production, our collaboration was a natural fit.  Thus, our research evolved from estimating economies of scale and scope among advertising media, to estimating substitutability and complementarity relations between them.  Our later research focused on how we perceived digital and internet media would eventually challenge and compete with traditional audio, video, and print advertising media.  Measurement issues played a prominent role in our research.  While I had utilized various econometric tools in my previous research, Al’s restless mind and endless curiosity generated exciting new applications.”

Al was a hands-on researcher.  He delighted in this.  Ernie captures this all so well. “While statistical techniques such as iterative three-stage instrumental variable estimation with first-order vector autoregression, model selection via likelihood dominance, and time series analysis using augmented Dickey-Fuller tests for unit roots, were new tools for him to use and digest, Al was typically insistent that he, and not me, do the actual empirical software programming; Al had numerous conversations with the developers of the EViews econometric software tools to ensure he was implementing procedures properly and interpreting results accurately.  He feasted on and delighted in performing what for him were novel statistical techniques.”

Scott Neslin, Albert Wesley Frey Professor at Darmouth University, and a student of Al summarizes Al's research thus, ""Al was a walking library of research in marketing. He read and absorbed everything. He exemplified what it means to be a scholar. Al drew on his deep knowledge of the field and his ability to generate insight to produce impeccable research. He published landmark papers with Dave Montgomery, Glen Urban, and others on pre-test marketing predictions (ASSESSOR), the validity of purchase intent data, the dynamics of advertising response, and numerous other topics." 

Keri Jones tells us how much Al loved the process of research and delighted in it. “Al loved the academic life and despite losing his eyesight and all the challenges and frustrations that come with aging, every day he would carry on what he called “the pick and shovel” work of research. These past few years were a very fulfilling time for him, particularly with his most recent publication that he co-authored with his dear friend and colleague of over 40 years, Ernst Berndt, receiving international recognition.”

There was more to Al: dedicated mentorship.  John Hauser, Kirin Professor at MIT and an Inaugural ISMS Fellow, has a very personal, poignant, and special insight into this.  John was a doctoral student at MIT in the early 1970s when Al was a professor at MIT, and then a fellow faculty colleague of Al in the early 1980s.  “Al was one of the original members of the MIT Marketing Group and in many ways its soul. As PhD. students, we joked that Al never assigned anything less than twenty years old. We later realized that Al had identified the classics and wanted us to appreciate the roots of marketing. Al was focused on careful measurement and methods of experimentation. He valued research that was careful, rigorous, and that would stand the test of time. This he taught to all his students. Later, as a faculty colleague, we always knew we could turn to Al for sage advice.”

James (Jim) Lattin, now Robert A. Magowan Professor at Stanford University, and John Roberts, now Scientia Professor at University of New South Wales, were admitted to the doctoral program at MIT when Al was the Chair of the program.  They recollect thus: “Our memories of Al Silk both begin in the M.I.T. Doctoral Program of which he was Chairman, although we started two years apart.  Al played an important role in advocating for us as candidates for admission to the PhD Program and in convincing us of the advantages of undergoing a program of study at the Sloan School of Management.  Thus was Al instrumental in putting us on the paths that have shaped our lives and our careers to this day.  It was Al who started our lifelong friendship and Al to whom we are eternally grateful.   Al was also a great friend to both of us.  As we studied for our field exams, we sat on small chairs, literally at Al’s feet, as he regaled us about the marketing literature and probed our understanding of it.  Studying for field exams with Al was not just reading papers, it was exploring the literature with a guide who had an unparalleled grasp of the way in which different streams of research connected and fit together.” 

Scott: "He was an ideal mentor – fatherly, affable, yet he maintained the highest standards and you knew it."

What about Al’s impact on teaching? Listen to this very specific narration from Robert (Bob) Dolan, Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School.  “I tried to design a new products course first at Chicago then HBS, I diligently searched the literature for material to bring into the classroom establishing the rigor yet relevance of marketing scholarship. Of course, Al’s work with Glen Urban on pre-test market evaluation topped the list on this score. But it was his Purchase Intentions paper several years later that had an even greater impact on me. I had happily and naively been tossing around the unassailable virtues of “top-two box” scores in the classroom.  Now here was this Silk and Kalwani paper saying hey, you need to think deeply about some things.”

There is even more: institution-building at MIT, HBS and more.  Al served as the Deputy Dean of MIT Sloan School for six years from 1981 to 1987. Listen to what John Hauser has to say about Al’s deliberative approach and thoughtful contributions.  “He saw all sides of issues and encouraged us to think them through. He believed that judgments and actions should be based on careful consideration and not rushed. These qualities led him to become a Deputy Dean at MIT where he served as the school grew and transformed.”  Glen recalls Al’s leadership wistfully and with gratitude.  Glen also wonders if Al gave so much of himself to MIT – particularly, as a Deputy Dean – that it almost became inevitable that Al needed a new auspicious beginning.  As Glen reflects now, he had himself served in leadership roles at MIT (as the Deputy Dean and then as Dean) after Al’s service. “Al was a great citizen of MIT.  He served in the thankless job of deputy dean for 6 years.  This is a place where you can feel underappreciated and pressured (I felt this after only 3 years in the job).  Al persevered as a servant of the school faculty and students.  I sometimes feel that if he had quit the deputy dean job earlier, he would have stayed at MIT.”

After almost two decades at MIT Sloan and after growing to be a prototypical MIT citizen in too many ways to count, Al joined HBS in 1988 after a year as Visiting Professor.  Glen was empathetic but sad. “I wish he had stayed at MIT, so we could have worked more closely.”  And here is John on Al’s reason for the move, “When Al stepped down from his term as Deputy Dean, he sought a new a different challenge—HBS. He wanted a different perspective but wanted to continue to have an impact on people and on the profession.” 

Listen to Bob Dolan on how improbable Al’s move from MIT to HBS looked at the time and how it came about.  It is worth recording Bob’s recollection because it demonstrates how serendipity plays such a pivotal role in all our lives, and how institutions develop and grow. “I had just been promoted to full professor at HBS in 1982 and appointed Area Chair for marketing. I wanted to bolster the research culture of the group. It is then that Dean McArthur asked me if I knew Al Silk who was Deputy Dean “down the river” at MIT and, if so, did I think it would be a good idea for us to have him as a visiting professor as he took his sabbatical year from Sloan. What do you do other start singing “Oh, happy day!” to yourself?  How lucky were we (HBS) and especially me in my early days as area chair to have Al Silk come and spend a year with us on our side of the Charles River?  I had no glimmer of anything more than a year.   At one point, my wife asked if Al might stay with us. I said that would be great, but it couldn’t happen – he was Mr. MIT.  But Kathleen came to be good friends with Al’s late wife Diane and indicated there might be some possibilities there.  I remained skeptical, but as Al showed more interest in what was going on in our case classrooms, I got somewhat optimistic that maybe it could happen that he would stay with us. One year became 35 as Al remained a vibrant force for us beyond his retirement to this year.”

Al made contributions to the community for 12 years till his retirement from HBS in 2000, including designing and offering new MBA and doctoral courses such as Brand Management and Research Design and Measurement, and service as the chair of marketing unit from 1994-1998.

Al continued his contributions for 20 years after his retirement.  Al’s contributions at HBS began in fulsome manner even as a visiting faculty on sabbatical from MIT in 1987-1988.  Here is Bob Dolan, “Al’s impact was immediate. Some was just Al being Al – preparing for research seminars, asking the key questions, providing the most helpful suggestions and showing us all how a great research mind works.  Some of it was his tireless coaching of me.  Talking about research culture, he said to me “The most important thing is to make sure people understand that it is more important to get it right, than it is to get it out.””

Al’s contributions to the community were broad, including his contributions to Marketing Science Institute. Dave speaks to this. “Al’s research contributions and helpful advice greatly advanced MSI in its further progress. He also served a term on the TIMS Marketing College Council.” Russ: “He was very involved with MSI and participated in a number of research meetings there.”

Sure, Al was a marvelous scholar, mentor, teacher, and an institution-builder. Fundamentally, Al was a generous man with a big heart and always ready to help others.  He was a man with no malice in his bones towards anyone.  Al was a man of noble instincts, giving of himself.

Al lived a full and zestful life. Always exploring and discovering. Glen reflects on their friendship and the fulness of Al’s life. “Al was always a friend to me and to my wife, Andrea.  We camped on Cape Cod together when his kids were small, and he even named his daughter after Andrea.  Over the years we fished for striped bass many times and sailed together.  When Al moved to Harvard we continued to interact academically and a group of four of us regularly had dinner together in Boston.  Al was always the connoisseur and sommelier -- he had impeccable tastes.  I remember him frequently pulling out of his pocket his list of vintages as a reference for selections at dinner.  At the TIMS annual meeting Al was a regular at John Little’s wine tastings and always scored high on judging the best wines.”  As observed by John, Al bought a “boat and take it down the Intercoastal Waterway to experience a different style of life.” And listen to Dave’s narration of an incident reflecting on Al’s mirthfulness and care. “My Golden Retriever was barking at a big bird in our back yard that we later identified as a Canada Goose, which got Al’s attention.  The bird didn’t fly away but ran into our woods.  We decided to lasso the goose. Al tied a lasso, hid behind a tree, and I was to chase the goose past Al who would thereby rope the goose.  Al’s knot slipped.  But the Goose didn’t fly so we took another shot which worked.  What do you do with angry goose?  We took it to the Drumlin Farm Audubon Society where the goose’s flock came back for him a couple day later. A feel-good story for our grandkids.”

Harry Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at University of Chicago, recalls his 60 year personal friendship with Al.  This recollection is as poignant as it is memorable. “Al Silk was my closest friend. We met as entering PhD students at Northwestern in 1960. Shortly after classes began, I remember sitting with him on a bench outside gave me some needed insights as to the value of various statistical distributions. Our lives intertwined both professionally and personally from that time forward. I was his “Best Man,” attended his final class at the Harvard Business School, and just this past September had several email exchanges regarding rebuttals to Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. He was deeply committed to the field of marketing and to the institutions that he served. Al brought his knowledge and long-term perspective about the field into his research which continued unabated throughout his life.”

The measure of a human being is not so much in what they acquire but in what they give of themselves to society. Al was aspirational.  In 2013 he established an endowed chair at HBS to honor his late wife, Diane Doerge Wilson, to support an HBS faculty member whose interests include the intersection of gender with work, career, and family issues. In 2015, following receiving an Honorary Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa (L.L.D.) from The Ivey Business School at Western University, he endowed the Dr. Alvin J. Silk Graduate Scholarship at Ivey. Al also endowed the Alvin Silk Fellowship Fund at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and a doctoral student fellowship in marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Even death would not separate Al from his most noble instincts.  According to his family, “In the end he was a tissue donor for burn victims and breast cancer survivors.”

G.K. Kalyanaram recalls working with Al with much gratitude. “I got to know Al well when I joined the doctoral program at MIT in 1984.  Of course, I knew of Al through his celebrated new product forecasting model work, ASESSOR, with Glen.  In the second half of his distinguished career, beginning in about 1990, Al’s research was focused on various elements related to advertising (e.g., estimating scope, scale, economies, response function.) Since my graduation from MIT in 1989, we kept in touch periodically.  In July-October 2021, Al became my counselor.  I was in constant touch with Al to seek his input while I composed the profiles of several colleagues and scholars, particularly with respect to Bob Buzzell – Al shared a wonderful composition on Bob.  In every case, Al was incredibly kind, generous, and accessible. I completed the profile of Bob Buzzell and shared it with Al for his review and approval about October 12th or so. Al was communicating with me with clear-headedness, thoughtfulness, precision, and vigor. A few days later I learned much to my sorrow that Al had transited to that undiscovered world.  There was not a hint that this was coming. Al, in his life and in his death, has inspired me to listen to my nobler instincts and act upon them.”

Here are some additional tributes.  Jim Lattin and John Roberts: “Al showed what a fine thing scholarship can be and the joy, wisdom, and insight that can flow from the complete mastery of a subject (or in Al’s case many).” Russ Winer: “His ready smile and easy-going demeanor will be greatly missed.” Harry Davis: “He always had time for people, having lunch, reading their papers, and always making useful suggestions for the next revision, not to mention their research trajectories. How grateful I am for having had this man in my life.” Dave Montgomery: “He was a dear friend, and I shall miss him and cherish fond memories of him and good times together.” Bob Dolan: “It was an honor to have him as a colleague and friend.” John Hauser: “Al will be missed as a mentor, as a researcher, and as a good colleague to everyone in the profession.”

Richard (Rick) Staelin, Gregory Mario and Jeremy Mario Professor at Duke University: "Al was the type of guy who always had something nice to say." In an email in 2016, Al wrote to Rick, “Learning that your father was a travelling salesman made me smile; my father a lifelong door-to-door salesman.”

Scott: "He taught me how to think, how to be a scholar. Al stood for everything that’s good about our profession."

Al’s partner, Keri Jones and Kimberly Silk, Al’s niece, a writer and storyteller, informs us how Al grew up to be the man that he was: curious, incisive, generous and giving. But why marketing?  Listen to this poignant and personal narration, “His mother, Lena, gave him the gift of the love of learning and his passion for marketing came from his father, Jack, an award-winning door-to-door salesman for Fuller Brush and Watkins.  He often acknowledged how lucky he was to have his family’s support and understanding as he strove to continue doing what he loved, for as long as he could. He knew he was living a wonderful life and he was thankful.”

We are also thankful for Al’s life.

Ernie and Glen capture it all – the professional and the personal elements of Al.

Ernie: “You have been a dear friend, a creative, deeply inquisitive and generous research collaborator, an inspiring colleague who for decades has demonstrated a deep integrity and commitment to wide-ranging rigorous scholarship, and you leave a legacy of continuing support for research and education by your colleagues, collaborators and students.”

Glen declaims emphatically that Al will be remembered, “I miss Al as co-researcher, fellow administrator, and friend.  He will be remembered!” He will be.

Al ennobled our lives, and he inspired us.

Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (GK)
Dated: December 2021