A debate is raging around whether it’s requisite for marketers to have a marketing degree. Does a marketing degree create a better marketer? Jasmine Martirossian, PhD, is the Vice President of Marketing at TÜV SÜD Americas, gives us her take.

I have an explicit bias toward education. Being a daughter of university professors and growing up in a family where education was treated with religious fervor led me to personally invest a lot of time and energy earning advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. The opening sentence of my Ph.D. program application read: ‘To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, who said that “Beauty will save the world,” education will save the world.’ My husband’s attitude towards education was one of the key factors of him becoming my husband. We both worked hard to ensure our daughter grew up with a strong awareness of the power of education. So, it goes without saying that I strongly value education.

But an educational degree in itself – advanced or not – is no guarantee that a person will do well in a given position or cultural environment. Much more than a degree is required for success. There are a host of other qualities requisite to succeed in business and life in general.

Admittedly, for the positions I need to fill on marketing teams, I always look for applicants with a university degree. But am I specifically looking for applicants with a degree in marketing? Not at all.

In fact, to specifically look for an applicant with a degree in marketing has the implication that all they need to know about marketing they would have learned at university. A marketing degree does not make one a ‘plug and play’ marketer. And in today’s environment, this expectation is a fallacy, especially when it comes to humanities. There is education and then there is education. Unfortunately, not all schools are created equal, and being educated is not just about having a degree that one can frame and hang on the wall.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was sufficient to have read the classics to be considered an educated person. In fact, that was the premise of the Five-Foot Bookshelf, which contained the 51-volume Harvard Classics anthology of world literature and classics. The concept was championed by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, which is why it became known as the Harvard Classics. Reading those 51 volumes now would be great, yet that accomplishment alone would be woefully inadequate for anyone wanting to be considered educated today.

Being educated is about seeking education continuously, and it’s a state of mind. And, yes, there are lots of ignorant people with university degrees.

  • A great education is not one that provides all the answers, but rather one that informs a person and equips them to ask the right questions.
  • A great education also equips a person to discern between available response options and determine the one that fits the situation best.
  • A great education creates awareness to respond to context and have clarity about whether the same rules apply to a given scenario.
  • A great education empowers a person to change their position on an issue when they are presented with additional facts.
  • A great education enables a person to take complexity and simplify it to present to others in terms that are clear, cogent, and relatable.
  • A great education sharpens a person’s analytical skills and enables them to see patterns, to see linkages and connections in places that do not seem obvious, and then come to conclusions, and make recommendations grounded in more than ‘because I think so’ or ‘because I said so’. With this comes the ability to articulate the ‘why’ driving one’s decisions.
  • A great education enables a person to sift through options, separate wheat from chaff, and know what to prioritize.
  • A great education equips a person with great communication skills. Specifically, the person should be able to speak convincingly, making argumentation in a clear manner, as well as write clearly, capturing people’s attention.
  • A great education in the 21st century must take an interdisciplinary approach and consider the multiplicity of perspectives.
  • And not least of all, a great education leaves a person with thirst for learning and knowledge, as well as the awareness that one may not even know what they don’t know.

None of the above qualities tied to great education are solely the province of an education in marketing proper. Today, marketing is one of the most dynamic and evolving professions in the world, requiring expertise in a multiplicity of areas far exceeding the traditional focus on copywriting, messaging, product and offer positioning.

The discipline of marketing extends to development languages, technology platforms, integrations, legislative and regulatory mandates, privacy rights, and the like. In fact, the areas of marketing for which there is the most demand today (think digital), did not exist in their current form even ten years ago. And one thing is for sure – marketing will keep evolving. Nowadays, it’s also about agile marketing, revenue marketing, customer experience, just to list a few evolutionary trends in marketing.

Now, contrast the rapid pace of marketing evolution with the extremely slow motion of academia, where curricular updates and revisions take a very long time. In fact, they take so long that I would venture to assert that a graduate with a marketing degree is almost never fully current on state-of-the-art developments in marketing. This month I met a recent graduate of Tulane University, where she majored in marketing. Tulane is a highly respected university with a well-established reputation for excellence. So, I asked this recent graduate if she has heard of agile marketing and revenue marketing. No, she had not, which is a reflection of the disparity in pace between academic curricula and marketing evolution.

Many professional disciplines, such as law, make it a point to attract people with diversity of educational experience, rather than the misguided and unnecessary pre-law background that many students pursue. Someone with a degree in chemistry, agriculture, engineering, linguistics, or computer science is viewed to have a capacity to become a better lawyer than someone who has purely concentrated on a narrow area of study. The same value holds for marketing as a profession.

In addition to having a solid educational background, to succeed in marketing, one must be curious, agile, and empathetic, have good listening skills, be open to change and experimentation, be able to deal with ambiguity, be resilient, be able to persevere, have a sense of ownership, as well as have an open mindset. To be fair, a solid presence of all or even many of these skills, coupled with the right educational background, will lead a person to success in any profession or area of life.

Many majors lend themselves to becoming a great marketer. Anyone with an educational background in English, literary studies, communication, linguistics, journalism, sociology, psychology, ethnography, anthropology, and the like has the foundational capacity to become a great marketer. Notice that all the disciplines mentioned are in the humanities, and this may create another fallacy that only people with majors in humanities can become great marketers.

But then there are legendary marketers that did not earn degrees in humanities:

  • Beth Comstock earned a bachelor’s in biology from the College of William and Mary and went on to serve as CMO of GE for seven years, later becoming Vice-Chair of GE.
  • Seth Godin, who is a marketing icon, earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering and philosophy from Tufts University.
  • Philip Schiller, Apple’s top marketer (SVP of Worldwide Marketing and the world’s highest-paid marketer) graduated from Boston College with a degree in biology.

All of these examples go to show that it’s not the focus of the degree proper, but rather the educated mind with the right attitudinal skills that matter for many professions, including marketing.

Can you find people that come packaged with everything from the outset? That’s like looking for a unicorn. But if you get someone with a solid educational background, openness to learn about marketing, and possessing a few of these essential attitudinal skills, then that person will be well-positioned to become an effective marketer. And experience does matter. As marketers practice their profession, they refine and expand their skills, and hone their craft.

Those that have the right attitudinal skillset will grow and evolve in step with marketing. And those that don’t will be left in the dust, as marketing marches into the future.

As Southwest Airlines’ legendary co-founder Herb Kelleher was known to say, “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” Follow Kelleher’s edict, be willing to train and coach people, clearly articulate the objectives, set measurable goals, then consistently measure results, keep experimenting, learning, and improving. Lead by example and inspire, and you are bound to have great marketers.

Ian Truscott caught up with Jasmine in episode 18 of the Rockstar CMO FM podcast, you can listen to it here.

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