David Blecken
Aug 7, 2018

Is a marketing degree really necessary?

Opinions are divided about the validity of modern marketing degrees. We explore what differentiates some of Asia's top courses and ask to what extent they help—or hinder—future industry professionals.

A building dubbed 'dim sum towers' at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore
A building dubbed 'dim sum towers' at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore

This article is part of a series about marketing education. Read more, including our latest article on whether marketing degrees make it easier to survive in an agency, at www.campaignasia.com/premium.  

In a 2016 article published in Marketing Week, Mark Ritson, adjunct professor of marketing at Melbourne Business School, noted that many marketers who are seen (or see themselves) as “gurus” in their field have no formal qualifications in marketing.

In Ritson’s view, it is reasonable to expect anyone held up as an expert in the subject—which, he pointed out, encompasses a lot more than “digital communications”—to have studied it. “You need a qualification to be qualified,” he argued.

The point is highly debatable, as we shall show in our series on marketing education this month. Based as it is on fickle human nature, marketing is not subject to the rigid framework found in professions integral to civilisation such as law or medicine, or even the specific skills needed for more creative ones such as architecture or design.

Where the aim of those professions is clear-cut, marketing’s can be much harder to define: it’s about selling, but it’s not sales. It’s about understanding people, but it’s not anthropology or psychology. It’s about distribution, but it’s not logistics. It’s about shaping brands, but it also involves a lot of number crunching. Its requirements change as quickly as people and culture do.

Some would argue that it’s impossible to study the theory of something so amorphous. Others would say that as the sector is more complex today than it’s ever been, some academic grounding is essential to maintain a steady course and identify important changes while avoiding being distracted by trivia.

Those with the latter point of view face an array of choices as bewildering as the profession itself. Firstly, they need to decide whether an undergraduate marketing degree will give them an advantage over competitors who study more traditional subjects when applying for marketing-related jobs, or whether they would be better off entering the field first, then embarking on advanced studies after several years’ experience (something many academics themselves lack).

Regine Teo Yi Xuan and Ang Zheng Shun are studying for a Bachelor of Business degree specialising in marketing at Nanyang Business School, part of Nanyang Technological University. The course aims to equip would-be marketers with an understanding of consumer and business behaviour and techniques for market analysis, planning and decision-making. At three years, it is shorter than the average undergraduate course and teaches through “business cases, computerised simulations, field trips, consumer experiments, online tools and various team projects”.

L-R: Ang Zheng Shun and Regine Teo Yi Xuan

Now in her second year, Teo is looking for internship or employment opportunities for when she graduates. She thinks her degree choice has given her some edge over the competition, but thinks work experience and building a personal portfolio counts for a lot more. Experience, attitude and skills are what employers value, she says.

Ang says he chose his degree because it offers a “versatile skillset”. He describes himself as someone “interested in the intersection between strategy, products and dynamic growth”. He sees the relative brevity of the course as an advantage in that it frees up a year for hands-on experience. He thinks marketing study should encompass much more than the traditional 4Ps, and has found the course satisfactory in combining areas such as psychology, logical thinking, strategy, creativity and technology.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the other courses available in Asia-Pacific.

Hong Kong City University

Aimed at undergraduates, City’s ‘iMarketing +’ course focuses on analytics and design thinking, but aims to provide a foundation in research, consumer behaviour, strategy and digital marketing. Students have the chance to work on real business challenges in collaboration with local and international companies, and have access to an internship programme that offers placements in Hong Kong and abroad. (Cost: HK$41,100 per year for local students/HK$120,000 per year for international students over four years)

City also offers a respected Master of Science in Marketing programme. Spanning a year, it takes in strategy and planning, consumer behaviour, applied research, brand marketing from a Chinese perspective, database marketing and marketing engineering.

ESSEC Business School

Taught in Singapore, Essec’s MSc in marketing management and digital is tailored to the Asian market, with special attention given to the managerial and digital aspects of the sector. As well as teaching the practicalities of digital tools, it addresses “the social and ethical dimensions in marketing issues”. The aim is to produce marketers with the discipline to align what they do with the management and where applicable digital transformation of their companies. Modules range from Asian consumer behaviour to new product development and marketing’s relationship with entrepreneurship.

Doshisha Business School

Located in Kyoto, Japan, Doshisha teaches MBA students marketing, marketing research, emarketing, and sustainable and responsible marketing as well as classes on marketing in Asia and on culture and the creative industries. Its focus is on project work, with a hands-on approach designed to expose students to the realities of marketing and set them up to cope with the changes the sector will inevitably experience over the next 20 years. The course is split into two parts. In the first, students develop a strategy to address a marketing challenge from a real company (a recent example was Spread, a ‘vertical farming’ outfit). In the second, students create a platform for online marketing.

The University of South Australia

The University of South Australia, where Professor Byron Sharp leads the Ehrenberg-Bass research institute, offers four undergraduate and seven postgraduate degrees. The Bachelor of Business in Marketing is rooted in the fundamentals of business (which marketers are often accused of lacking). Students then focus on areas including analytics, consumer behaviour, advertising and branding. The course emphasises a practical approach based on “real-world research” that is readily applicable to the world of work. (Cost: AU$31,000 per year over three years)

The university’s postgraduate courses range from certificates to full-time study courses including an MBA and international MBA in marketing, and make a distinction between advertising and brand management and marketing. (Cost: from AU$34,400 to AU$38,400 per year)

Melbourne Business School

Melbourne Business School, where Ritson teaches, offers a Master of Marketing that includes 13 subjects, with a focus on management and practical techniques. It also teaches the foundations of business, including accounting and economics. Areas covered in Phase 1 include social responsibility and ethics, consumer behaviour, strategy, brand and product management, communications, financial accounting and people management. Phase 2 covers data analysis, managerial economics and research. (Cost: AU$4,180 per subject)

The trouble with marketing courses

The logic that qualified marketers are more capable works two ways: isn’t it also fair to assume that a marketing professor who has had experience in the game has more to convey than one who has never left the world of academia?

“If I had one main issue with how marketing is taught, it’s that many marketing professors have never done marketing,” says Dr Philip Sugai, who teaches the subject at Doshisha. Sugai started out as an entrepreneur, subsequently holding marketing roles in the financial services, entertainment and technology sectors. Working at Amex in the early days of the internet, he says he was able to apply what he was learning from concurrent MBA studies in real-time.

Sugai says a lot of marketing courses are still too textbook heavy. “They spend a lot of time focused on the reports but don’t think about how real living human beings are suffering and how we can help them. It’s hard to teach. It doesn’t work in a textbook format.”

He sees understanding how people interact with each other, and how to empathise with others, as among the most important skills for a marketer to develop. For that reason, he says he tries to maximise the time students spend tackling real issues and creating things. He does not discount the value of theory, but says it’s important for a teacher to have had real interaction with the market in order to understand how things work in the real world.

“Fundamentally, marketing is common sense,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need a degree in marketing to do it. You need a degree to teach it.”

Does he advise studying marketing as an undergraduate? He thinks the more experience people have had working in the sector, the more they will get out of a study programme, because they will have gained an understanding of the barriers they faced and how things can improve. But he does not fully dismiss undergraduate programmes.

“If you get a bachelor’s degree and understand the basics, that’s fantastic,” he says. “You’re never too young to understand how to do marketing. My main concern is the way it’s taught is typically very boring, and then when you join a company you have to unlearn what you’ve learnt… [At an MBA level] half my job is reprogramming. I think there’s a lot of disservice. We have an obligation to teach skills that will be effective now and in the future. It's sad to see people getting locked into frameworks and toolkits. Really it should be about enabling people to think more elegantly."

Olivia Parker contributed reporting to this article. 

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