‘I thought it would be a one-year thing’: Inside the launch of The Marketing Academy

As the academy celebrates its 10th year and prepares to welcome its 11th intake of scholars in the UK, we explore how it came about and hear from those who have benefited from its programmes.

The Marketing Academy is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year

Sherilyn Shackell readily admits that she thought The Marketing Academy would be a “one year thing”. She recalls the launch party at Google in which one of the programme’s mentors confessed to saying yes to getting involved without really believing it would ever get off the ground.

Yet it has done more than that. In the 10 years since it was founded, The Marketing Academy has put more than 700 people who work in marketing, media and advertising through its programmes. That includes the almost 550 people who have taken part in its Scholarship scheme – a development programme for the best emerging leaders in the industry – and the 150 who have completed the Fellowship, which helps CMOs build the right capabilities to take on CEO or board roles.

It now operates in the US and Australia, as well as the UK, with plans to expand into Asia, the Middle East and Africa over the next few years.

In total, more than 250 mentors have gifted 9,000 hours of their time, while the 90 executive coaches have provided work worth the equivalent of £3.4m. And all this is offered for free to the 30 Scholars and 20 Fellows that take up their places on the annual programmes.

“This is why we couldn’t charge for the programmes even if we wanted to, it would be so expensive it would be ridiculous. It is free because it’s priceless,” says Shackell.

How the academy was founded

The idea for The Marketing Academy came to Shackell at a point in her life where she felt she needed to make a change and take on a vocation that would benefit a wider community. She had previously been a headhunter, a role she admits she was very good at, but which did not fill her “with joy”.

Having always been passionate about leadership development, she saw an opportunity to transform the marketing industry.

“The industry was relatively under-invested in from a real capability perspective because it was never taken as seriously as it should have been by boards and business,” she recalls. “And in agencies and the media, there is not a huge amount of money spent on developing talent.”

We all want to see marketers succeed in business, in the C-suite, with impact, going as great leaders into CEO roles.

Deborah Dolce, TJX Europe

With such a bold ambition, Shackell knew she would need buy-in from the whole industry – hence the decision to launch a not-for-profit rather than a training company. She spent almost nine months coming up with the over-arching framework and then a further year building it into something ready to launch.

“It was an industry I didn’t know very well, but I had quite a good black book and an influential network not within the industry who then led me to the right people in the industry,” she recalls.

“But I was pitching something that was literally just an idea that would only work if quite senior, influential people got behind it. To get the really top people, I had to make as small an ask as I could get away with, which was one day of time spread over a year gifted to the academy. It was hard to turn that down, especially as they would only be needed if we managed to pull off the launch.”

The strategy worked and almost everyone Shackell asked said they were in. She managed to get a few big names in early doors and “then it snowballed”.

“It was at a time – 2008/2009 – when the whole world was crashing around our ears but people wanted to do good, to do something positive. It was a zeitgeist moment – the industry needed it,” she says.

“That first year, it was such a passion project but in my heart-of-hearts I thought it would be a one-year thing. But less than three months in everyone was thinking, ‘We’ve got something quite good here’. No one was more surprised than I was. Then the whole academy took on a life of its own – it is a sum of the parts of all the people involved.”

Marketers getting involved

The Marketing Academy’s 2019 scholars

One of the people involved from the beginning is Deborah Dolce, group brand and marketing director at TJX Europe (which owns TK Maxx). She is one of The Marketing Academy’s founding mentors and took part in the fellowship in 2015.

She describes mentoring the scholars as a “huge privilege”, but says the biggest reason why she decided to take part was the ambition of the academy to accelerate the impact of marketing and marketers.

“I was very happy to be involved and remain very passionate about it. We all go on a career journey where you begin with functional knowledge, you build technical skills, you become expert in a field. Then you reach a point when it requires a whole different set of skills – leadership skills, much greater awareness of the dynamics of a business, much more functional/agenda driven and more broad in your impact. Those are the skills that can be enhanced,” says Dolce.

“If you work in a good business there will be great programmes to help on personal development and leadership. But an outsider view can be very insightful. Sometimes I find the independence of being a mentor from another business can provide a strong challenge that you may not get from within your own business, which can be very helpful. It’s a different lens.”

While there are clear benefits for the scholar, Dolce says she has also benefited. Being involved has developed her mentoring skills, as well as providing a “reflection” back on her own role.

“It’s a privilege to do it because you are able to interact with people at various stages of career. It is instructive also to the mentor, whether that’s in developing coaching and mentoring skills you can take into your own business, providing an interesting or different perspective. It’s an absolute reflection back into your own job and role at your business that is useful as part of a melting pot of inputs,” Dolce explains.

“Most people who are involved in a programme like this have a sense of contributing to a wider industry and community. We all want to see marketers succeed in business, in the C-suite, with impact, going as great leaders into CEO roles.”

Wagamama’s former CMO Ross Farquhar has also been involved in The Marketing Academy from the start as one of the first scholars. He describes the process to get onto the course as “like The Apprentice”, but says it has had a profound impact on him and his career.

“The main thing it made me realise was my previous outlook was quite ladder-based – to get the next job, then the job my boss has, then marketing director, then CMO. It wasn’t making me massively happy, but it felt like something I had to do,” he admits.

The academy is a magical thing that is the net result of hundreds of people’s brain power, time, knowledge and wisdom. It is an industry organisation backed by the industry for the industry.

Sherilyn Shackell, The Marketing Academy

He has since made a series of career moves he never would have done had it not been for the Academy. Not long after enrolling he left a job at Cadbury for Diageo, before going agency-side to work at 101, which at the time was a startup of just 10 people, but would go on to be acquired by MullenLowe and then Grey London.

Last year, he went back to a brand, joining Wagamama as CMO although the coronavirus pandemic has since seen him made redundant.

Farquhar has stayed involved with The Marketing Academy – previously he led the alumni steering committee and is now a mentor himself. He says he felt he owed the academy “a debt”, which is in part why the programme works so well.

“There is a nice notion attached to the academy of this idea of industry-wide karma – that you put a little bit in to help people and there might not be a direct benefit, but what goes around comes around,” he says.

He would recommend anyone to apply to take part, although he cautions on picking the right time. “People really get the most out of it when they are feeling at a crossroads and are more thoughtful about what great looks like in their working lives. If you are getting to that point, it is time to apply.”

The future

The Marketing Academy is about to announce its 11th intake of scholars in the UK and will run its first fellowship programme in the US this year. There are plans to take it into new territories, all with the help of 20 brand partners around the world that provide financing, as well as businesses supplying aspects of the curriculum or coaching.

Companies such as Google have been involved from the start, while others currently involved include KFC, Accenture, Facebook, PHD, BT and ITV.

Is there anything Shackell would have done differently? Her belief is to “never look back”, although if she had known how successful it was going to be she might have been “more ambitious”.

One key issue the academy has run into is the type of talent that applies. Shackell admits to being “frustrated” that scholars typically had good degrees and had worked at the right sort of companies, even if these are not aspects they are judged on during the application process.

That was one reason why the scholarship was opened up to entrepreneurs, to bring in a different type of leader. But it also caused Shackell to realise there was a problem across the industry with bringing in those from less privileged backgrounds.

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For that reason, The Marketing Academy Foundation was set up. It offers an apprenticeship programme specifically aimed at youngsters from less advantaged backgrounds to provide them with the support they need to break into the industry. The hope is some of the apprentices will find their way onto the scholarship programme.

“That is the legacy The Marketing Academy will create in the future,” Shackell says.

Doing more to foster the alumni community will also be vital in the future. She describes the 700 people who have been through the two programmes as the “gold dust of the future” who need further investment. “We want to harness the power of that community around the world,” she adds.

Shackell is also keen that The Marketing Academy not be so tied up with her, pointing to the hundreds of people and companies that have supported the organisation – including Marketing Week which as media partner “helped it hit the mass consciousness needed to get that first cohort in” and has continued to support it.

“The Marketing Academy is not about me, it hasn’t been for years. It is about the people and companies that have made it what it is,” Shackell adds. “It is a magical thing that is the net result of hundreds of people’s brain power, time, knowledge and wisdom. It is an industry organisation backed by the industry for the industry.”