Making marketing education fit for the future

This article was first featured by the IPA, July 2021.


According to The Guardian, the UK is experiencing its worst labour shortages since 1997. With the ending of freedom of movement, UK companies can no longer employ EU nationals to plug the gaps.

Our industry is not immune. If what I see and hear in Bristol is anything to go by, agencies are finding recruitment tough going. The exceptional circumstances we are now in won’t last. But even when supply catches up with demand, the long-term issue of attracting talented people from all backgrounds into our industry will remain one of the biggest challenges we face.

It is a challenge for which there is no silver bullet and one that no single organisation – or even government – can crack single-handedly. Instead, improvement needs partnerships, dialogue, and collaboration among all the stakeholders. For this reason, I was delighted to be recently invited by the School of Management at the University of Bristol to give a short talk on the future of marketing education from an employer’s perspective.

The following is a summary of what I had to say.

Change and complexity

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

Charles Darwin

When I think back over the last 25 years of my career, what strikes me is the relentless pace of change and the growing complexity of marketing execution.

Take Armadillo’s specialism, CRM, for example. It was not long ago that ‘customer relationship marketing’ meant direct mail and email marketing. These days our range of services and capabilities has expanded to include loyalty initiatives, customer experience, mobile, data strategy, data modelling, data engineering and technology integration. No doubt, in five years, we will have evolved again, offering new services, some of which have yet to be invented!

We need staff who can take rapid change and complexity in their stride.

What do we look for when hiring new staff?

For us, a degree or equivalent qualification indicates that someone has the academic ability, and above all, the character, resilience and determination to complete a rigorous course of study. It is an important hygiene factor in whether we would consider hiring a candidate, but probably not the deciding one.

When it comes to who we bring on board, less tangible attributes such as personality, character, mindset, and soft skills tend to be more critical. In practice, this means we are as interested in hiring staff with well-developed emotional intelligence (or EQ) as we are in those with high IQ…if not more so!

The last year of remote working has shown me that EQ is more important to our success than ever. Coordinating a team via Zoom means communication and interpersonal skills need to be of the highest standard.

Character traits such as resilience, self-motivation, self-awareness, empathy, grit and determination have come to the fore. They have been vital in sustaining the performance of our business and the mental health of our people.

In an ideal world, we hire staff who know how to adapt, learn how to pivot, and do not wait around for their employer to tell them what to do to develop their career. They take the initiative and own their continuous professional development.

Proactive learners

One example of what I mean: as part of our IPA membership, we need to achieve CPD accreditation. One box we need to tick is getting all our staff to complete a minimum of 24 hours CPD per year.

CPD can consist of training courses and seminars and includes self-learning like reading books, listening to podcasts and attending events.

When we look at a colleague’s CPD log, it tells us something about their mindset and attitude. I would say there’s a strong correlation between someone who meets and exceeds their CPD target and the overall performance of that person.

A team member who keeps their skills and knowledge up to date without being spoon-fed by their employer is the individual who significantly improves the odds of adapting to the complex and fast-changing world of work.

I love to see staff who take the trouble to understand our agency’s strategy and translate it into a set of stretch goals that push them on to the next level and help the agency at the same time. The people I work with who leave the biggest impression are those who are champing at the bit for the next opportunity. We have to keep up with them rather than the other way around.

It strikes me that these are the people who understand that learning doesn’t end when you graduate. The journey is just beginning, and to do well and get on, you need to invest time in your development year after year.

Doing our bit

In 2018 a contact at the University of the West of England’s (UWE) invited me to become an external adviser on a new MSc in digital marketing that the Business School was about to launch.

One of the dilemmas facing programme leader Tom Bowden-Green and his academic colleagues was whether to teach practical skills or not as part of the MSc. For example, should the course provide lessons on using Google, Facebook, and other popular bits of MarTech?  As Tom put it to me, ‘The pace of change is so rapid, universities can’t realistically keep up with all the platforms.’

I recently checked in with Tom to see how he had solved this dilemma. The solution is an initiative called ‘Course Connect Partnerships‘, which aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry. For Tom’s MSc, he’s been able to partner with some of the region’s leading digital agencies who send their experts to teach students the latest practical skills. The course tutors are then free to focus on the more academic aspects of the course, such as thinking critically and strategically about using digital marketing to achieve brand goals.

Undoubtedly, the University of the West of England is not the only educational institution looking to partner with agencies. We all want a talent pipeline of students who combine a sound grasp of marketing theory and up-to-date skills in marketing practice, don’t we? In that case, we need to make more effort to invest our time in the next generation by getting involved in programmes like UWE’s ‘Course Connect’.

A 10x approach

How our education system equips students to respond to change is, in my opinion, the key to making marketing education – all education, in fact – fit for the future.

As employers, we can’t afford to wring our hands of this challenge and expect schools, colleges and universities to deliver the talent we need without our input.  And that could be through initiatives like ‘Course Connect’ or in other ways.

In his address as new IPA President Julian Douglas said:

It feels to me that we’ve have been talking about the same things and diagnosing the same problems for at least the past decade. But what if we were to harness the positives to apply a multiplier effect to how we tackle the perennial problems advertising and society more broadly faces? What if we were to make incrementalism our enemy and resolve instead to move 10 X sooner, 10 X bigger, 10 X bolder?

How about we take all the brilliant examples of industry working with education—mentoring, guest lecturing, course co-creation, internships, apprenticeships—and apply Julian Douglas’ 10x approach? It’s got to be worth a try!