AdNews investigation: Educators and students have their say

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 4 May 2018
Graduates believe media and marketing courses provide a solid theoretical foundation, but sometimes lack relevance to industry roles.

This was first published in the April issue of AdNews Magazine and follows part one: AdNews investigation: Is university education still relevant to the industry?

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 explore the role of private colleges, speak to educators at universities and find out what recent graduates in the industry think about their tertiary education experience.

The role of private colleges

University education provides a good foundation knowledge of traditional marketing theory, but is lagging in newer areas of media and marketing practice. An AdNews investigation into tertiary education found gaps in digital media, media planning and practical experience to help produce graduates that are job ready for media and marketing roles. 

These gaps in skills and education are often being filled by smaller, private colleges such as ADMA, Miami Ad School and Macleay College. About 10% of Macleay’s students are university graduates from across a range of degrees that want to sharpen their skills for media and marketing careers.

Ian Thomson, who runs the college’s faculty of advertising and media, pointed out its courses are designed to be much more practical, with a strong focus on digital skills and competencies that allow graduates to “hit the ground running”.

“The feedback we get from industry is to make sure these graduates understand marketing theory and marketing strategy, but also make sure they have digital skills,” Thomson said.

“Make sure that they know how to use Adobe Creative Suite, that they know how to use an Excel table, that they can put together a presentation, in InDesign.

“That’s where we position ourselves, at that intersection. If you look at the sandstone universities as being disseminators and bastions of knowledge, and TAFE colleges being a place where people are trained with skills, at Macleay we really look at the application of knowledge and skill.”

Another area that Thomson and senior marketer Makedonka Del–Ben would like to see is a greater focus on developing interpersonal communication skills, such as empathetic listening, presentation skills and the ability to work collaboratively as a team.

ADMA is working with organisations to assess thousands of marketers on their roles and the skills that will be required for the future. This should help businesses on tight budgets to focus their L&D budgets on the skills that will provide the biggest impact and return.

It is also in talks with universities to see if it can help offer students ‘job ready’ skills such as email marketing, social media and digital essentials into university curricula.

swinburne021.jpgSwinburne University of Technology offers a degree with a major in advertising - B Media Comms (advertising).

A game of cat and mouse

David Reid, lecturer of advertising at Swinburne University of Technology, said the gaps highlighted by AdNews’ analysis are fairly accurate although its advertising course is one of the few that offers media planning as a subject. The uni has also formed an industry advisory panel to help evolve its advertising curriculum.

“Part of the problem is that digital is such a broad area and it’s difficult to cover each area of specialisation,” he said. “Our undergraduate courses provide more of a marketing generalist education and then we recommend students who want to hone a specialty to continue to one of our masters degrees.”

A major problem for university educators is that updating course curricula can take several years, which means once a new curriculum is ready to roll out it can already be dated against the fast–moving media and marketing landscape.

Consider this: it was only two-and-a-half years ago that Netflix launched in Australia and began changing how people watched TV content as well as throwing down a challenge to the FTA television industry and the ad–funded model that supports it.

Reid said he accepts it is “pretty much impossible” for universities to keep up with these rapid changes.

Another problem, explained Bond University assistant professor, Dr Sven Brodmerkel, is course structures dictate that some specialised advertising subjects need to cater to students with deeper knowledge than those that choose it as an elective.

He explained that the depth of the university course must also align with the student demand for a degree.

“How could we possibly cover in–depth subject areas like programmatic? This is something you can only learn on the job," Brodmerkel said. “You’re not getting enough students enrolled into a course to cover these sorts of aspects.”

Brodmerkel, who lectures in advertising, said the “outdated image” of advertising makes it difficult to attract a critical mass of students.

“Parents might not see this as a career path for their children because it might appear too fluffy or creative or exotic,” he said. “The industry itself isn’t necessarily helping because when you look at career paths in advertising, particularly creative departments, in your mid–30s you are actually on your way up or on your way out.

“We need to sell it on much broader qualifications you can gain from the degree than just ‘advertising as a career path’.” 

bond-university.jpgBond University has subjects on internet advertising, a rarity in university education.

Looking outside of the grad pool

Graduates looking to pursue a career in advertising have few choices. AdNews identified only four courses that specifically majored in advertising and a couple more where it could be taken as a sub–major stream.

It’s an issue apparent to Ogilvy chief operating officer and chief talent officer David Sayer.

“I think some of the larger universities are very broad in their marketing courses and hardly really touch on advertising,” he said.

“There's a couple out there, such as Charles Sturt University, that has a good honed course with its own internal advertising agency.”

Both Sayer and PHD’s head of people and development, Stephanie Douglas–Neal, told AdNews they’re happy with talent who have a basic understanding of the industry and are more focused on the right personality traits such as ”curiosity, adaptability and critical thinking skills”.

It is becoming increasingly common for agencies to look beyond traditional media and marketing degrees in order to find a diverse mix of talent.

“We were clear this year that we weren’t necessarily looking for graduates from university. I think that reliance on graduates from universities and tertiary education is getting less because we are more focused on what the individual can bring to the table,” Sayer said.

As agencies seek a broader mix of skills and personalities, and marketing continues to evolve several steps ahead of university curricula, educators can ill–afford to stand still.

Business and communication faculties must continue to work closely with industry and even specialist private colleges to help dated media and marketing curricula become more relevant to a rapidly changing media and marketing industry that is already looking for talent elsewhere.

rowena-joline-vianne.jpgRecent graduates: Rowena Singh (Mindshare), Joline Samawi (Ogilvy) and Vianne Treliving (Ogilvy).

Graduates hand down their verdict on education 

To help shape this investigation, AdNews surveyed 89 media, advertising and marketing graduates to find out their views on how relevant university degrees are to the industry.

The poll asked respondents what they thought university courses did well, what was missing and how they could be improved.

The overall relevancy score was 3.25 out if 10. The scale ranged from ‘irrelevant’, ‘of minor relevance’, ‘neutral’, ‘somewhat relevant’ and ‘very relevant’.

Ogilvy senior account manager Vianne Treliving and digital account executive Joline Samawi both studied communications degrees at UTS before starting careers in advertising.

Treliving says what she really liked about her course was receiving a good foundational overview of the communications industry as well as doing a lot of group work.

Where she believes university education can improve is by making it mandatory to do an internship or a placement.

“I think there is nothing better than experience it really sets you up for everything,” she says. “I think you can have that initial foundation but, once you actually are within a working environment, you don't have any preparation for that prior.”

Samawi also benefitted from group work and having to meet tight deadlines. She believes that there is an opportunity for university courses to be more honest about the realities of the industry and working on student’s presentation skills.

“While group work is just as valuable, when you work with your fellow peers - there is definitely pressure – but it's completely different to when you're in the workforce and you have that interaction with clients,” she says. “This idea of selling an idea or being super confident when you're presenting could definitely be improved upon.”

Mindshare social media executive (FAST) Rowena Singh did a commerce and arts degree in marketing at UNSW.

She tells AdNews there was “pretty much zero correlation at university and what I decided to do”.

“Not many people at university really know about what a media buying agency does, I didn’t even know it existed.

“It’s very theoretical and not a lot of action-based learning. It would have been quite useful if they had focused on strategy…it did have some sort of relationship programmatic buying, which was an introduction to how everything is being automated – that was probably the most relevant.”


Graduates share their views

AdNews has published a sample of comments from its research into university education. We have anonymised the names of individuals but reveal the course they took and their current role.

“I think there could be a stronger focus on the role of media agencies. A lot is learnt about the client side and creative but very little about what a media agency actually does and the processes involved with working for a media agency.” – marketing graduate at a media agency.

“University was fantastic for providing the base knowledge. The focus on theories behind consumer behaviour shapes your way of thinking and understanding of why companies advertise the way they do. Any connection to the real world would be great. What creating a media plan looks like, how to workshop a creative idea, how to put together a brief, what a PR job looks like, what a copywriter does all day” - marketing graduate at a media agency.

“I would like to see the course focus more on digital - not just TV. And more interaction with people in the industry.” – media and advertising graduate at a creative agency. 

“I felt they could have focused on understanding marketing metrics, how they interact with other functions within a business and how marketing varies by industry” – commerce graduate working as a marketer at a pharma company. 

“The course lacked real-world experience and there was a lack of support in gaining industry experience” – marketing graduate at hardware retailer. 

“There were huge gaps in preparing you for what 'marketing' looks like. Nobody works as a 'marketer'. Limited exposure to non-corporate marketing/media skills (media buying, account management” – marketing graduate at an insurance firm. 

“The course materials were frequently very out of date and there was too much focus on topline information and generating ideas versus implementing actual campaigns and the different roles of mediums. The advertising and media landscape changes frequently. Put more real-world experiences with briefs at the heart, rather than outdated theory.” – advertising graduate at a global entertainment company.

“One of the most important lessons reinforced throughout my degree was the importance of building and maintaining relationships in the media/marketing/advertising industries. Having this value enforced has allowed me to focus on it from the start rather than having to learn the hard way further into my career. The biggest gap I found was the limited options in terms of Media units available throughout the degree.” – advertising and marketing graduate at a media agency.

“A huge part of marketing is essentially project management so it would of been good to have a bigger emphasis on this - how to put a marketing plan together, how to manage stakeholders, give a good rationale for decisions and a better understanding of the structure of marketing teams. I had no idea what a media agency was when I finished my degree - knowing this kind of info is absolutely essential for pursuing a marketing career” – a business/PR graduate at an employee benefits provider.

“It was too theoretical and no accounting for client input, engagement or delivery” – a marketing graduate at a full-service agency.

“My course lacked a lot of the practical skills involved in advertising such as brief writing and strategic thinking from an entry level perspective. A lot of my education was theoretical and focused on skills and content well beyond the spectrum of an entry level role.” – Media and communications graduate at a creative agency. 

“My course was very practical where we had real briefs from real clients from my first year. This made the transition a lot easier and I knew what to expect working on these briefs.” Marketing/advertising graduate at media agency.

“The teaching staff have the biggest impact on the course so ensuring that the lecturers are currently in the industry or have only recently left is important. It was noticeable when lecturers were out of touch and hadn’t been in the industry for a long time.” - Marketing/advertising graduate at media agency.

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