How universities are trying to balance theory with practice to better prepare budding marketers

Marketers have questioned whether marketing degrees are equipping graduates for the real world, so in the second part of our two-part feature, we speak to universities about how they are striving to find the right balance between theory and practice.

Students in a lecture at the University of Bath School of Management.

Do marketing degrees provide students with the right balance of theory and real-world practice to enable them to hit the ground running? It’s a topic often debated and one which was raised again this summer by a number of senior marketers who suggested existing courses are not fit for purpose.

Facebook’s global CMO Antonio Lucio (speaking while still CMO of HP) questioned whether marketing will be able to recruit the necessary talent to operate in a world powered by data, artificial intelligence and ecommerce, while Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer Raja Rajamannar claimed brands’ ability to hire the best talent is being hindered by “archaic” university curricula.

“What they are teaching and the marketing grounding that’s being imparted is not exactly what life is like today and from that perspective getting the right talent and training your core marketing is a huge challenge that’s been keeping me awake at night,” said Rajamannar at Cannes Lions.

Mastercard is now working with universities to modify their curriculum, providing case studies to institutions likes Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management and Singapore Management University. Rajamannar also allows professors to shadow him in order to better understand the role of a CMO in today’s world.

Read our accompanying feature looking at why CMOs don’t believe marketing degrees are currently doing enough to prepare marketers for the real world.

The apparent tension between employers’ perceptions of marketing degrees as being too theoretical and the decisions universities make on how to run their courses is nothing new.

Yet while some brands may be looking for graduates with subject-specific skills that fit their business, universities largely see their role as providing marketing students with core skills and an appetite for lifelong learning.

Avi Shankar, professor of consumer research at the University of Bath’s School of Management, says: “Subject-specific skills will go out of date. When I was starting in the 1990s it was all about direct marketing. Who talks about direct marketing anymore?”

“There’s no point teaching content-based stuff that’s going to be time specific. Or if you do then it has to be underpinned by a set of core transferable skills, which will last the test of time.”

The focus for the marketing students at Lancaster University is on lifelong learning.

Dr James Freund, lecturer at the Lancaster University Management School, agrees that it is impossible for a marketing degree to train someone for a specific role as the requirements will be unique for every organisation.

“You can’t teach people what they’re going to be doing in three years’ time or even next year because you don’t know what job they’re going to do. What you can teach them is a really good understanding of what’s going on today and the critical thinking to get through the complex problems of modern business,” he explains.

“We can teach them how marketing fits into all the other disciplines of an organisation and we can teach them how to think ethically about things rather than just instrumentally. We can teach them transferable skills that will carry on working for their whole lives and not just theories that are there for theory’s sake.”

The focus should always be on how the theories play out in real life, agrees Dr George Maglaras, lecturer in marketing and retail at the University of Stirling. He argues that while it is important for the curriculum to tap into the latest trends, the role of the university is to explore the thinking which underpins these strategies.

Although employers will never go ‘give me more theory’, the theories can be really powerful and really useful.

Dr James Freund, Lancaster University Management School

“I don’t know if there’s a gap with what the industry wants and what the universities are offering, but perhaps there’s a misunderstanding there,” he suggests.

“I think the university should be there to give the big picture to students rather than try to narrow down a problem and provide specific solutions for a company.”

Jonquil Hinson, assistant professor in the department of management and marketing at Durham University, says there is often a disconnect between employers’ expectations and the university’s mission to develop lifelong learners adaptable to change. Nowhere is that tension more obvious, she argues, than in marketing due to the pace of change.

“It’s a partnership that universities and employers have to engage in right the way through the process,” she says.

“So during the degree getting employers in, talking about the kind of jobs, challenges and skills that [students] need, but then after graduation understanding that there is still an element of training that needs to take place.”

Evolving course content

Consistently assessing the relevance of the course curriculum is of real importance in a rapidly evolving area such as marketing.

The academics at Leeds University Business School review the curriculum each year, as well as conducting an interim review every six months with an external advisory board.

Leeds University consistently reviews its curriculum to ensure the marketing content is relevant.

In the first year of both the BA Business Management with Marketing and the BSc International Business and Marketing course, students study the fundamentals of marketing, before drilling down into areas such as marketing research and consumer behaviour.

The course includes a module called Academic and Professional Development for Studies in Marketing, which lays out the core competencies the young marketers will need to develop. Leeds University has also introduced workshops on digital literacy, aimed at sharpening students’ digital skills.

Tao Jiang, associate professor of marketing practice at Leeds University Business School, explains that roughly 85% of undergraduate students come from the UK and 15-20% are international. However, on the postgraduate courses 80-85% of the 600 people studying across the four postgraduate programmes are from overseas.

One such programme is the MSc in Consumer Analytics and Marketing Strategy, which was launched three years ago in response to an emerging need for graduates who can crunch the numbers and understand marketing.

The marketing curriculum at Stirling University is updated every year, with new modules often added to the syllabus. The team decided to update a module on digital and experiential marketing, for example, because they deemed it too theoretical. The content was changed to put a stronger focus on content marketing, social media and analytics.

I think the university should be there to give the big picture to students rather than try to narrow down a problem and provide specific solutions for a company.

George Maglaras, University of Stirling

Stirling has also added a module about marketing, ethics and society to focus on the need for sustainability and ethical marketing strategies in the current business environment.

At Lancaster the team is consistently evolving the marketing modules to take account of globalisation, consumerisation, environmental factors and the importance of data and analytics. Each module attempts to strike the balance between employability and keeping a level of theory.

“Although employers will never go ‘give me more theory’, the theories can be really powerful and really useful. It’s a gift that keeps on giving,” claims Freund.

The Lancaster University Management School open day.

The Lancaster University Management School has a variety of different undergraduate streams. While the BA Advertising and Marketing course largely trains students to work in agencies, the BSc Marketing and BSc Marketing Management degrees are focused on people going brand side, whether that be in a corporate, NGO or government organisation.

The BSc in Marketing with Psychology is aimed at market research jobs, while the BSc Marketing and Design, co-run with the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Art, is training young people to become design managers.

All first-year students are also enrolled on the Future Global Leaders module, a content series covering everything from sustainability and leadership to ethics and wider macro trends.

Leadership is also a strong area of focus for the Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Dr Jonathan Wilson, senior lecturer in marketing and business research, explains that a course like the MSc in Brand Leadership busts the myth that marketing degrees are all about theory.

The Brand Leadership degree matches each of the 25 to 30 students with a mentor working in marketing or branding who supervises them on a live project. Established 10 years ago, one of the course leaders is Robert Jones, strategist at brand consultancy Wolf Olins.

New assessments

Finding new methods to assess students in a way that is relevant to the real world is a big area of focus for many universities.

Rated as the UK’s top university for the study of marketing, according to the 2019 Complete University Guide, Bath is exploring a variety of different ways to measure its students’ progress.

Rather than setting a dissertation, the undergraduates work on a live project for the Developing New Products and Services module in their final year. The assessment is a two-hour process, including a presentation and question and answer session with professor Shankar and an external marketer.

The lecturers at Leeds University are experimenting with new forms of assessment.

Shankar has also started experimenting with video, asking students to make a 10-minute film in groups about an aspect of consumer behaviour. In addition to this he sets students the challenge of writing a column in the style of Marketing Week columnists professor Mark Ritson or Passionbrand co-founder Helen Edwards. The latest brief was to write 800 words on why so many products fail and what can be done about it.

“They loved it. My job as an educator is to assess them through forms of assessment that will engage them. The more we engage them the better quality they produce,” says Shankar.

“If you just get them to write a boring essay, you’ll just get a lot of boring essays, but if you do something out of the box they respond.”

Leeds University is also seeking to move beyond just exams and coursework to new forms of assessment such as portfolios, online blogs, videos and group short films. The assessment even takes into account the student’s social media presence.

Jiang explains that over the past few years assessment has moved more in line with wider business development. In July, students were, for example, asked to write a core essay on the brand and consumer implications behind Burberry’s decision to destroy £28.6m worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume.

READ MORE: Charlotte Rogers – Burning clothes is a bad move for Burberry’s brand

Employability at the core

Academics are well aware that employability is often the number one attribute young people are looking for from their degree, especially given that an undergraduate course costs £27,750 in fees alone.

At Bath, the undergraduate Management and Marketing degree includes a compulsory year-long work placement, with students working in marketing roles for companies such as LVMH, Disney, L’Oréal, Danone, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.

“Students are quite savvy these days,” says Shankar. “They want to know they’ll come out with a degree that’s going to make them employable and, of course, when you’ve got a one-year work experience under your belt in a marketing context it gives you a bit of an edge in the marketplace.”

At Lancaster University there are three dedicated marketing careers coaches who have developed a bespoke employability programme for all first-year students called Marketing Me.

The whole idea is that we take what we’ve done in lectures and try to give it a practical edge.

Vicky Metcalf, Lancaster University Management School

The programme starts by getting the students to focus on their personal brand and what interests them as consumers. Then in term two the focus switches to teaching students about where marketing fits in the job market and exploring different careers opportunities.

READ MORE: Marketing’s looming crisis – Why the industry must work harder to attract the next generation

The module culminates in an employability event, which debuted in June 2018. The day starts with employers championing their brand and sector, after which Lancaster University alumni talk about the reality of working in marketing. Students then work on a live brief set by the Pentland Centre for Sustainability, sponsored by sportswear business Pentland Brands. In June the brief was to rethink plastic consumption.

“The whole idea is that we take what we’ve done in lectures and try to give it a practical edge,” explains Lancaster University Management School marketing careers coach, Vicky Metcalf.

“We also help them do some networking, which hopefully helps them with their confidence and gives them a touch of what marketing is like in the real world.”

The Norwich Business School x CIM Marketing Club.

Bringing students face-to-face with marketers is also a priority at the University of East Anglia, which hosts the joint Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and Norwich Business School Marketing Club.

Now in its third year, the Marketing Club invites marketers in as guest speakers to present to the students, who afterwards have the chance to network and build their industry contacts.

Usually attended by 60 people, two-thirds of whom are students and the rest marketers, the Marketing Club has four events planned for this academic year, kicking off on 26 November with a session focused on gamification in market research.

Employability is a crucial element of a marketing degree, says Jiang. She explains that when the undergraduate students arrive at Leeds University 20-30% are committed to finding a job in marketing, while the rest do the degree because they like it, but are unsure whether their future is in marketing.

However, by the start of year two when they start applying for their third year placements the majority of students are looking for a marketing post.

Jiang admits that a marketing degree cannot prepare students for every eventuality, but it can arm them with an invaluable sense of belief.

“When learning something new it gives them that self-belief and self-confidence to be able to say ‘I don’t know it now but give me three days and I’ll be able to come back and do it’,” she states. “That’s the belief a degree can bring.”

Read our accompanying feature looking at why CMOs don’t believe marketing degrees are currently doing enough to prepare marketers for the real world.



There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Richard Fullerton 30 Oct 2018

    I started reading this article with hope especially when I read that MasterCard’s ‘Raja Rajamannar claimed brands’ ability to hire the best talent is being hindered by “archaic” university curricula.’ And later on it was heartening to read that Leeds University has added a module which ‘lays out the core competencies the young marketers will need to develop’, and has also ‘introduced workshops on digital literacy, aimed at sharpening students’ digital skills’. Additionally Bath insists its students do a year-long placement with a brand and UEA offers mentoring. Great stuff.

    But I also find out that Stirling University has added ‘a module about marketing, ethics and society’ and Lancaster University is ‘evolving the marketing modules to take account of globalisation, consumerisation, environmental factors and the importance of data and analytics’. I can’t imagine why an employer would want a potential employee with this knowledge. How does it add value?

    I do wonder whether the universities are doing enough to give students the practical skills needed to get a job and work as a marketer. I speak from experience – having worked in agencies for over 15 years and already had three marketing diplomas, in 2009 I began an MSc in Digital Marketing at Oxford Brookes University. I felt at that stage that I still needed to improve my knowledge of, and skills in, marketing. Like the other 10 or so hopefuls on the course, we thought we’d emerge with practical skills that would make us instantly employable. We couldn’t have been more disappointed. All our modules bar one (developing a real business plan for a fictitious business that we created and branded) were too heavy on theory. Instead of coming out with practical knowledge such as SEO coding and writing skills, the ability to plan and implement Pay-per-click campaigns, really understanding Google Analytics and how to use it, and how to implement email marketing campaigns, we just learnt the theory.

    Our tutors were too busy writing their own papers or doing commercial work to give us more time, let alone mentoring. It was very much a rigid, modular course. For me the only real take-out was the dissertation which in my case involved learning about marketing strategy and also that marketing academics believed that marketing was actually ‘broken’ and in need of a new paradigm. Fascinating stuff. But it didn’t prepare me for a new role client-side.

    I think every university offering an under-graduate or post-graduate course should concentrate on practical skills first and foremost. There must be software for instance where you can run practice PPC campaigns. I suspect that the main reason that universities don’t do this enough is that the teachers are largely academics who are big on theory and lack experience in commercial life, actually doing marketing. I hope I’m wrong and that unis have changed in the past 10 years.

  2. lionel bunting 31 Oct 2018

    Some interesting points Richard and some interesting content in the article. Some universities are different, not all teach it the way it’s always been taught or use antiquated books or deliver theory only. I teach at the University of Chichester and have introduced some exciting business focused content and assignments, having come from a commercial background and understanding graduate employability from this perspective as well as from an academic one.

    From day one and throughout the degree, our marketing students work closely with businesses on real issues and produce high quality marketing collateral as part of their assessment. Moving in to the final year where students engage in a module titled ‘Agency Life’ which is consultancy based to deliver a marketing strategy for a business; this harnesses students’ knowledge and previous learning, applying this and theory to real situations and challenge, this is way beyond a typical marketing text book approach. The skills used are plentiful and better equip students for working in industry. In fact many businesses that we work closely with and those who take on our students cite specific approaches and outputs as key differentiators that help create highly employable graduates.

    Perhaps it’s this innovative and practical approach that has led to us being ranked 3rd for marketing in the UK according to the latest NSS results; the student voice!

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