Do marketing experts need a qualification in marketing?

Following the uproar caused by Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson’s assertion that all marketing experts should have a formal qualification in marketing, senior marketers on both sides of the argument debate the hotly contested issue.

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“Before you explain how marketing is changing you should understand what it was before you started announcing the change. You need a qualification to be qualified.” That is the view of Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, who sparked a heated debate among marketers by suggesting the lack of formal training of those held up as marketing ‘experts’ has paved the way for a new breed of marketers who are big on tactics but light on market orientation, research and strategy.

As a result, he fears these so-called experts are “openly and explicitly altering” how marketing is taught without truly understanding the fundamentals of the discipline. “Before you start creating new rules you should know what the existing ones are,” he argues.

A Twitter poll conducted by Marketing Week following publication of Ritson’s article shows 43% of the 380 voters agree with him, while the majority (57%) argue that having a formal qualification is no longer essential. The prevailing view swings the other way on Facebook, however, with the majority of comments relating to the column in favour of marketers having formal training.

Discussions with marketers at both ends of the spectrum reveal the debate is far more nuanced than a simple yes or no answer, however.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t an ‘expert’ in marketing be trained in marketing?

Annabel Venner, global brand director, Hiscox

Prove you can take initiative

Having a degree-level marketing qualification is less important than being inquisitive about consumers, argues Annabel Venner, global brand director at insurance firm Hiscox, who says she can count on one hand the number of marketers who have a marketing degree in her 80-strong global team.

“If a candidate came to me without a marketing degree, I would not be put off. I look at what people have done to show they are interested and have taken the initiative,” she explains.

Launched four years ago, the Hiscox Marketing Excellence programme is designed to help maintain consistency across the team. The course spans five core areas that Venner argues have not changed for 20 years: customer understanding, communication development, commerciality, marketing planning and brand equity.

“I expect 70% of development to come through the role, 20% from working with other people and 10% from the learning programme,” she says. “If someone has recently switched into marketing, I encourage them to look at the [training offered by] the Chartered Institute of Marketing or digital courses.”

The need for a formal qualification depends on the individual, according to The Marketing Society’s global managing director Gemma Greaves, who recognises many of her members have cut their teeth at companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble. She cites Britvic CMO Matt Barwell as an exception, who started his career as a Mars marketing graduate after studying modern history though his training scheme would have quickly given him a grounding in marketing fundamentals.

“Give me someone with a degree in robotics, a masters in anthropology or a PhD in philosophy every time,” says Greaves. “That’s what gives marketers the edge and makes them stand out from the crowd. We have got the rest of our careers to fine-tune our craft, so I’m a big believer in getting out into the world and coming back to marketing with a fresh perspective.”

READ MORE: Unconventional routes to marketing: How marketers at Virgin Media, Instagram and Mini made the transition

Gemma Greaves, global managing director, The Marketing Society

Data and digital literacy needed

This opinion is shared by Addison Lee chief commercial officer, Peter Boucher, who moved into marketing after completing a geography degree and has since held roles at Kraft, Unilever and Vodafone.

“I went to Kraft and they said, ‘we can put you through a course but if you work hard, you’ll learn it all anyhow’. They were right. Between Unilever and Kraft I learned everything I needed,” he recalls.

When interviewing new recruits, Boucher looks for people with instinct and commercial flair rather than focusing too much on the need for a formal qualification. In his opinion the best candidates are highly data-driven and digitally literate, as well as possessing the “old fashioned skill of knowing what a good bit of communication looks like”.

Commerciality is key for the Addison Lee marketing team “because I’m expecting them to drive top-line and bottom-line growth,” he says. “I have got most of my team on specific key performance indicators, so their bonus is linked to how much volume and cost they generate, and so it should be.”

Boucher claims some formal qualifications are too “lightweight”, while university degree courses can lack the “scale and grit” needed to compete in the modern world. He argues that courses should reflect the digital-first agenda and contain more information on commercial performance and data analytics.

Dawn Paine, chief marketing and strategy officer, Creative England

Despite having a degree in marketing, Creative England chief marketing and strategy officer Dawn Paine agrees that it is not essential to have a formal qualification to become an expert in marketing.

“My view has changed over the past 10 years. We have entered the new era of digital transformation and you need a different skill set from what you can learn in a book,” she reflects.

“Look at the success of Pokémon Go. I worked at Nintendo for 10 years and I know that no formally trained marketers will have launched that product, but they deeply understand how to surprise and delight consumers. You can’t learn transformational marketing in a textbook.”

READ MORE: Why Pokémon Go is a game changer for augmented reality and marketers

Although the principles of marketing are good building blocks, Paine argues that world-leading marketers have an extra “wow factor” relating to qualities such as leadership, intellectual curiosity and commercial acumen.

“The best marketer I recruited had a degree in history, but everything he exhibited showed he was a brilliant thinker and creative mind who wanted to do big transformational things,” she recalls. “He has gone on to have an excellent marketing career at Lego leading a digital team.”

The benefits of professionalism

In contrast, CMO Colin Lewis, who recently moved from airline BMI Regional to travel industry software supplier OpenJaw Technologies, believes the lack of formal training has given rise to “a creeping unprofessionalism” in the industry.

He suggests that, in the same way as accountancy and engineering, marketers should perhaps be required to get certification from a recognised trade body in order to qualify as a marketer.

Colin Lewis, CMO, OpenJaw Technologies

Aviva’s brand communications and marketing director Pete Markey believes having a formal marketing qualification is more important than ever. Like Ritson, he believes it is essential to understand the fundamentals of marketing as the core principles of the discipline do not change. However, he remains open-minded about whether a formal qualification is an absolute necessity when hiring.

“Is having a marketing degree a deal-breaker? No. Experience is what matters and you can learn on the job, but a formal qualification is helpful,” he says. “My preference is for someone who has applied themselves and stepped up to do a qualification. It’s a signal of ambition.”

Markey adds that a marketing qualification is only useful if it is deep-rooted in commerciality, however, so it can help drive customer growth.

Andrew Warner, vice-president of marketing at online recruitment specialist Monster, argues that you cannot be considered a marketing expert unless you have influence, and to attain influence marketers today need a broad skill set. He insists credibility is especially important, since marketers are often responsible for the expenditures in the business.

“You will be successful as a marketer only if you have credibility, so it is important to understand the fundamentals,” says Warner, who believes having a marketing qualification “gives you a bit of an edge”. But he adds that it is not mandatory to have a marketing degree to be a marketing director at Monster.

“A lot of marketing courses teach people textbook marketing theory, whereas I would rather have someone who has the natural aptitude. However, if I was looking for someone to lead a marketing team it would help if they have formal training,” he adds.

Pete Markey, brand communications and marketing director, Aviva

The issue of credibility

Having a formal qualification gives marketers additional credibility, a level of robustness and a wider range of strategic influences, argues Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) CEO Chris Daly.

“You will get naturally fantastic marketers and we applaud those people, but they are pretty hard to find. If your knowledge is too narrow and things go wrong, you will struggle to look for the plan B, whereas having a formal qualification can help you react quicker,” he claims.

Marketing Week’s 2016 Salary Survey reveals only 42% of the marketing and digital professionals surveyed have a formal qualification, including 14% who have CIM accreditation. However, more than half (57%) plan to undertake a qualification in the future.

Daly argues qualifications give marketers additional confidence at the beginning of their careers, while training enables them to understand the broader effect of marketing on the business as they rise up the ranks.

Oystercatchers managing partner Richard Robinson, who manages the Marketing Excellence Training Academy, agrees with the assertion that in order to disrupt the status quo marketers need to understand what that is in the first place.

“If you know the rules and respect them, I’m the first person to encourage you to break them, but it needs to be a conscious decision. People with no formal training in the principles of marketing tend to focus on one area like communications or brand strategy, and end up being specialists who develop a one-dimensional view of what marketing is.”

Robinson believes the industry is caught in a “perfect storm” of people coming into marketing without qualifications at a time when employers are investing less in training. This assertion is supported by a 2015 survey conducted by job site CV-Library of 2,300 professionals across all sectors, which showed 51.4% of marketers had “no access” to training, well above the national average (29.6%).

Richard Robinson, managing partner, Oystercatchers

The startup view

Many marketers in the disruptive startup space have broken new ground without a formal background in marketing.

Despite being sympathetic to the desire to make marketing a more scientific, competence-based profession, Martin Adams, co-founder and CEO of digital content marketing platform Codec, does not believe marketing training is the only answer.

“Having a formal qualification in marketing absolutely does not matter. The true competence of a marketer is to understand the market and the people you’re trying to serve. That skill is extremely difficult to teach and I don’t believe a degree is the way to understand that. You need an experienced person with emotional intelligence,” he says.

Adams wanted his team to have an eclectic mix of skills. The chief technology officer, for example, studied business, while Adams and his co-founder Thomas Graham met at Harvard Law School.

“We want a team fascinated by culture and society. Instead of someone with a degree, we would just as happily interview someone who had started [a business] themselves or quickly climbed the ranks in an organisation,” adds Adams.

Freddy Ward, head of sales and marketing at food box delivery business Hello Fresh, has a similar view. He does not believe his lack of formal marketing training has ever held him back, particularly in a startup business.

“In my view, formal qualifications are always useful and can help you develop a strategic marketing plan, but when you’re in a disruptive industry you need to start a new category and throw the traditional rules out of the window.”

Ward, who manages a team of six marketers, believes people with a traditional marketing background can be too focused on principles and structure, whereas he values the importance of test-and-learn methodology.

“You can have all the knowledge in the world, but nothing beats trying things. In a disruptive business the most important skill is to negotiate hard, find the right deal and make your money go as far as possible. Having a more marketing-specific background means you can lose some of that entrepreneurial spirit,” cautions Ward.

Dan Murray, co-founder and CMO of startup fashion affiliate app Grabble, goes further in his criticism of marketing qualifications.

“I’ve got a CIM marketing diploma and it was great at the time, but marketing has already moved on so much that for me it’s been a complete waste of time. I didn’t learn anything practical for digital or growth marketing, which when you’re starting [a business] you need,” he says.

Murray argues that starting his own business meant learning a completely new skill set and that ultimately academia misses a practical use. “Instead of writing a dissertation, I would have been much better learning how to run ads on Instagram or how to hack Pinterest, practical things that make much more difference today.”

Although marketers on both sides of the divide may struggle to agree on the value of formal training, one thing is clear – the arguments are as diverse and nuanced as the industry itself.



There are 8 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Connugy 3 Aug 2016

    You do wonder what people think “textbook” marketing actually is, FFS.

    When people refer to it as “textbook”, what chance, in this age of digital obsessed numpties who believe “marketing = digital (sic: mobile/social)” and therefore anything remotely sounding like a printed thing must be by association “basic” and out of touch?!

    This is why the profession is losing credibility.

    Kudos for quoting Nintendo… who are taking the credit for developing Pokemon Go. It does make you wonder, do you think they’d trade their new found image for the millions they won’t earn from not developing or owning it?

    Funny thing, substance. Rare, too, it seems.

  2. Mark Batchelor 3 Aug 2016

    I do agree with Mark Ritson’s point, that are many people claiming to be ‘marketing experts’ who have little evidence of their professional capability or verification – it’s long been an annoyance to those who have gained approved marketing qualifications, and operate in highly professional environments, where standards are clearly set and adhered to.

    A marketing degree in my view isn’t enough (and not entirely necessary) to qualify someone as a ‘marketing professional’, but attaining an equivalent, rigorous level of applied thinking + professionalism that can be clearly recognised and benchmarked is. Achieving professional qualifications (e.g.Chartered Institute of Marketing), mixing/working with marketing professionals, and experience working with/within establish brands and organisations that provide training, insight, and embed best practice are all components that can shape and produce a truly ‘qualified’ marketing professional.

    The evolution of digital/social shouldn’t and doesn’t supersede the fundamental and strategic aspects of marketing that have always been taught. They do however, provide additional insights that inform strategic decision-making (business models, culture, infrastructure, process), and change the marketing mix and channels used to engage customers and drive revenues. The irony now is that the generation who have only ever known digital are having to come to terms with the merging of digital, social, ecommerce, and non-digital disciplines. This demands a shift of viewpoint, where no longer ‘digital is king’ and move towards a more holistic strategic view of marketing, a joined-up customer proposition seamlessly delivered across all environments and platforms, as had always been strived for pre-digital – something that the ‘qualified’, and truly expert marketing exponents have done for decades, and now might be able to help in achieving.

  3. Pragmatix 3 Aug 2016

    A degree in marketing? Forsooth, what next?

    The benchmark of professional excellence (in the UK anyway), has always been membership of The Chartered Institute of Marketing. For which applicants need some feed-in pre-cursor qualification: which might well be an MBA.

    Today, unfortunately, the word “Marketing” has become common coin, amongst those who:

    i. Do not actually know what it means: and,

    ii. Employ the term “Marketing” when clearly they mean “Selling” and/or advertising and/or Public Relations and/or Corporate Image Building.

    Marketing, in its American sense (After all the USA majored on market analysis and strategy well before Europe, with such luminaries as Theodore Levitt – Harvard Professor – writing the reference books!) means trotting off to Safeway to purchase the groceries!

    Correctly, Market Analysis and Strategy Development requires detailed analysis of a market, its Price-Value Points and potential product absorbtion and TAM etc; then evaluation and costing of channels to that market in order to lay the foundation of Sales Strategy.

    Advertising and Promotion are not Market areas, per se.

    Yet today, my business is deluged with emails etc from “Marketing Experts” who simply want me to use them to access dumb social media concepts. I am often tempted to ask them to complete my shopping!

    Those of us who are sufficiently wired know that celebs and often major companies, use agencies to add masses of the latest breathless Tweets and post nonsense on Facebook.

    Today, unfortunately, we live in an age where digital communications have engendered a rash of nouveau buzz-speek ersatz “Management” expressions, used by people who haven’t a wee clue about real management and its various disciplines. seeking to create personal credibility and massage their own sagging egos.

  4. Allan Hassell 7 Aug 2016

    I am not a marketing expert, nor indeed a marketing professional. I am therefore somewhat stunned that most of the comments on Mark’s piece simply missed his point – he was not saying that you must have a qualification to work in marketing, but simply that if you are going to call yourself a marketing expert (in the broader term), then you should have ideally have a qualification, or at least a broad range of work experience in this field.

    Too many “experts” seem to be too focussed on the “digital age”, which neglects the fact that most campaigns will require a balanced approach (depending on what is being promoted) to reach a wider target audience. It also depends on the location (if it is for a fixed place rather than a product) – TV, local radio and press can be great and well used in some locations, or very poor in other locations, or not appropriate to the campaign.

    Basically if your going to call yourself a marketing expert, please ensure that you qualify that by stating in a specific field etc. that you work in, plus what makes you qualified in that area(s) – whether that’s a formal qualification, experience or a ideally a combination.

    I’ve worked in retail for 26 years, have no formal qualifications in the area, but can demonstrate a very good understanding of the subject – that said I still wouldn’t call myself an expert….

  5. Simone Castello 23 Dec 2016

    This depends on age really. When I started in marketing in 2008 there were not that many professional courses about, one had to learn on the job. I came through content as I was a journalist and read a lot of US newsletters, did some US courses online, etc. I also taught marketing for a bit and the lack of formal qualifications and publications hindered but I realised that in the universities courses are not that practical, marketing theory is interesting to know but you need a more hands-on approach when you have to set up campaigns and devise strategies, accompanied by strong IT skills. If you are a young person, it is a good idea to train but if you are a seasoned professional, professional courses are now plentiful and there is a lot of information out there. Whatever your background it is imperative to continue learning because digital marketing does not stay still. Experience is as good as training in my view but you still need to keep up to date and cannot stop ‘studying’

  6. Nicholas Hewison 11 Feb 2017

    This is similar to the Richard Branson v MBA debate. Branson left school with few if any exam passess at 18 and as we all know the rest is history. Formal qualificaitons may help in the initial selction porocess but qualifications need to be combined with track record and experiences.

  7. Gavin McClement 11 Jun 2019

    Fascinating article, not least because so many (but not all) seem to be driven by cognitive dissonance. Which of course, is what every marketing person should be taught how to manage at University. Very few are!

    I have both a marketing-related degree and marketing post-graduate diploma. Whilst both were good things to do, I can’t really say that they’ve helped my career immensely. They get you in the door initially and give you context, but once you’re working, they are often too lightweight to take you much further.

    But I think that says as much about the failings of the industry as it does the education system. If you’ve read Kotler, you’ll know what I mean. That principles that are taught offer a proper professional structure for marketing practice, but they are largely ignored because it’s been too easy to solve everything with a creative and then reinvent yourself with digital. But it’s all coming to a head.

    Given the increased complexity of the subject matter, it should be vitally important to have a marketing qualification, but marketing courses have not been robust enough and the marketing industry too inwardly focused to recognise the long-term implications of this. This is why management consultants will continue to steal marketing people’s lunch, and why the marketing profession as we know it, is on a slow decline to tactical irrelevance.

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