Why I Wouldn’t Get a Marketing Degree Today

Agencies should teach more and hire grads with broader educations

A degree in advertising might not be the best course of action for aspiring marketers.
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When I was 18, digital marketing was just emerging as a field. Like a lot of my Silicon Valley peers, I was drawn to it, and so I went to a four-year college and majored in marketing. Luckily, my school had one of the first ecommerce courses, and an alumni guest lecturer offered us internships at her digital agency. Taking one is what put me on the right track. While internships are becoming elective offerings in more college curricula, I think it’s time for a new normal that gives both young people and our young industry the best fuel.

Why do I say this? Digital technology, and the work it enables, changes every three to six months. It’s getting harder to find the right people, and the normalized paths into marketing are behind the game. Eight years ago, I graduated to find that digital matched my internship experience but differed fundamentally from what I’d studied in class. Because I was learning yesterday’s paradigm from theorists and former practitioners. I got my real training on the job. After learning about the 4Ps of advertising and the importance of matching keywords with copy and landing pages in search, I found out that what matters in practice is understanding the audience.

Chris Chang

My colleague who is going for an advanced degree in digital marketing confronts a similar disconnect. By day, she helps some of the most progressive and pressured marketers win at search marketing. By night, she’s being told that she’s not seeing the digital media space the way her professors do, and that’s causing a problem. The real problem? Her professors have never run digital paid advertising campaigns and are not currently working in the space.

Agencies can solve this problem in three ways.

First, we can teach. Particularly schools in the big cities realize they can tap real-time experience by appointing practitioners as adjunct professors (e.g., seven of my colleagues teach at NYU). Agency specialists represent the perfect candidates. Teaching isn’t just giving back; it’s filling the talent pipeline for the agency by giving the kids who get digital the education they need to become star performers.

Second, we can apply more importance and structure to our internship programs. By dedicating a person to the program, we can provide a complete curriculum for interns that’s both grounding and fluid. That way, the training they get keeps pace with the changes we’re all confronting. By making internships continuous and year-round, we can integrate interns into the real work of the agency, and see who fits the culture and performance standards.

Third, we can change the profile of new hires. Instead of hiring marketing and digital media students who must overcome their educations to be useful, we can hire people with sociology and creative writing degrees. They’ll come with understanding of what motivates people and an ability to communicate. We can teach them the changing realities of digital marketing as they go.

I owe my career and marriage to the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. But if I were 18 again today, I’d study one of these humanist disciplines and keep an internship going throughout college. Or I’d attend a two-year program at a technical school on a digital marketing specialty, where I’d be taught by current practitioners and encouraged to work an internship continually. In the process, I’d be taking a giant step toward enriching our industry’s talent pipeline.

Chris Chang is director of client services at Elite SEM, a digital performance agency.