AdNews investigation: Is university education still relevant to the industry?

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 30 April 2018
Marketing degrees aren't as relevant to working life as many believe they should be, an AdNews study has found.

This was first published in the April issue of AdNews Magazine and is part one. See part two: AdNews investigation: Educators and students have their say

University education is lagging behind the commercial realities of media and marketing leaving graduates ill–equipped for working life. This two-part AdNews investigation takes a look at why education is lagging, where there are education gaps and how the industry is responding.

Today, we present the findings of AdNews research and tomorrow we find out what recent graduates in the industry think.

Media and marketing graduates are entering the workforce with sound foundation knowledge of traditional marketing theory. But, they are not taught enough about digital media and marketing, data, technology and, in particular, media planning.

This is leading to a scarcity of knowledge among less experienced brand managers to scrutinise media plans or understand the role that digital media, technology and traditional channels should play in a rapidly evolving media landscape.

The result is that some businesses are choosing to bypass fresh graduates, opting for talent with at least a couple of years’ industry experience or those who come from outside of media and marketing altogether.

One of marketing’s leading thinkers, Professor Byron Sharp, said business degrees are failing marketers when it comes to teaching critical thinking and media planning.

“In marketing, the biggest business fail is probably in teaching media,” Sharp said. “ Because typically, a marketing graduate is learning nothing about media despite it taking up a huge part of their budget.”

And media planning isn’t the only vital part of a marketer’s tool kit that is missing.

Results of an AdNews survey of 89 media and marketing professionals on the relevance of university education, and if and where curricula are failing to align with skills and knowledge vital in the media and marketing industry, were concerning.

When we asked the survey respondents to rate the relevance of media, marketing and advertising degrees. The average score was 3.25 out of 10.

AdNews also interviewed a range of marketers, educators, agency heads and consultants to find out market perceptions of education and how it can be evolved (turn to page 30 for survey results) and what respondents think).

Although steps are being taken to bridge the gap between university and industry, there is a realisation that it is virtually impossible for these slow–moving academic institutions to keep up with the rapidly changing media landscape. Importantly, it was thought that smaller and more nimble private colleges provide an important bridge between practical and theory, particularly in organisations where marketing training budgets are being slashed.

This doesn’t mean that curricula can't be updated or refreshed to reflect the evolving nature of marketing towards more modern business practices, such as customer– centric approaches to marketing.

In essence, tertiary education is somewhat of a game of cat and mouse, and educators need to balance how granular they tailor courses to student demand within the confines of academia.

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The demise of graduate schemes

Students interested in a media, advertising or marketing career traditionally would complete a university degree and apply for a graduate scheme or a form of cadetship.

“That’s where your theoretical training would be turned into practice,” explained John Chatterton, a partner at marketing transformation consultancy Morgan, and former CMO at Macquarie University.

“It was at graduate schemes where you could do further on– the–job training and then often gain employment in an area of business that suited you.

“One of the key issues now is that those schemes don’t really exist anything like in the volume they used to. Internships are more popular, but it’s very hard for a graduate from a communications or marketing graduate course to get their first job in the industry.”

Many businesses have either scaled back or cut graduate schemes over the past 10 years due to several rounds of cost– cutting in the wake of the GFC and digital disruption. This has, in effect, reduced the number of entry level marketing roles for fresh grads.

“Instead of having graduates, assistant brand manager and brand manager, now they maybe start at brand manager,” Chatterton said. He would know; he's held held senior marketing roles at Goodman Fielder, Heinz, Campbell Arnott’s and PepsiCo.

Morgan managing partner Rowena Millward, who has held senior marketing roles at Johnson & Johnson throughout most of the past decade, said the pressure to reduce cost base led to many marketing functions centralising regionally and shrinking locally. This in turn led to less experienced marketing managers with far less time to nurture young talent.

“Those marketing managers [in the past] were effectively quality control,” she said. “They were someone who had around eight to 12 years of experience and were there to coach on the job.

“It meant that an assistant brand or brand manager had someone who helped them understand the bigger picture things, how to manage larger teams, and how to influence across an organisation.”

ADMA IQ corporate managing director Richard Harris said while university is providing good theory, it doesn’t offer practical skills for employment, resulting in companies having to pick up the tab for training.

“There are some very large brands in the marketplace who do not hire new graduates out of university. They require two years' work experience for that very reason,” he said.

“They're just not prepared to wear the cost of training a new graduate in the skills they need, particularly as quite often that new graduate, once they have those skills, is going off to a more lucrative gig somewhere else in the industry.”

That said, marketers still want to ensure that foundation knowledge isn’t lost in university education.

Makedonka Del–Ben, a marketing manager at an FMCG multinational, told AdNews she only considers hiring talent with a business degree because it provides a vital foundation for marketers in important areas like reading a P&L statement and financial acumen, as well as classical marketing theory.

“For fast–moving consumer goods you actually use all of the elements of marketing. It may not be as vital in advertising or communications, but in brand marketing, and specifically FMCG, you need a degree,” she said.

The question is: how do educators find the right balance between theoretical and practical coursework, and where are the current knowledge gaps in media and marketing education?

The education gaps

The consensus among industry sources who spoke to AdNews was that university undergraduate courses provide students with a solid foundation in marketing theory, but lack subjects that explore the role digital media and technology are increasingly playing in marketing, media channel planning, user experience and customer experience.

“Where I think marketing degrees are falling down — and it’s understandable with the rapid rate of change in marketing and media — is around digital, data, social and technology; marketers have struggled to keep up,” argued Zenith Australia chief executive Nickie Scriven who previously worked as a media strategy principal at NAB and head of marketing and brand at AustralianSuper.

“Their roles now blur the line with IT departments and digital and user experience departments, which in many organisations sit outside the scope of the marketing department,” she said.

Scriven’s views are backed up by our own research. 

AdNews analysed the curricula of 28 different undergraduate courses in marketing and advertising at 22 universities across Australia. The most common subjects being taught in nearly every marketing course are marketing fundamentals, marketing research, consumer behaviour and marketing strategy. Many courses also offered subjects in services marketing, marketing communications, brand management and product management.

Only eight courses (29%) had a compulsory subject related to digital marketing, 12 courses (43%) had electives in digital marketing subjects, and nine courses (32%) had subjects related to social media. One course at UTS offered a major in digital and social media and provided the most specialised curriculum in this space.

Despite only a third of courses offering digital marketing as a mandatory subject, Dentsu Aegis Network’s HR director, Luke Speers, believes students are entering the workforce with good generalist and digital marketing skills.

“We do observe a gap with media. At times, we find that students have learnt the theory of media, but the elements of implementation, day–to–day context and putting it into action, are lost in present day and future state,” he said.

“For paid and programmatic media, there is a larger gap between what students are taught and the industry demands. We often hire from other fields such as engineering, finance or science to harvest the competency skill base required.” 

This lack of media implementation knowledge is backed up by a scarcity of media channel planning subjects being offered at universities.

In the same sample, AdNews could only find four courses (14%) that compelled students to learn about media channels while six courses (21%) offered it as an elective. These were mostly degrees that majored in advertising.

model-2339867_1920.jpgAre universities focusing on the right areas in their media and marketing curriculums?

Poor digital and media knowledge

Nestlé head of media and brand experience Antonia Farquhar believes there is a lack of understanding among marketers about digital marketing and media planning aside from a few “digital champions” that sometimes sit in a silo away from brand marketers.

“I find that is one of the biggest gaps and it's so hard to keep up with … people just get caught up with the two majors, Facebook and Google, and everything else may get lost a little bit,” she said.

“We have to do special training in digital. I'm sure lots of other companies do as well because it is just not well–covered. Again, you have to keep up with it. You can't assess its face value from five years ago because it will be redundant.”

Farquhar said the poor understanding of digital media is often found at assistant brand and brand manager level and “a small percentage of their time” is spent assessing media plans that contain “quite a lot of investment”.

“I don't think any of that is often covered well in tertiary education. It doesn't drill down into how your media spend applies to marketing,” she explained.

“People often get lost in the ridiculous amount of metrics. We've got to continue to pull through that first priority — selling stuff and ROI — otherwise we can easily get lost.”

A dated curriculum

Another recent marketing shift that has left university education in its wake is a move from product–based marketing to a customer experience approach.

Many large companies are transitioning away from product–based marketing to focus on customer journey mapping and experience. This follows successful digital native companies such as Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Google and Facebook, that have this customer–centric mindset baked into their DNA.

“That kind of approach to understand your consumer before you look at your product is not being taught at universities. They’re still doing it the traditional way and will not catch up with the transition from marketing to customer experience for a few years,” Morgan’s John Chatterton said.

ADMA’s Richard Harris believes there’s a real need for education on customer experience because “90% of businesses that are competing on customer experience or say they are; we know that most businesses are still product siloed”.

“They’ve got very inefficient workloads in terms of their incremental decision–making processes,” he said, adding that this education gap is apparent in senior ranks as well.

Harris revealed that he would also like to see more focus on data analytics and how this can be used to drive the customer experience approach.

So how have we gotten to this point and what do educators think? In the second part of this education feature that will be published tomorrow, AdNews speaks to educators at universities and private colleges as well as recent graduates to find out their views. 

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