Is College Outdated? Should It Teach Real-World Marketing Skills?

On one hand, many universities could be doing a better job giving students opportunities to practice real-world marketing skills. On the other, universities are not meant to be training departments for digital media agencies, and it’s unrealistic to expect faculty members who don’t work in the field to keep up with the rapidly changing dynamic of media planning and buying.

Shay Rowbottom of Margle Media posted a video rant on LinkedIn a few weeks ago about a recent college grad she interviewed who had no digital media buying experience. She blames colleges and universities for not keeping up with the times. Knowing that I do a lot of teaching at the college level, Paul Bobnak tagged me asking what I thought. I think it’s complicated.

On one hand, many universities could be doing a better job giving students opportunities to practice real-world marketing skills. On the other, universities are not meant to be training departments for digital media agencies, and it’s unrealistic to expect faculty members who don’t work in the field to keep up with the rapidly changing dynamic of media planning and buying.

Despite being an advertising and marketing major at a large university, the only media buying experience Shay’s job candidate had was in traditional media, specifically billboards and newspaper. She condemns higher education for not keeping pace with the current state of media buying (and shows her ageism fangs in the process):

“You know what, kid, if you land a job at an old company that’s ran (sic) by 60 year olds who still don’t want to transition any of their media dollars to social media then good, good, good. I’m glad you learned the billboards.”

Shay says that something is wrong if a newly hired college grad has to be trained by her agency’s digital media buyer, a college dropout who’s a highly skilled practitioner, self-taught on the Internet. To that I say, “Who better to learn from than someone who does it every day and is really good at it?”

Shay makes a valid point that too many institutions are behind the curve when it comes to integrating real-world skills into their curriculum. But her expectations are valid only if you believe that colleges and universities exist to provide job training. I’ve worked at Rowan, Rutgers and Temple universities. They each hire industry professionals for full- and part-time teaching positions in advertising and PR. But the full-time faculty members at these institutions don’t do media planning every day, so they can’t possibly keep up with the innovations in a rapidly changing field.

Learning the mechanics of media buying is a vocational skill. Universities are not designed to be vocational schools. The ones where I’ve taught deliver a solid grounding in the principles of marketing and advertising; that’s what they do best. They provide value, because most of the underlying principles of marketing and advertising remain stable — even as the dynamics of the media world shift. Media planning and placement are best taught by practitioners who stay current by doing it.

Fortunately, there are several programs where college students can gain real-world experience in a competitive environment; specifically the Collegiate ECHO Marketing Challenge run by Marketing EDGE, the National Student Advertising Competition from the American Advertising Federation and the Google Online Marketing Challenge. These competitions are underutilized by academic institutions and employers, alike. More colleges and universities should offer and support these programs, more students should participate and more employers should seek out graduates who have had these experiences.