12 Jan 2018

Do you really need higher education for a career in marketing?

Henri Attan – Account Executive at Spreckley 

For the university student, Summer isn’t simply for basking in the (occasional) British sun – it is also a time of graduation, and taking steps into the world of work. Cue media discussion on the value of higher education and whether it truly represents the best route into fulfilling and well-remunerated employment. With the relentless growth in tuition fees over the last few years, however, the issue is not merely a matter of intellectual speculation – it is decisive for any ambitious young person looking to get the best bang for their buck and for their time.

The question of whether a higher education is necessary for career success taps into some of the fundamental ambiguities of the marketing function. Unlike the more cloistered and structured career paths of the lawyer, accountant, or even the management consultant, there is far less emphasis on the purely theoretical in the world of marketing. Whereas these professions explicitly require an academic mind set suited to learning the specifics of a discipline, marketing is far more inclined towards soft skills. Ideas are important, but so is implementation – and this often relies on the capacity to communicate well, to influence people, and to collaborate.

Why, then, do so many marketing job adverts specify a degree as a minimum requirement? Especially considering that most don’t specify a marketing-specific degree? It’s definitely not for the way a degree furnishes the graduate with knowledge which will be directly useful for their marketing careers – to my eternal disappointment, I have never had to call upon my in-depth understanding of the causes of the Spanish Civil War at work.

I believe that the degree acts as insurance for the employer, supposedly guaranteeing a certain level of critical soft skills. The ability to think your way around a problem, to use your imagination to see things from a different perspective, and the capacity to organise your own time effectively – these are all cited as useful soft skills that you develop in higher education.

As with everything else, however, the digital revolution of the past two decades has shifted the conversation. As audiences have shifted online, so have marketers – and suddenly a raft of new skillsets have become relevant to them. The question of education has therefore become newly relevant, as a countrywide digital skills shortage takes its toll on marketers. Number-crunching and coding are in fashion, but so are self-starters with a 30K Instagram following and the entrepreneurial nous to match. With an array of digital tools at anyone’s disposal, learning marketing relevant skills is no longer confined to higher education or an entry-level role.

This is not to say that theory has no place in marketing, and that it is a purely tactical function concerned with execution. As Mark Ritson of Marketing Week has persuasively and consistently argued, marketing is deeply strategic and works according to a set of fundamentals that should be learnt by all those who wish to do it well. But learning these doesn’t necessarily rely on a conventional approach to higher education – a combination of personal development, online courses, and on-the-job experience could well suffice.

Do you need higher education for a career in marketing? Well, it can help to exercise the fundamental marketing muscles – problem-solving, creativity, analytical thinking. But it would be a mistake to assume that these things can’t be learnt outside the educational sphere. As the marketing skillset diversifies and young people increasingly opt to skip the huge expense of higher education in favour of different paths, marketers should adjust their recruitment approaches accordingly. To assume that valuable soft skills can only be learnt in a higher education institution is to turn a blind eye to the way less conventional life paths help young people develop, and to the variety of skills that modern marketing requires.