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Professional certifications, not universities, are the future of marketing

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Photo by Emily Ranquist from Pexels

There are three basic types of general marketing education: receiving university degrees, being self-taught, or completing professional certifications. In his new Promotion Fix column, Samuel Scott looks at the new developments to see what students and professionals should do to learn more in the field.

Student loan debt in the US now totals $1.73tn, with the average borrower owing nearly $40,000. For the UK, the respective figures are £160bn total and £45,000 in average debt for students who finished their studies in 2020.

When higher education becomes so expensive, it is not surprising that many now question the value of university marketing degrees. But there are alternatives for students and professionals who want to start or continue their studies in the field.

This month, Kaplan, a worldwide online education provider, and the global Digital Marketing Institute (DMI), jointly announced a new certification program. Those who finish earn two certificates: DMI’s Certified Digital Marketing Professional and the American Marketing Association’s (AMA) Professional Certified Marketer in Digital Marketing.

For better and worse, such certifications will likely become much of the future of marketing education.

“Professional certifications are primarily focused on practical application, execution, and job readiness,” Michael Goeden, DMI’s head of group strategy and development, told me.

“The advantage is that they are generally shorter in timeframe than a degree and allow the learner to focus on specific areas [and] skill sets they want to develop and that employers see immediate value in. They are also a useful way for a marketer to upskill and keep current with the evolving skills needed for their job.”

The rise of self-taught digital marketers

In February 2021, Rand Fishkin, the cofounder and former chief executive of Moz who has since cofounded SparkToro, tweeted that “more than half of digital marketers are self-taught. Less than a quarter have formal degrees.”

“If your job post demands a ‘degree in marketing,’ I'd rethink that,” he wrote. “How many amazing candidates are excluded with that (frankly irrelevant) requirement?”

Not surprisingly, his comments caused a ruckus. But to understand the broader context, we need to look at the larger picture. It all started with the birth of search engine optimization in the 1990s.

SEOs discovered that they could get websites to rank highly in search engines by doing specific practices. They taught themselves web development and HTML long before university marketing departments ever knew that SEO was a thing.

As the online world grew into additional areas, newly-deemed digital marketers learned practices mainly from intra-industry discussions rather than formal education because the latter did not exist. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and HubSpot also offered free certifications that taught people how to use their new platforms.

When I was the first director of marketing at a now-global high-tech SaaS company years ago, one of the two cofounders – whose backgrounds were in software development – once told me that they would rather hire self-taught coders than those who had graduated from formal programs.

The reason? To them, the fact that the applicants took up and learned coding from young ages on their own showed their love and knowledge of the work. Today, many digital marketers seemingly want to imitate software engineers because of their highly valued positions at tech companies.

That is partly why many online marketers have derided education and training and co-opted coding terminology even though marketing and software development are two very different disciplines. They talk about 10x marketers. Full-stack marketers. Agile marketing. T-shaped marketers. Growth hacks, MarDevOps. RevOps. And so on.

Now, this is not a criticism. I know many in digital marketing who have built successful careers. They deserve respect. But my issue is when some self-taught digital marketers claim to have insight into marketing as a whole when their knowledge and practices often comprise only, say, 10% of the entire marketing discipline at most.

Online marketers know only how to use tools

Mark Ritson – to give credit where credit is due – was one of the first to criticise the lack of foundational knowledge in the modern marketing world. Here is my graphical version of one of his ideas that I based on Richard Rumelt’s 2011 book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy.

First, “digital marketing” in practice is actually just “online-only communications.” Self-taught digital marketers know how to use online channels but rarely know anything about TV, radio, print, or outdoor advertising or media planning in general even though half of the average American’s media consumption is traditional media. And besides, the word “digital” itself is meaningless today.

Second, self-taught digital marketers discuss only promotion and communications and never supply chain logistics or pricing models or brand management. Third, they rarely know about the strategic process of research, segmentation, targeting, and positioning that comes before all of that.

Fourth, self-taught digital marketers always focus on SEO and short-term direct response (while calling the latter some new buzzword or another) and never on changing the mass perceptions of a target market through long-term brand advertising.

Self-taught digital marketers are good at using tools. They can use them to audit websites for technical SEO, run Google Ads and Facebook campaigns, and A/B test landing pages to see what delivers the most sales or leads – usually all at the bottom of the funnel. But most everything else in the bigger picture requires education, training, or both.

“Self-taught marketers do miss out on some of the critical thinking skills that are developed in group learning environments,” Maggie Jones, director of qualifications and partnerships at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), told me. “We’ve found, for example, that self-taught marketers tend to silo their thinking into the aspects of their current role that they understand.”

“On the other hand, professional marketers have a broader understanding of the marketing landscape and have benefited from seeing how theories can be applied to a range of different environments across the sector, which is ultimately beneficial for future roles.”

As a Twitter user named John Palmer wrote back in 2012, “knowing how to use digital tools is not the same as knowing marketing.”

Someone with a certification in a marketing software platform is always going to use that one process or tool. When an agency promotes itself as a "partner company" with a platform, the agency is really saying that it will propose the same solution for every problem. That is not being customer-focused. It is being tool-focused.

“Given half the certifications are for simply learning how to use a product [or] service, how about we create some new ones: Xerox photocopy paper feeder, Staples HB pencil user, Apple iPhone screen scroller. It's the same principle,” Australian marketer Malcolm Auld joked in a Twitter thread.

Good marketing certifications will be the new university

Besides the certifications that are offered by martech platforms, there are now many other programs that provide real education by showing people not just how to use tools but how to think.

The US AMA has a marketing management certificate for $350. The US ANA has a certified marketer designation for $2,000. DMI’s program is $1,400. Scott Galloway’s new business education company, Section4, has a course on brand strategy for $875. Ritson’s Mini MBA in Marketing is £1,450. The exam fees through Level 7 at CIM total £2,000. CXL has ‘minidegrees’ such as a new one in brand marketing for $800.

Much of the debate in the marketing world focuses on whether college degrees are necessary. But few talk about professional certifications such as these. They might offer more value than universities in the future.

After my Boston University bachelor’s degree and first career in journalism, my marketing education began with the Executive MBA program at Suffolk University there in the mid-2000s. (I completed three of the four modules – including all the marketing coursework – but did not finish for personal reasons.)/

One thing I love about universities is that they educate students in numerous fields. From my undergraduate time, I can debate whether John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism or Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is a better moral guide to ethical issues. In addition to the marketing coursework in the MBA program, I also learned finance and accounting – and how everything in business is connected.

US News & World Report ranked the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business as having the top marketing program in the country for 2022. The chair of the marketing department, professor Fred Feinberg, told me that college courses provide the necessary foundation for careers.

“Professional certifications are almost exclusively focused on job-related skills. Can you launch and track a social media campaign? Can you interface with ad agencies and other marketing subsidiaries?” he said.

“Certification-oriented courses are extremely effective at imparting these skills but tend not to cover the cognate disciplines – economics, psychology, statistics – that underlie them. That kind of background takes time and multiple courses that build on one another in a logical, planned sequence, which is what rigorous, comprehensive undergraduate marketing programs seek to provide.”

But there is, literally, a high price tag. A four-year marketing degree at the University of Michigan now costs up to $70,000 per year (with food and housing and not counting any grants or scholarships). My old Executive MBA program in Boston now costs $85,000 total. You don’t need an MBA to do that math.

If students and professionals increasingly eschew university degrees, I will lament that they will miss the college experience and the well-rounded education. At least in the US, many public universities have faced government budget cuts and many private ones keep increasing tuition despite having extremely large endowments. (Harvard’s is $40 billion, for example.)

In essence, their skyrocketing costs are now pricing them out of the education market.

Certifications will help the marketing skills shortage

Much has been made of the skills shortage in the marketing industry – both before the pandemic and still today. In one example from January 2020, a Hays Job Report in Australia found that employers want “marketers who can identify relevant insights and apply them for informed decisions.”

Every online analytics platform offers purported “insights.” Customer orders might have plummeted here in the last 24 hours. Website traffic from there might have jumped in the last month. But those “insights” state observations – what is occurring – but cannot say why. The latter takes human brain power.

Australian strategist Julian Cole – who also now offers a paid learning platform called Planning Dirty Academy – rightly calls an “insight” something that crystallizes a marketer’s understanding of the problem that a company has in relation to the market. It is the “why.” Those insights form the basis of briefs and the resulting marcom activity.

Coming to a marketing insight often takes specific education or training – and that is something that professional certifications can provide.

In addition, Google is also now urging holding companies such as WPP and IPG to purchase analytics firms to compensate for employees who have related certifications and are leaving their jobs in the Great Resignation of 2021.

Despite my criticism of any sole focus on such programs in general, the knowledge of such tools is still useful even though I argue that broader studies are more important in the end.

“Marketing is changing so quickly that the traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to education – one where you spend significant time and money up front and use only that education for the duration of your career – is no longer enough to stay relevant,” Molly Soat, the AMA’s vice president of professional development, told me.

“Marketers must augment that structure with agile learning, meaning small bursts of skills-based education that take place where and when the marketer needs it. The smartest companies are facilitating and incentivizing agile learning to keep their teams fresh and motivated.”

Still, investor Codie Sanchez recently wrote that ‘college is overrated and overpriced … learn marketing on YouTube.’ But people ‘learning’ things on that platform has led, in part, to many refusing coronavirus vaccines and eating horse dewormer paste instead.

However people will choose to study marketing, please do not learn from random, unknown people on YouTube. (For those who want to read the classic marketing texts, I have a recommended list on Amazon.)

Social platform algorithms favor whatever will make them the most money – not whatever is most accurate. They surface whatever is popular and engaging on a superficial level, not necessarily whatever is best and truthful. After all, Gary Vaynerchuck has 2.4 million Twitter followers. Les Binet has 12,000.

Getting a bad marketing education when there are so many good options available is the business equivalent of eating horse dewormer paste in a pandemic.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel

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