Are marketing degrees up to scratch?

In the first of our two-part feature looking at marketing degrees, marketers suggest they still need convincing that universities are equipping graduates for the working world.

What does it take to get a foot in the door as a young marketer in 2018?

It may be surprising to some, but having a marketing degree is by no means essential if you want to be taken seriously by CMOs. In fact, the perception that such degrees are too theoretical and not rooted enough in marketing practice has some brands questioning whether they are fit for purpose.

Santander CMO Keith Moor believes that in general degrees put too much emphasis on theory.

“Anybody can read a book, but it takes a different skillset to get out and complement that with some in-practice work. I think it’s the combination of the two. I’m not advocating that people shouldn’t do degrees, I just think the composition of degrees needs to change and be a lot more commercially orientated,” he states.

He argues that the best way to learn is by doing, an opinion he formed while studying for a Higher National Diploma in business and marketing, before going straight onto the third year of a degree.

Across the two years of the HND Moor did five projects for local businesses and says he benefited from the nine-to-five working schedule when he moved straight onto a degree placement in the marketing department at glass manufacturer Pilkington.

The thing I hate the most when you get a new graduate in is somebody who thinks they know it all trying to tell people what to do because they’ve read it in a textbook.

Keith Moor, Santander

“What I learnt from that was that I don’t need to employ people who have got MBAs or MAs if it’s not balanced with a lot of really good practical understanding and experience,” says Moor.

Santander is in the process of developing an apprenticeship in marketing itself, as Moor believes that degree-equivalent modern apprenticeships, that allow people to get paid while learning on the job, are the future.

David Wheldon, Royal Bank of Scotland CMO, points out that when he started in marketing there were no university degrees in the subject. He suggests that as marketing is a relatively new subject it will take time to strike the right balance between theory and practice.

Read our accompanying feature looking at how universities are striving to combine theory with practice to better prepare budding marketers.

Wheldon does, however, admit that while he has had marketing graduates apply, none have been hired.

“That’s not necessarily a comment on marketing degrees, what we look for is stuff beyond the qualification,” he explains.

“The kind of person we’re talking about has natural intelligence, the ability to learn, to collaborate, all of the softer skills that are absolutely necessary in my view in any job, but more than most in marketing because with marketing you’ve got to mix the science and the art, and you’ve got to know how to hold a point of view, but be open to other people’s.”

The RBS CMO explains that it would “pop massively off the page” if a graduate’s CV showed they had chosen a different route, such as interning in an agency or a business, then doing a marketing degree and taking a year out to complete work experience before finishing their course.

Making the grade

Having an understanding of what it takes to flourish in the working world is an invaluable skill for young marketers to possess.

Moor credits the practical experience gained during his course for giving him confidence and the courage of his convictions. He argues that no matter how intellectually clever a graduate is, it can be a real culture shock to join the working world.

He highlights the important skills you pick up in a workplace, such as how to establish networks in a large business, understand what it’s like to turn up for work at 8.30am or juggle a varied workload.

“If you do a business or a marketing degree, in time what you learnt will be useful, but to get the chance to prove it you’re going to need to do a lot of other things practically first,” he states.

“The thing I hate the most when you get a new graduate in is somebody who thinks they know it all trying to tell people what to do because they’ve read it in a textbook. That’s a nightmare way to start a job.”

Moor says he is not expecting to hire a young marketer who is a specialist in financial services or understands how to do programmatic buying. He is looking for someone who is bright, knows how to work, can actively prioritise and isn’t afraid to raise a problem.

Most people would be happy to give a bit of time for mentoring and show what it’s like in the real world.

David Wheldon, RBS

Therefore having a marketing or business degree, he argues, is no guarantee of success.

“I’ve hired MA marketers and they’ve been garbage,” he states. “I’ve learnt from bitter experience you don’t need all that stuff. People have to show that they’ve got an ability to build experience and knowledge.”

Wheldon agrees that brands are not looking for graduates to be the finished article when they leave university, because in marketing you never finish learning.

However it is possible, the RBS CMO argues, to teach people to be robust critical thinkers so that when the next Snapchat comes along they understand how to ask the right questions, look at audience interaction and evaluate it.

It is for this reason he believes “universities could do a better job” and describes it as “lazy” the idea that degrees cannot equip marketers for sector specific challenges.

READ MORE: How universities are combining theory with practice to better prepare budding marketers

Developing links with industry

There is a clear perception that universities could work harder to develop links with industry in order to create a better balance between theory and practice.

Dr Helen Edwards, Marketing Week columnist and co-founder of Passionbrand, explains that she would never hire anyone who did not have some form of experience, which is why she only ever employs people who have studied at postgraduate level.

Edwards argues that while for undergraduates theory is important, it has to be relevant and one of her main criticisms of many academics is that they lean too much on old theory, and do not always keep themselves up to date.

“They tend to think ‘I’m teaching the marketing core course on consumer behaviour, I’ll teach the stuff that was shown to me’ and then it’s out of date,” she explains.

“I think it’s important people get theory and experience in a degree like this, but the theory has to be completely relevant and up to date. So not faddish. But if all the academics are doing is grabbing hold of the thing they were taught, which might be Kotler, they need to move ahead and go, ‘well what’s changed since Kotler? What should I be adding? What should I be questioning?’”

READ MORE: ‘Father of modern marketing’ Philip Kotler on avoiding brand decay and preparing for disruption

Edwards suggests that academics should use some of their study leave to work for a month in a marketing department to make their research more hands on.

Wheldon agrees that educational institutions should reach out more and explains that neither he, nor anyone from his marketing network, has been asked to speak at a university.

“Most people would be happy to give a bit of time for mentoring and show what it’s like in the real world, because if there were the textbook of how you do great marketing then it wouldn’t be what it is as a profession,” he explains.

“It’s a tough thing to be really good at, so I do think you need great training and great anchoring, but you also need great people skills, the pragmatism of doing a job and the curiosity to learn from others.”

Universities definitely should try to connect more agrees Sarah Wood, marketing director for North West Europe at Edgewell Personal Care, the parent company behind brands such as Wilkinson Sword and Hawaiian Tropic.

Having studied for a business degree majoring in marketing in the late 1980s, Wood believes having a marketing degree gives graduates an “absolute advantage” if it offers real-life experience. However, when it comes to the theory she expects degrees to teach students how to put consumers at the heart of everything they do.

Adding value

Being tested in a real-world environment offers students invaluable experience of what it feels like to be a marketer. One such opportunity is The Pitch, a nationwide competition run by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) which tasks second- and third-year university students with a real-life marketing challenge.

This year, the CIM and Edgewell have set the teams a £2m budget to create a campaign for suncare brand Hawaiian Tropic, aimed at helping young women feel more confident in the sun. The students need to demonstrate they have a great creative idea and know exactly how to spend the money.

Wood describes the standard of last year’s cohort, who worked on a brief for Wilkinson Sword, as fantastic in terms of preparation, research and presentation skills: “If that’s all the marketing students out there you’d say they’re up to a very high level, but I’m assuming they’re the ones that go beyond to seek opportunities.”

Students taking part in The Pitch in 2017.

Maggie Jones, associate director of qualifications and partnerships, explains that the CIM works with universities to widen participation and get students in front of marketers whether that be encouraging them to enter The Pitch or attend a CIM event on campus.

The CIM is also finalising a recognition programme to identify its strategic university partners, which currently include Bournemouth University, Nottingham Trent University and the Norwich Business School.

The CIM will now assess and accredit the marketing content of university courses and allow qualifying degrees to describe their marketing content as CIM-recognised.

Jones believes it is unfair to claim all marketing degrees are too theoretical given that in recent years universities have been forced to think more clearly about where the next generation of students are coming from.

READ MORE: How the marketing industry is coming together to inspire the next generation

“I think universities are in a position where the student is a paying customer now, that’s how students look at themselves and they have a number of routes,” she says.

“They can go through professional qualifications, they can go through apprenticeships, they can go to college and top up to do a degree, and so universities have got to make it very clear what value they add to the customer.”

Jones explains that the CIM works with universities to create that link between theory and practice. However, the focus has to be on continuous personal development and recognising learning does not stop once the degree ends.

“Organisations have got to invest in their employees and take them on that journey, because probably every undergraduate will go through a different journey,” she adds. “So it’s unfair to expect them to be absolutely all singing, all dancing on day one.”

Research the target market

When devising degree course content it is important for academics to think like marketers and get to know the needs of their target market argues Paddy Barwise, Emeritus professor of management and marketing at the London Business School.

He advises academics to speak to half a dozen of the big recruiters in their target market and find out what works for successful graduates in their first three to five years.

“Talk to them and say ‘what is it exactly you think has been the problem when you have recruited marketing graduates and non-marketing graduates? What are the characteristics of the ones that have thrived and the ones that have struggled?’” Barwise suggests.

“Then try to be as specific as possible about which skills and knowledge your market say they need more of. I think very likely they’ll talk about general communications skills, networking skills and broader business awareness rather than marketing in its silo.”

He also advises universities to work with their alumni network to attract former students to talk about their experiences. Barwise believes visiting marketers should be encouraged to share stories of overcoming failure as it is a good source of learning for students.

“There is a lot of value in bringing in a marketer you respect, but you respect them even more if they’re willing to say to you ‘look we haven’t cracked this’,” he explains.

“The nature of markets is that they’re always changing. Everyone is struggling with digital. Every company has a digital transformation project and they’re difficult. The question ‘what’s keeping you awake at night?’ is a really interesting thing for students and is a really powerful way of bridging the gap.”

The leadership lag

The amount of leadership content making its way onto the university curriculum is a source of concern for Thomas Barta, Marketing Week columnist and co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.

In the book, co-authored with Barwise, Barta claims that change leadership skills make up 55% of a CMO’s business impact, compared to just 15% for technical skills. Why then, he asks, is leadership content often missing from university courses?

“It’s about the imbalance we’re facing between the skills you need for success and the skills the university is teaching you. Why are leadership skills important? Marketing is a job where most of what you do is about the future which means you can’t prove it and people will always challenge you,” he explains.

“Secondly, unless you are a 1P marketer, which is just advertising, a proper marketer is engaged in the 4Ps, but how many other people are? Hundreds, thousands in some cases. So as a marketer, even if you are good you will never call the shots, so you have to negotiate all day. Why don’t they teach that at university?”

To bring practice into the study of marketing, Barta proposes a new model similar to the medical profession. He suggests top CMOs from the likes of P&G, Unilever and Diageo join forces with leading global universities to offer an integrated experience that sees students spend equal amounts of time working in a business and studying at university.

“We should have two days a week at university or one term and then go back into a company,” says Barta. “There will be lots of difficulties because obviously you don’t have university hospitals for marketing, but I believe this would make for way better marketers.”

Barwise explains that teaching leadership is a genuine challenge for all academic institutions and he expects that very few undergraduate marketing courses explore the subject in depth.

“What they would do is try to teach the idea that in order to have a market leading customer experience you clearly need to be able to collaborate with non-marketing people,” Barwise suggests.

“I’d be very surprised if it’s not on the agenda, but if you’re dealing with undergraduates with no real-world experience exactly what that would really mean to them?”

Making leadership relevant to a 20-year-old is challenging, agrees Jones. She points out that while graduates might be allocating resources and carrying out analysis, some of the key skills required in leadership, they are unlikely to go straight into a leadership role.

“If you look at the very pure leadership skills, such as managing people, then they’re probably not going to be going into those roles at that point in their career, unless they’re going to be working for a very small organisation,” Jones adds.

“I think you can’t expect an undergraduate to come out as a fully functioning marketer at a senior level. That’s something that grows.”

Read our accompanying feature looking at how universities are striving to combine theory with practice to better prepare budding marketers.



There are 6 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Lisa Day 25 Oct 2018

    Many university undergraduate marketing degrees include a compulsory or optional year in industry and support students in gaining valuable first hand work experience in world class companies. It’s not all theory either as students who come back from a placement for their final year are able to share their knowledge and enrich taught activities and discussions. I agree there are plenty of superb marketers without a marketing degree but there are also some excellent marketing graduates who have both experience and knowledge . These graduates have invested a lot of time and taken on a lot of debt to try and prepare themselves for a marketing career. Please don’t write them all off as people who know nothing and think they know-it-all.

  2. Thomas Epton 25 Oct 2018

    Someone else smashing the worth of a degree… most likely done higher education themselves to some extent, to learn the crucial theory required to become a CMO. You need a grasp of marketing and management theory to apply to modern frameworks. Technology changes, human buying trends change, the core theory to brand development and consumer behaviour does not.

  3. James Taylor 25 Oct 2018

    Just embarking on an MSc in Marketing myself, this is a slightly worrying article to read… However, how’s about employers take account of grades again? I can’t remember the last time anyone outside of education asked what grade I got in my UG, but just accepted that I had done one – perhaps weighing most of the leverage on the Course/Institution itself?

    As much as people may assume they are, top grades still aren’t handed out on silver platters; as Lisa says above, this is something people put a lot of time, attention, and not least, passion into. Who in their right mind would get into that much debt if they weren’t passionate about it?

  4. Douglas McFadyean 25 Oct 2018

    Couldn’t agree more with this article as so many students aren’t ready for the working world and haven’t had the experience to try and fail before.

    I have to add though, I am in my final year of my Marketing degree at the University of Brighton and as far as I am aware we are the only marketing degree in the UK that has an internal marketing agency made up of marketing students who work with a variety of local businesses and charities. We work in teams with live clients from as early as first year on projects ranging from product launches, events and even assisting brand new companies to launch.

    This means we actually get to put theory into practise, try and fail with initiatives and see what the real world is really like.
    Our degree also has linked modules with CIM level 6 qualifications which usually requires a high degree of practical knowledge and implementation in the assessments. No other course I looked into while applying for university offered this.

    More business/marketing degrees should follow the same method but for the time being it really does make us as students more valuable and employable when we graduate. This isn’t an advert for the university but there are some courses with a real future and career orientated outlook that should be recognised.

  5. Stuart Quate 27 Oct 2018

    I find it strange that having a CIM accreditation would give a university course more credit. I have been on a couple of CIM courses and I found little I could use to help me in my day job as a marketer. These courses assume that you have unlimited time and budget to create plans and carry out audits, research and analysis. I’m not saying that any of that is bad, it actually great. It’s just that any company I have worked for, from small businesses to multinational organisations have been understaffed and with limited budget, and the marketing department has spent its time firefighting to just keep the basics covered. You don’t need 3 years in uni or CIM courses to figure out how to sell something. However learning the technical skills, getting up to speed on industry standard creative software and advertising platforms – that takes time, and that is what you need new team members to be coming in with, not brand theory. If I was hiring someone, having a degree or a CIM qualification (or any qualification) would not set them above another candidate. Practical skills, a desire to learn and enthusiasm for the role would be key.

  6. Graham Bailey 31 Oct 2018

    Most of the initiatives featured in the article have been a core part of marketing degrees at the University of Chichester Business School for many years including the pioneering of an Agency Life module to prepare students to work in agencies or be better clients. The University have also worked closely with local businesses for the past six years producing some stunning marketing initiatives for companies as diverse as chocolate manufacturers and skateparks.
    I believe that the more Universities engage with local employers the greater will be the benefits to both parties and the enhancing of the student experience.

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