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Professor Cele Otnes on academic life and after

(interview by Robin Canniford)




Figure 1 - Homo Otnesiae with spirit animal Felis Boxarius – photo, Mark Otnes.


Energetic, ebullient, and easy-going, Cele Otnes is a one-woman whirlwind, qualified to whip up scholarly energy in even the sleepiest of seminars. Those of us who have encountered Cele’s eternal enthusiasm and generosity may be sad to learn that she has decided to retire at the top (literally, she’s been head of department during Covid, which entitles her to a proper break).  Given her outstanding contributions to the field, I caught up with Cele for a whimsical chat about what’s next for her, and to glean a little of her wisdom on topics including publishing and politics, writing and work-life balance, as well as leadership and living well.


Robin: You told me that you’re off to Texas to get into conservation? What inspired that?


Cele: I want to earn my Master Naturalist certification. Which basically means you acquire some basic knowledge about the flora and fauna native to a particular region, and then you learn/work to help preserve/conserve or maybe even cull some of those, in the name of helping the ecosystem along. What inspired this is being in a cold climate where I haven’t been able to be outside nearly as much as when I was young (I lived in the South from age 7-30, when I took my first faculty job at Illinois). Also, I’m scared of snakes and creeped out by bugs. So I’m facing my fears! I hope I don’t embarrass myself and stand on chairs to avoid the demonstrator bugs at meetings. I also want to combine this with my love of photography. My facebook friends are no doubt bored stiff by my endless close-ups of flowers and so on.

By the way, aren’t “Flora and Fauna” great names for twins? I also love to think about naming. A lot.


Robin: Ha-ha, OK, how has academic life changed since you started?


Cele: In terms of publishing, it’s much, much tougher to get in the A journals. The bar is just so much higher across the board – in terms of what has to be contributed theoretically, empirically, strategically. And the pace has increased so exponentially in terms of what we have to learn and master. Hey Katharina and Giana – that decleration you wrote about? Can I get some of that without going on a giant pilgrimage? I think the value placed on the novel is very high, and the range of topics we are looking at in marketing/CCT is thankfully much broader than it used to be.


Some things never change though – conferences are more work than they are payoff for one’s career, and there’s a lot of stupid high-school type shit that flies around at conferences, etc. So while work pressures have changed, I think they may exacerbate issues for those who are already problematic (e.g., narcissists, takers vs. givers). On a happier note, the globalization of the academia has allowed for a lot of personal and cultural enrichment. 


Robin: Do you have any advice on work-life balance?


Cele: Never heard of it. Did you just pose a question to me in Swedish?


Robin:  Børk-børk yubetcha! Moving on then, what would you recommend to junior faculty these days?


Cele: Learn to say ‘no’ by referring someone else who can do what you are asked. People don’t necessarily always need YOU to do something – they just need SOMEONE to do something. So, when I turn down something, I always refer someone else who might be good and might actually have the time to do it (and who might benefit from doing it in terms of visibility, etc.). I never do this, but it would probably change my life if I could. Stay off your computer and social media on Sundays. Just have a screen-free day.


Robin: Amen to that! If you could be remembered for one piece of work, what would it be?


Cele: I don’t think it’s what I am most remembered for, if one judges Google scholar. Hopefully it’s something I haven’t written yet. That makes the NY Times bestseller list. And features a spooky house and a mysterious dead wife in Devon (not mine). Oh wait…that’s Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.


In all seriousness, maybe Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, because it’s been cited across a lot of disciplines, and because it was my first book-length collaboration of a deeply-embedded consumption topic that touches a lot of aspects of culture. I loved doing Royal Fever, but we probably should have used the word “Brand” in the title, and then maybe Pauline and I would be working in the Palace helping Prince Charles figure out how to name his jellies that he sells at Windsor Farm Shop.


Robin: Royal Jelly? Next question: I had a blast at the ACR you organised in Vancouver, but what was your best conference ever, and why?


Cele: Tough one! I want to say the first CCT Conference at Notre Dame. I remember Shona (then Bettany) Rowe and I had like a two-hour conversation in the bar. No idea what it was about. But that’s when I got to know her, and I learned how smart and wonderful she was. Then Eileen and I were back at ND maybe 20 years later for the AMA Doctoral Consortium. We took a long walk (as we typically always do at conferences) and had some special ritual moments where we lit candles for our daughters together. I’m not even Catholic, but I get it!


Robin: Quickfire round now Cele: What would you like to say to Reviewer 3?


Cele: Why did it take you four months to turn in your review?


Robin: What is your spirit animal at work?


Cele: Definitely my cat. You have seen him. He’s highly insane. And he does that thing where he sits on the papers I need to grade (see photographic evidence in figure 1).


Robin: Will he be retiring also?


Cele: Never, unfortunately. My toes will likely be attacked in the morning for the next 20 years.


Robin: You mentioned that you would keep writing after you retire; what do you have in mind?


Cele: Besides my Nobel-prize winning, bestselling and lifechanging novel? Maybe a book about people and how they are delusional? The two seem to go together. I don’t know what will be first, but definitely kicking ideas around with The Usual Suspects (see above).


Robin: You started university as an English major, What would you like to see more of from CCT writing.


Cele: More relaxed, more engaging – I have my students read Brown et al.’s Titanic/brand ambiguity article every year. I would also like to see more relevant VISUALS in CCT papers. I’d like to see more of the informants’ voices somehow. Just less yak-academic writing, and more writing that reflects that we are talking about life. Except with the theory-building bits, of course, which HAVE to be obtuse to be thought important!


Robin: Can you think of an underappreciated paper in the field that you think you would like more people to read?


Cele: This is the best question, hands-down. Titanic, by Stephen Brown, Pierre McDonagh, and Clifford Schulz II. It's a master class in how to use an enabling theoretical lens to make more than an incremental contribution, and also in how to write engagingly (dare I say it! entertainingly) about marketing concepts and theory. I assign it in my Qual course sometimes once at the beginning (enabling theory) and once at the end (writing). 

A few other recent nominees: “Consumer Movements and Collective Creativity: The Case of Restaurant Day” (Weijo, et al, JCR).  Fleura Bardhi’s dissertation. Michelle Weinberger and Melanie Wallendorf’s JCR on intracommunity gift giving. The paper on fetishes in JCR by Karen Fernandez and John Lastovicka. And I also love the paper you wrote with Christina Goulding, et al, “The marketplace management of illicit pleasure.”


Robin: OK, what do you remember as your career highlights?


Cele: They all involve completing projects that were hard for various reasons. The paper on consumer ambivalence with Tina Lowrey and L.J. Shrum was one. I kind of thought introducing this construct from a more CCT perspective (vs. a psych perspective) would have some traction. It remains one of my best-cited papers, and I’m gratified that it gets cited across the field by different types of emotion (and other) scholars.


Certainly the paper on consumer persistence with Eileen Fischer and Linda Tuncay Zayer (my firstborn doctoral student) was another. We knew we HAD to get a paper in on persistence, or the irony that were unable to persist on persistence would have been too cosmic. Any paper with Julie Ruth also was a career highlight, because she is…the gem that is Julie.


And  of course, getting that “damn royal” book complete, and getting to work with Pauline in the process, was exciting. We did nine years of fieldwork on and off on that topic – and then of course, Prince Harry meets Meghan Markle a year after it’s published, and all hell breaks loose with that brand. I couldn’t have taken another year of it, though…nine years of discussing a complex human brand that lives relentlessly in the media/social media was enough!


My biggest career highlight is that everyone I have mentioned above is still a dear friend. I am still working on projects with many of them. And still talk to them regularly. That’s the biggest highlight – that I developed these deep, satisfying research collaborations with wonderful people, and luckily didn’t piss them off too much that they decided to go away (here and there I did, though).


I think another career highlight, as a Department Head for the past 3 ½ years, is getting to hire and promote fantastic people (WARNING: DO NOT TAKE THAT JOB UNLESS YOU WANT YOUR HEAD TO EXPLODE DAILY). I read once that leadership is really about advocating for others. That’s fun and rewarding. Some days I get to be like Santa and give out goodies. Some days I have to be the schoolmarm and fuss at people for endangering the brand of our Department, College, or campus, or just not doing their job. That’s not as fun, and scary at first. Fortunately, those conversations are few, and they get easier if you have great upper management and commitment to excellence engrained in your university. 


Finally, getting to teach at the Norwegian School of Economics for about eight summers, and enjoy Bergen, and the company of Ingeborg Kleppe, Inger Stensaker, Natalia and Stig Maehle… I was telling Inki yesterday how transformational that was for my career. Flying over the archipelagos (archipelagi?) and into the Bergen airport every summer, I could literally feel the stress melting off my body – even as I was going there to work!


Robin: Advice for others who want to retire?


Cele: Start saving early! Write down a list of stuff you want to do. If you can’t think of any, don’t retire. And don’t let people act like you’re going out to pasture. To me, retirement is about freedom – how hard I get to work, or not work. And maybe I can translate that Swedish phrase you threw on this page – “worklife balance” – more toward life, less toward work. If work is life for some people, fine. But it doesn’t have to be – although it’s so heavily valorized, there is a deep value judgment – one could even say a stigma – imposed on people who choose to retire early enough to pursue other interests. Fie!


Robin: What would be your chosen departmental motto?


Cele: “Not a noble profession, a survival profession” I think I said that to you in a recent phone call. And – yep, especially during COVID. One COVID department-heading year is like three dog years.


Robin: Woof! Thanks Cele, this was fun.

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