David Blecken
Aug 13, 2018

Does a marketing degree make it easier to survive in an agency?

A foundation in the basics can help build an equal footing with clients, but more specific skills combined with the right personal qualities can go a lot further.

Is there more value in learning the fundamentals of marketing at university than on the job?
Is there more value in learning the fundamentals of marketing at university than on the job?

This article is part of a series about marketing education. Last week, we looked at Asia's top marketing schools to see what differentiates courses; stay tuned for more on this subject. 

The advertising agency was once proudly held up as the last refuge of the chancer: somewhere where rough diamonds could find comradeship and, hopefully, their true calling. Qualifications mattered little, although having been to a prestigious school didn’t hurt.

Today, the industry likes to present a much more sober story. Buffeted on all sides by Big Tech, the encroachment of consulting firms and ever-more demanding (but also increasingly cost-conscious) clients, specific, often highly technical skillsets are in high demand. So is an ability to fully relate to marketers and the multitude of challenges they face. 

This raises the question as to whether a degree in marketing is more valuable for people working in agencies (both creative and media) than it once was.

Eri Piotrowski, head of media for Japan at Essence, who previously worked on both the agency and client side in the US, has an academic background in marketing and business. She says that as a job applicant, the nature of her studies helped her pass the screening process and progress to official interviews.

“I would not advise my children to study marketing in its current form—it’s just too vague."
Leonardo Brems, AdMark Asia

Apart from helping her get a foot in the door, she says the training in presentation skills and case study development that her degree offered has proved helpful in being able to understand and discuss the things that marketers care about.

“Theoretical knowledge of marketing has helped relationships and helped me connect with clients, because we are speaking the same language,” she adds.

At the same time, she feels critical thinking and problem-solving skills are more important, along with an eagerness to learn and the ability to articulate things well. “At the end of the day, we are in a field that needs to instigate an emotion and move people,” she reflects.

Piotrowski believes these skills exist in many fields of study. She says the best team project she can remember working on involved a diverse mix of people—some from business school backgrounds, others engineers, biologists and linguists.

“The different perspectives helped uncover insights and ideas that were sometimes unconventional but created a successful campaign from the start of the user journey all the way through to acquisition and retention,” she says.

From a recruiter perspective, there are a host of qualifications other than marketing that make candidates easier to sell. Leonardo Brems, managing director of AdMark Asia in Hong Kong, says at an undergraduate degree level, he favours something like accounting or financial skills—“something hard”—over marketing, which he describes as “fluffy”.

For a career in media agencies, he recommends “anything quantitative”. Even though creative agencies have become “more numerical”, he still sees value in the humanities, and specifically subjects such as ethnography or anthropology. Aside from that, the calibre of the university is likely to count for more than the actual field of study.

“I would not advise my children to study marketing in its current form—it’s just too vague,” he says.

Gary Goodwin, an executive coach based in Tokyo, where the definition of marketing is loose, says he rarely encounters candidates for either agency or client roles with marketing-related degrees. More common are mass communication-based qualifications, he says, but he notes that in either case, such a degree gives a slight edge in interviews “since it’s an indicator of knowledge and interest towards the role of branding”.

Chris Iki, COO of TBWA Hakuhodo, says it is more important that staff come from different backgrounds than whether or not they have completed specific degrees [Photo: Shutterstock]

Asked whether marketing degrees equip people to deal with the challenges of the modern industry, he notes that what is taught varies greatly between courses. But he does see some value in learning “the marketing fundamentals, which can often be overlooked in favour of digital trends and fads”.

Still, Goodwin says he sees a clear trend towards agencies looking for people with qualifications in mathematics, statistics and analytics, coding and UX design.

Across much of the region, agency heads with marketing degrees are rare animals. Chris Iki, COO of TBWA Hakuhodo, did study marketing and says it helped him understand the basics in account management in that he was able to have “an intelligent conversation with a marketer”.

By contrast, Charles Cadell, Asia-Pacific president of McCann Worldgroup, studied English, Russian and American literature before going into advertising. At that time, agencies frequently made clear that “we don’t want people with advertising degrees because we’ll have to retrain them”.

What they were interested in were rounded individuals, he says, adding that the same thinking generally holds true today given that agencies all have their own theories on what marketing should be, and their own distinct processes.

“The skills you need in your first four years are very different to those you need at mid and senior level."
Charles Cadell, McCann Worldgroup, explaining the value of mid-career MBA degrees

Cadell says he values other specialist skills. For planners, it might be a background in psychology, sociology or anthropology; in other areas, computer science or data degrees would be desirable.

McCann used to focus on hiring people from “the top five universities”, he says, but explains that is no longer the case “because we want more varied individuals”. The change may not be entirely voluntary, of course, given the magnetism of tech companies for graduates from the world’s most prestigious schools. But agencies are recognising the need to look outside their comfort zones to find the mix of people who can respond to a much wider range of client demands than once existed.

“Times have changed,” agrees Iki. “It can’t hurt to have a marketing degree but it’s not something that’s going to make or break your career in our field. We look for people with different backgrounds. Our business is being in tune with culture. It’s not something you can learn in a classroom or from a textbook. The need for new talent comes from various backgrounds and we’re looking outside of the immediate industry.”

What Cadell does “heartily recommend” is for staff to earn an MBA mid-career—something which is especially widespread in India. “The skills you need in your first four years are very different to those you need at mid and senior level,” he says. “Business leadership is frankly woefully lacking in the account management function globally. But the timing of the training is important. It has to be at a time when they are exposed to clients and their problems.

“If we think about the top of an organisation, if I’m competing against a Bain or a Deloitte, those people’s backgrounds are fundamentally different from mine so at this stage I need training in things like negotiation and strategy. This is stuff I didn’t need 15 years ago.”

Ultimately, it is the willingness to keep expanding one’s knowledge and abilities that is probably most important for anyone looking to forge a career in agencies today. Marketing-related study would appear to hold some merit, but relatively little.

“I think hiring is mixing and matching, complementing your team with skills and expertise that will ultimately elevate everyone on your team,” Piotrowski says. “I continuously try to learn something new every day and keep abreast of technology, trends and the industry. The passion to learn is critical for me.”

Related Articles

Just Published

56 minutes ago

Gibberish to growth, new spot puts Aussie male ...

Funny talk, serious impact. The Hallway's latest campaign will be screened at The Sydney Film Festival this week.

1 hour ago

Ad industry must fix gap between intent and action ...

Campaign is launching a series of opinion pieces about sustainability ahead of Cannes Lions 2023. Here the leaders of Ad Net Zero, WFA and ANA issue a joint call about the need to move from talk to impact.

2 hours ago

Asia-Pacific Power List 2023: Julie Nestor, Mastercard

Nestor recognises her privilege as a marketer to influence the narrative and leads campaigns that connect passion with purpose.

3 hours ago

2023 Cannes Contenders: Ogilvy APAC's top bets

There's no exact science to predicting a Cannes Lions winner, Ogilvy's Reed Collins gives a shot nonetheless.