How to avoid producing ‘gormless’ marketing graduates with irrelevant skills

As the debate about the value of marketing degrees rages on, Swinburne industry fellow Christopher Riquier puts his stake in the ground.

Both Gary Vee and Mark Ritson are short sighted in their views about marketing education. But they are also half right.

Like Gary Vee, I have no doubt that there are many talented and capable people out there that successfully lead marketing in an inherited or start-up business without formal education.

But likewise, supporting Mark Ritson’s point of view, in the corporate environment there is a need for vast numbers of people to fill marketing positions and not all organisations have the capability to provide hands-on training in the strategic or tactical aspects of marketing.

The ensuing debate on who is right and wrong could take time wasting to level 10. So why not use it to inform and overhaul university marketing education?

I was one of Byron Sharp’s first research students over 20 years ago, completing a Masters in Marketing while teaching undergrad marketing to put a roof over my head I finished 80% of a PhD. It was at this point I quickly became disillusioned, when I found myself teaching concepts of which I had no practical experience in implementing. Maybe the students thought I was credible, but at the time I didn’t.

So I jumped ship into the supposedly “inferior” corporate world as I was led to believe at the time. This turned out to be the best move I ever made and I ended up leading one of the larger WPP operating companies for Asia Pacific.

If Mark Ritson thinks doing some consulting and brand strategy work for a few corporates constitutes the true make or break experience you get in the field, think again. It might be valuable to inform strategy, but try many years of working under the leadership of Sir Martin in an environment where marketing performance is assessed 48 hours after the end of each month. That is the “real world” where I gained my true education.

My WPP experience and the work I conducted for start-ups right through to Fortune 500 groups was what I really needed to add value to a marketing student in the university system. Whether it be marketing our services, those of our clients or delivering a financial outcome for those clients or for Sir Martin.

WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell

Thus it was timely when I got a call from some contacts at Swinburne Uni in Melbourne when I left WPP last year. Swinburne wanted help rebuilding their Masters of Marketing within the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship (AGSE).

This rebuilding didn’t mean ‘get some textbooks written after 1985’. It meant working with major industry partners to rebuild subject curriculums with content that would be relevant for the type of graduates they hired. And to follow through, have the same partners actually deliver some of the content on a regular basis to students.

This was the sort of progressive teaching attitude I was looking for in a university, and it made me reflect on my frustration at the many gormless graduates with irrelevant skills we interviewed for my 3,000 strong team at WPP.

Sentiments echoed by the marketing director of one of Australia’s largest media networks who is eternally frustrated that marketing graduates from any university do not learn how to develop a media plan.

Initially I thought it would be challenging finding industry partners willing to give up their time to be involved in such a program. But to my delight within a short space of time Aus Post, Facebook, Isobar, JWT and many others had agreed to support the initiative. We are now working with them to build what we believe is Australia’s first industry co-created Masters of Marketing.

The cautionary note I would give to those recruiting grads today is that you can’t expect them to walk in the door, sit down and manage your programmatic buy on whatever platform you have in play.

What you should expect is that they understand the application and role of programmatic in the wider context of integrated comms and how marketing principles apply in this environment. Or how traditional market research has been replaced by decision tools built from multiple data sources including social, transaction, search, warehouses and even survey research.

And my advice for those completing degrees is to seek out industry experience throughout the course of your study. Applying knowledge at the time of learning is invaluable, let alone the ability to pump up your LinkedIn profile with some big names in industry.

Christopher Riquier is an industry fellow – entrepreneurship and innovation at the Swinburne University


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