Last week (in-print), AdNews shared some research findings on the state of university education for advertising and media.
After reviewing current marketing curricula and interviewing both companies and graduates, many voiced concerns that university courses would not sufficiently cover aspects of modern marketing, such as data analysis, digital platforms and media buying. This is an important discussion to have, as proper education is the oil of our economy.
I personally agree with many of the findings – universities can be slow in adapting to change and education providers need to constantly ask themselves how to best address future education needs and how to remove red tape to update courses more timely. Nevertheless, let’s keep in mind what university education can and should realistically contribute to the development of business professionals.
University education sets the foundation for marketing and must not fall for fads
University undergrad training is supposed to provide foundations for a specific field for the rest of your life. The taught principles should ideally be relevant not only for today but also in 20, 30 or 40 years. Therefore, it is important that crucial basics, such as consumer behaviour, market research and marketing strategy are covered first. Let’s be honest, too many marketers are prone to shiny new toys and often neglect whether a media decision fits their strategy and core capabilities.
As my colleague Mark Ritson has often stated: many marketers would benefit from formal training in their field. With more strategic decision-making and rigorous thinking in place, we probably wouldn’t have ended up in such a big mess today in digital marketing and ad tech, which are characterised by inefficiencies linked to poor measurement and cost-accounting practices, ad fraud and smoke and mirrors.
The fad fallacy pt 2: new name does not always mean it is new
Marketers love coming up with new concepts, titles and acronyms all the time. I guess it’s a form of artificial differentiation, trying to look different when one simple characteristic is changed or added to a product or service. A DMP with more features is suddenly a CDP. Inbound marketing is now growth hacking. Even the notion of “customer experience” is actually over 15 years old now.
So should ‘Customer Experience Management’ be a completely new course? Well, let me rephrase this: do we need a course that reminds managers that every touchpoint with your brand will affect your brand perception or is this the very essential idea of brand management?
Beware the buzzwords.
As university providers, we need to be careful and question whether content is really new and warrants a new course or if we simply modify classes or add a lecture to existing courses. I don’t know whether all course syllabi across universities could be accessed for the AdNews investigation, but some courses cover more digital than many may think. They may just not have a specific new title for it. For example, my “Marketing Communications” class includes lectures on social media, search engines, programmatic, strategic media buying and even ad fraud and brand safety.
University education is about learning a new mindset for problem solving
In addition to providing foundations for your chosen field of study, a university degree is mainly about teaching you 1) critical and strategic thinking as well as 2) structured and independent working. These are critical core skills that should prepare students for challenges in many job scenarios and help them understand the bigger picture of the corporate world.
Consider management consultancies, which tend to recruit students from lots of different subject areas, such as biology, physics, engineering etc. They recognise the relevance of diversity and they know that the desired two core skills mentioned above represent the most important foundation for a mind that can keep improving itself and be exposed to new situations without struggling. Any additional area knowledge, in particular acronyms for field-specific work, can easily be acquired later on for a person with the right mindset.
University training versus ‘practical knowledge’ for marketing.
Marketers love complaining the most that "the world has changed like never before". Indeed, organisations face additional challenges nowadays, in particular in day-to- day operations. However, most underlying strategic functions and issues are actually the same for marketing as they were fifty years ago. There are just more ways than ever to execute based on them, especially in media. This fragmentation creates challenges for operational tasks, which tend to go beyond universities’ responsibilities.
In other words, students need to know about the developments in their respective field, but it's not the job of a university to train how to use dropdown menus in platform A or B. Coming back to the “foundations for life” aspect I raised earlier: if marketing was really about executing software platforms (now 6,829 different versions), then there would be few jobs left soon because executing functions will be increasingly done by automation software (buzzword "AI"). Fortunately, creative problem solving and strategic thinking will always be at the heart of marketing.
Marketing fragmentation means more learning and specialisation courses are needed.
To sum up, I believe that it is still important for universities to cover field basics and train outstanding problem solvers in their undergrad programs. Knowing the basics is still critical.
However, the increasing complexity of our world means that we will need more training than just the basics. This is why there has been a trend towards new specialisation masters and more tailored shorter programs for different audiences. The new course formats can build on the foundation taught at undergraduate degrees and be catered to the level of seniority and job challenges, such as practical hands-on modules for junior levels or executive education programs for directors and the c-suite. For example, MBS has a joint program with Oxford University to help managers catch up with social media, marketing analytics and programmatic. Furthermore, industry bodies such ADMA and IAB offer a great selection of one-day courses to get up to speed with niche areas and operational specialisations, such as real-time bidding, content marketing or SEM essentials.
Eventually, lifelong learning and pursuit of knowledge will always be key drivers of success. This is probably even more true for such a diverse, exciting and applied field such as marketing.
Melbourne Business School assistant professor, Nico Neumann