The crisis in marketing education and what to do about it

marketing education

I get invited to speak at a lot of colleges and there is a common theme I hear everywhere: How do they help their students succeed in the fast-moving digital marketing age?

Although I have seen vast improvements in the past two years, the fact is that the gap between current marketing degree programs and business reality is so severe it is downright depressing. I can count on one hand the number of undergraduate students I have personally met this year who I thought were prepared for an entry level marketing job.

There are three huge obstacles facing these programs that are robbing their PR, marketing, and journalism students of the educational experiences they need to compete in the job market:

1) Tenured professors who made their name in the non-digital era are finding it difficult, perhaps impossible, to re-invent decades of proven teaching material and adjust to the fast-moving marketplace.

2) In some cases, it may take up to two years to get a new class approved through an accreditation system

3) The field is changing so much it is difficult to create a stable curriculum that can conform to the needs of numbers 1 and 2.

How bad is the problem?

  • One marketing professor told me that his department head demanded that he quit blogging and focus on publishing academic papers.
  • In a recent presentation to the combined business and journalism faculty at a national university, the head of the advertising major faced me down with an icy glare and told me that social media is a passing fad with no relevance to the field of advertising.
  • An exasperated father complained to me that his son wanted to pursue a career in marketing with a social media emphasis but could not find a college in his state that offered relevant classes, let alone a qualified faculty.

The overhaul of America’s education system is a very complex problem that I am not prepared to address here. However, I can point to one model that is working particularly well specifically in the marketing space.

I am a member of the faculty of Rutgers University and they have developed a system that is getting rave reviews.

First, they have created a program outside the “normal” accreditation process that can flex and move as the market changes. The classes and content may change every month as needed. These week-long seminars (offered in a variety of formats including online) focus on the hottest topics like digital marketing, social media marketing, marketing for non-profits, and marketing analytics.

Second, they use a team of nationally-known experts who are practitioners working in the field every day. This provides an unparalleled, real-time view of what works and what doesn’t based on up-to-the-minute examples.

Finally, these sessions offer “open enrollment” meaning anybody can sign up. Participants can receive college credit, continuing education credits, or simply a certificate for completion. Allowing people outside the university system to sign up keeps the cost reasonable and allows them to pay for the expert talent needed for the program. Another benefit is the incredible networking and learning that takes place by having students and business professionals sitting side by side.

This is an unconventional, entrepreneurial approach that would probably be rebuffed by most schools. It would upset tenured faculty. It will certainly create resistance from long-time administrators enslaved to a “system.”  It challenges the idea that you need to enroll in a four-year degree program to get the expertise you need to excel in your job.

And yet, I believe connecting students and business professionals with practicing experts in an intense hands-on learning environment is the only way to stay relevant today.


Interested in attending? If you register for a live or online session at Rutgers and use “grow” as the discount code, you will receive 10% off your tuition. I do not receive any financial benefit if you sign up. This is just a little gift to the readers of {grow}.

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  • PeterJ42

    I am doing an MBA at Henley, one of the UK’s top business schools. I’m also on several Coursera courses (free online). Coursera is winning with more up to date, relevant content, more people to network with and a flexible attitude.

    Marketing is still stuck in an old dead end. It embraces the idea that products are too complex for customers to understand without a salesperson to help. Everything is focused on gaining leads for that salesperson. It is hidebound by the AIDA sales funnel methodology towards a single sale, preventing building of influence and relationships outside of the buying cycle and influencing the whole organisation, not just the first contact.

    80% of marketing tasks are really sales – short-term, single sale focused. The split between sales and marketing is in methods, not aims – marketers use the internet and social media, salespeople use telephones and cars. That is a totally false division.

    As such involving current practitioners will only reinforce these outdated and quite simply wrong methods of marketing.

    Until we get marketing right, there is no point in teaching it.

  • I really appreciate this post! Although I studied Communications over ten years ago I remember graduating not being able to write a proper brief. I went to an incredible University for Communications, but I remember studying past ads more than learning how to run a team of designers and clients…real life lessons. Granted I was a part of the Advertising Team and we created a global campaign on our own, working non-stop for 5 months and travelled to present and compete with other Universities! That was more than fun and creative.

    Hopefully more and more universities will venture into a more digital approach and even keep to shorter classes like the ones you mentioned. Attention spans have been shot to hell, so classroom learning needs to adjust in order for students (families) to really get their money’s worth and leave with a strong foundation and understanding.

  • I agree. I used to teach at Rutgers and several of my colleagues attended and raved about the digital marketing mini MBA course. I have been asked to teach Digital Marketing in a mini course at the College of Charleston and want to use the same approach there.

  • Torrey Dye

    I believe you are right about the disconnect. It can be difficult for us professional marketers to keep up with where things are going. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to keep a education program up-to-date. I feel that students going into B2B marketing are even less prepared. When I recall most of my class discussions, they were mostly about consumer marketing case studies. Luckily education is transforming as fast as marketing and students have a lot of options from Udemy to the Rutgers online program.

  • Eileen Masciale

    You are so right. I’m in an excellent masters in communications program at Johns Hopkins that offers a concentration in social/digital media. While I’m already doing a lot of what the courses cover, they do go deeper. Kudos to Rutgers for being on top of this at the undergrad level.

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  • Sandra Isaac

    I agree on all counts! Not only am I a graduate of the Mini MBA program, but because at my place of employment, I am faced with the “old school” type of Marketing. It is very difficult to move a huge rock like that, especially when board members made their living in Marketing, many moons ago. I am slowly making strides and showing them examples of what we could be doing, and what others aren’t doing that would make us look “chic”, and I keep pushing forward. I keep waiting for the day that the momentum flows smoother and I can concentrate more on the content and not just the methods. It really was a great group of classes and instructors!

  • Julie Musial

    Yes, Mark I totally agree. I am a business coach and a social media strategist. My daughter is a senior this year in high school. She wants to be an online business owner just like mom. I would like her to go to college to take accounting, statistics, business law etc to prepare her. However, the marketing courses offered are not acceptable on the college level for what she is looking for. It is a big problem in the colleges. One of the biggest issues I believe is that the people that have the knowledge who could teach these courses are not only in high demand but they would also take a major cut in pay if they taught at the college level. The second issue is that the industry changes so fast a curriculum is not even possible to keep up with the system they work within.

  • completely agree with you, Mark. kudos to Rutgers for challenging the idea of a 4-year program… they’re lucky to have you!

    my Masters degree from Johns Hopkins is “Communications and Contemporary Society” and it was quite a cutting-edge curriculum at the time. it’s just that by choosing to use the word “contemporary” in the title of the degree, it doesn’t quite future-proof the concepts we learned. maybe that’s the point?! 🙂

  • The whole class length concept is an interesting topic. Why does every class need to be the same duration, no matter what the topic? That seems so out of step with reality. It’s a financial model, not a curriculum, isn’t it?

  • Marilyn Rae

    Well said! As a former high school Marketing teacher we were tied to following curriculum and meeting benchmarks and standards that there was little room for anything else. Marketing is such an exciting field with unlimited possibilities; I loved being able to bring the real world into the classroom as I taught the basic 4P’s of Marketing, It really help the students connect. Colleges in general are to slow to react to fast changing fields. Love the concept of the mini-programs.

  • awesome. you’ll have to let me know how that turns out! And let me know if you need me to skype into your class for Q&A

  • agree. hate that B2B is often ignored. I love it!

  • Great to hear of that success. I’ve seen a lot of progress out there too. Thanks for commenting Eileen!

  • Agree! Financial vs Educational perhaps. Let’s just hope the curriculum is more up-to-date with all that’s constantly changing.

  • So great to hear from you Sandra. I have spent the entire morning talking to people about the organizational hurdles to making this digital transformation. It is certainly not just a university problem, is it? I have written often about the real key to success is the CULTURAL adjustment that is needed. Really has nothing to do with budget, vision, resources. You need leadership that understands it and actively drives change. Thanks for the awesome insight!

  • I agree that the rate of change is a challenge but I do think it is possible to teach it about this subject. I have been teaching at a university for over four years now and I do think there are fundamentals that hold true no matter what platform they throw at you. I think the real insights are coming from consumer behavior, consumer reactions to changes, more than changes to the platforms themselves.For example, we’ve now had Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc for several years now. It’s relatively stable. But how they are being used — the rules of engagement — that’s what’s interesting!

  • Great Read! My school is opening up a Social Media Module in our Communications department this Fall and I have already switched over to it. They hope to be successful with it so that one day it will become an emphasis and not just a module. Baby steps. The instructor that will be heading the new program is awesome and has a lot of experience in Social Media/Digital Marketing. I look forward to my classes this Fall to learn and also give my experiences since I am already working in the field/industry.

  • Ha! Great observation Jessica. Glad you had a great educational experience.

  • Julie Musial

    You are right Mark. The fundamentals of what’s working online are settling down regardless of platform. The challenge for colleges is to get a curriculum that will teach this. In our technical world we now live in, people struggle with forming relationships. Online is no different than offline when it comes to forming relationships that work for you on a mutual basis. Introverts and people with low self esteem are higher users of social media because they can avoid a face to face relationship. Until colleges get on board with digital, social and analytics; people are forced to learn from private companies.

  • exactly. could not have said it better Julie!

  • Kind of ironic in a way that marketing might be the most dynamic field in business right now yet it is tethered to so much structure at the college level.

  • That’s great Barry. Sounds like you have a cool opportunity there!

  • I’ve always said that EVERY student should be required to take marketing classes. But I suppose if the marketing classes that are offered, suck, then that’s really not the best plan. The Rutgers’ way sounds fabulous — thanks for sharing!

  • Great post Mark and I agree! I use interns with my business and the classes they are taking at the local university (with over 20k students) doesn’t even mention social media. College graduates are at a disadvantage – they are not learning this stuff in class, they are having to learn in by the seat of their pants through internships and first jobs.

    Kudos for the program you work with! I teach a Social Media Class for business owners through the continuing education department of our local university, but feel they strongly need a social media class itself.

  • Edwin Vlems

    It’s the same in our country (Netherlands) too!

  • andreacook

    I agree that today’s education system is challenged and apprentice learning is a solution to marketing as well as many other professions.

    PS: about the photo… very well played!

  • Agree. Everything is marketing. Whether you are in healthcare, non-profit, education or politics, it’s still marketing! Thanks for commenting Tea!

  • You hit on another issue — internships. Drives me crazy when students think a college degree is going to be enough to get them a job. The job market is so competitive. They need work experience too! Thanks Mandy!

  • Thanks Edwin.

  • Glad you liked the pic : )

  • Holly McIlwain

    Since you went there… we hire a handful of college students every summer, academic scholarship students only and only students who have work experience in high school and college. Through ten years in business, we learned that if they haven’t worked, and it can be fast food, retail, just w-o-r-k, they won’t be able to take on the much greater responsibility our jobs require. Parents, please, get them working early and working often.
    Regarding the article,,, I shake my head about this all the time. Other than specific degrees, I’m not sure we cannot completely educate ourselves using Google/Yahoo. My degree is in Biology and Chemistry. I also have a poor man’s MBA reading the WSJ every day for 5 years. (I still don’t know what a hedge fund is, but I learned a lot.) Now, reading smart blogs, like yours, is my CE. Thank you for contributing to my education. Thanks Y’all.

  • Tiffany Brown

    Mark – So happy to come across this blog post, haven’t seen a lot of other people talking about this issue in the blogosphere. I actually gradudated from a top-ranked part time MBA program with an emphasis in marketing and unfortunately, many of my marketing courses were a complete waste of time for the reasons you stated above. The best classes I took were actually from a forward-thinking management professor who jumped through some hoops to teach an elective course on personal branding to business students … in fact, through that course is how I originally came across your blog and your books. Needless to say, the issues you outlined are indeed complex. I agree with Andrea’s statement below that “today’s education system is challenged and apprentice learning is a solution to marketing as well as many other professions.” I find that being a part of organizations like the American Marketing Association can also be extremely helpful with helping to bridge traditional education and real world business issues.

  • Excelent post, Mark: thanks for sharing!

    If a country such advanced as the USA is having those “educational problems”, you can imagine the situation in a country as Spain, where education laws are obsolete and no one cares about introducing online marketing and social media in the educational system.

  • Wow, powerful statement Tiffany. Great to see you back in the comment section!

  • Love the program y’all have Mark… when I was getting my degree at UT-Austin, they had electives where I was given the opp to create my own class. It counted towards my college credits and I had to get a Faculty Advisor to sign-off on the “class” and serve as the final grade giver.

    But other than that… I was free to create whatever curriculum I deemed important and valuable to my advertising studies.

    It ended up being one of the most important classes I took because the output of the class (starting and marketing a non-profit cycling team) demonstrated to prospective ad agencies that I understood how to actually do the job of creating a marketing strategy, producing marketing materials and of course, it showed I was a self-starter that could manage myself and my time.

    Every college should have these types of programs in my opinion because it’s the only way they’ll be able to produce students who are even partially ready for the real world they’re about to enter.

  • Bryce Bunton

    Awesome post Mark! I’ve been excited since it showed up in my inbox this morning! I teach Marketing at the High School level. Three years ago a few of us set out to figure out how to change our classrooms from the traditional model to something that would better position our students for the future and provide “real” learning not memorization. We are now teaching students to be problem solvers and ultimately entrepreneurs. I have turned my advanced marketing classroom into a consulting business where we work with local small business and nonprofits to provide marketing help where they don’t know how or have the time or resources to do so. Every client has different needs, so the “content” students learn changes with each client, but the process to solving their problems remains consistent. By the end of the year the students have worked with at least 6 different businesses and have completed an internship experience. We are in our third year of this and it is without a doubt better preparing our students for the future!

    Making this change has made it very clear how broken and old our educational system is at multiple levels, thanks for writing about it…Keep up the good work, blogs like yours and a few others keep us motivated and working for a better future!

  • Completely agree.

    After being in the work force for 4 years i decided to go back to university to get my undergrad marketing degree. Throughout most of my degree I worked in a digital advertising agency in social media and digital production roles so was aware of what was actually going on in the industry.

    I was really surprised by the lack of digital marketing covered in my entire degree. It just felt like content was outdated, with some case studies we were using for companies that had gone out of business by the time we were being taught it. Universities seems to really struggle to keep up and this is compounded by the fact that those who specialise in these areas are not the ones teaching the units – it’s those that are traditional marketers or now teach full time so have no finger on the pulse anymore.

    I found it quite frustrating and makes it more difficult for people who want to specialise in digital to get ‘job ready’. Luckily my work experience meant I didn’t have to fight for the grad jobs but I felt sorry for those who now are.

  • Thanks for the fun, insightful and supportive comment Holly!

  • Are online models emerging Jorge? That’s what’s happening here.

  • Wow, fantastic story Tom. Love that idea. Thanks for the great comment.

  • You sir, are my hero. Thank you for doing this great work.

  • I see this everywhere Louise. I was a guest lecturer at a very important university last year. The head of the social media class was not on Twitter. Didn’t blog. His LinkedIn account had five connections and he didn’t bother to post a photo on his account. I just can’t take a teacher like that seriously. You have to IMMERSE yourself in it to know how to teach it.

  • Chris Stephens

    I think the system is heavily reliant on telling students to put away their phone, tablet, or laptop and listen to lectures, read text books, learn terminology, fundamentals, and principles. The students who excel spend more time doing homework and less time networking, socializing (online and off), blogging, etc.

  • Probably mean more time, right? But I get your point. Thanks Chris!

  • Excelling in a degree and being job ready seem like two very different things.
    You either spend your time memorising theory or get out there and network and do internships and apply what you’ve learnt instead.

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  • Yes, there are some private companies focusing on elearning courses about social media and online marketing, but the public educational system (high schools and colleges) is far away from taking these issues into account.
    Besides, I think that online models are better when students attend to some offline classes with a “real teacher”.
    Regards from Spain!

  • LizReusswig

    What an eye-opening and informative post! So many interesting comments, too! And I love the Belushi pic! 🙂

  • Holly McIlwain

    True. Every freelancer or small business owner is a salesman. There, I said it. Nothing happens in the world until a salesman makes a sale. At WordCamp recently I saw a web developer who recently left her job and started freelancing reading, “See You at The Top,” Gotta love Zig! I was proud of her for taking time to sharpen her ax. She had not read the pump story yet. She’s in for a treat and hopefully an epiphany.

  • Tiffany Brown

    Doesn’t mean I’m not reading your posts! By the way, I think the format you suggested for modern day marketing education makes sense. The whole topic reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk entitled “How schools kill creativity,” which talks about the need to move past outmoded structures of education that were designed for and by the industrial era.

  • Mark, I agree with your thoughts about today’s education. Digital marketing is rapidly changing the content that we teach. In my e-Marketing and Social Media Marketing courses I no longer use a textbook. Instead, I provide weekly e-readings, mostly from blogs such as yours.

    Of course, marketing students still need a solid foundation and understanding of buyer behavior, marketing research, strategy and planning, and more. The doctoral tenure track professors are generally good at delivering this basis of theory and understanding.

    Nonetheless, I think all marketing professors, even those doing academic research, should still find time to blog and share their thoughts and insights thru social media. To do so means they are required to keep up with current trends, tools, and methodologies and in turn this will inspire better and more current course content and research.

  • Raymond Morin

    Thanks Mark for generously sharing your insights and vision of marketing education. It’s a perfect timing topic blog to (re)launch the debate in the educational system. And, if you don’t mind, I would like to share the Rutgers University example to some Canadian universities board.

  • Ana Isabel Canhoto

    Your post raises a very important question regarding the role of higher education – are Universities supposed to teach students to do something (e.g., manage an online community) or, instead, are they supposed to teach students how to think about something (e.g., why people participate in communities and what they want to get out of it)?

    If I ask employers they will say the former because they want someone to ‘hit the ground running’. But if I ask alumni, parents and some students, they will say the latter, because that means that their learning lasts longer, and allows them to manage rather than simply do.

    So, as a programme director, which stakeholder to I please? Do I go for short term returns or long term ones? I don’t have an easy answer for that (but I certainly like the non-traditional format that you describe).

  • agree. the networking is important too.

  • Thanks Liz!

  • It is awesome you commented on this professor and I agree with you completely. You are going to love the next Marketing Companion podcast. Tom Webster and I talk about some of these very issues.

  • Of course. And let me know how i can help, my friend.

  • I’m so pleased and honored you commented today professor. Thank you!

    You bring up vital questions. And not easy ones. It used to be that a college education prepared you for the the first three years of work, now I’m not so sure (but it depends on the field I think). I think I would emphasize the idea of teaching students how to think (as well as sell, present, network and collaborate) for long-term benefits. Difficult issues.

  • Excellent topic, Mark, and something I’ve been dying to address myself. Having graduated a full (short?) 2 years ago with a degree in marketing, it’s amazing how much more there was left to learn to become an effective inbound marketing consultant.

    That said, there’s no doubt whatsoever that those years in academia were well spent as it enabled me to master a process for learning, pursue my passion for marketing, and learn a variety of foundational skills (e.g. networking, presenting at conferences, academic research, self-discipline, etc.). Not all students see it in that light, but that was time well spent.

    Can colleges enhance their curriculum to account for the digital age? Absolutely. Will it benefit their student? Absolutely. Will it help them better promote their own university more cost effectively? Yes – if they start taking the inbound approach 😉

    One thing holds true in both the academic realm and the real world- publish or perish. Marketing students who understand that coming out of college will be able to make great strides for their new employer.

  • nancy a. locke

    Thank you, Mark, for shining a spotlight on this issue. The digital shift is having a profound impact on education across the board. The situation is nothing short of a crisis. As a lecturer at Université de Montréal (translation) and McGill University (writing), I sometimes feel like I’m on the deck of the Titanic. To turn the boat will require that much more attention be paid to rehauling curriculum and approaches, and far more energy invested.

  • dtstanley

    Sorry to be jumping into this late, but I agree 1000%, yes 1000%. I’m very lucky the department I teach in has been so flexible and willing to let me change and adapt my courses. This is by far the exception, not the norm.

    One of the major challenges academia faces is adapting to a rapidly changing world. As you out, getting courses introduced or changed takes painfully long. Too long in most cases, to be relevant.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, though I love what Rutgers is doing. This makes a lot of sense. Appreciate the thought-provoking insights.

  • Love this post! I have an MBA with a concentration in marketing. Yes, I would absolutely agree that academia moves too slowly to accommodate the fast moving world of social media. And you’re right, the answer to fixing that problem is complex. I still found incredible value in my degree coursework however. Especially from a professor who had many years of international marketing experience that taught us key lessons on how to think like your actual target customer; and not how to think like your imaginary pie-in-the-sky customer. Social media is so important when it comes to getting to know your customer. Although social media wasn’t touch upon at all in my MBA program, the foundation and theory behind it were there.

    Also one of my HUGE pet peeves regarding college marketing programs is their widespread inability to practice what they preach through social media. You don’t see nearly enough marketing professors and students blogging, using social media to promote their own personal brand, or communicating the value of their programs. More than half of the school/program blogs that I do see, are a big let down. Impersonal, non-engaging content and social media efforts that just fall flat. I even saw a student blog where the student was a sophomore, but already had a visable draft blog post dated in June of 2015 entitled “Getting Ready To Graduate!”. If you approach blogging like it is an assignment/chore, then that is exactly what it comes across as. To have this present on a college website gives a terrible impression that the school is hopelessly out of touch regarding what social media is all about. Not very enticing or encouraging for me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a degree!

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  • Meghan Sullivan

    What a great article. I completely agree. I finished school over a decade ago and this was the case even then. What seems to be the issue, whether the emphasis is on social media, writing, graphic design, coding, etc. is that marketing curriculums don’t typically do a great job of helping students develop a skill that will actually land them an entry-level job and start them on a career path. It’s all theory and big-picture stuff, and students graduate with the idea that they want to “do marketing”. Well, you don’t “do marketing”. Marketing is an incredibly broad field, and right after graduation I watched my art-history-major friends land marketing jobs quickly because they had some graphic design skills. You could argue that it’s up to the student to figure that out on their own and pursue developing a skill through a minor or a certificate program, but the vast majority of students are going to need some coaching. American universities as a whole need to take a step back and reassess their purpose, but that’s a whole other discussion…

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