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Big Marketers on Campus
Big Marketers on Campus

More higher education marketing professionals are gaining a seat at the president’s table, including many who have recently traded companies for campuses

By Caroline E. Mayer


"This is the hardest job I've ever had."

For 20 years, David Perry managed brand marketing and strategy for various consumer products, including pancake mix, dog food, computer software, and health care. Now, Perry is the chief marketing officer at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

"You can change the shape of cereals and redesign software programs, but higher education is a much different product," says Perry, whose career includes stints with Fortune 500 companies such as Quaker Oats and Microsoft Corp. "You have to be a really thoughtful steward of the institution's reputation, meeting the short-term needs of students while keeping your eye on the long term."

The challenge: marketing and positioning the institution in an increasingly competitive marketplace. How, Perry asks, do you differentiate the product—the institution—from other colleges and universities? How do you justify its cost? And how do you speak to a range of audiences, from prospective students to parents who will invest a large percentage of their income in the product?

"It's harder than just noting caloric content or producing Excel spreadsheets to prove a return on investment," says Perry, who joined Bentley in 2011. "I came because I wanted to be part of a dynamic industry—one that's going through a change. I wanted a place that [is] mission-driven, where I can contribute and add value."

"Higher education has become more and more competitive, especially in an era where for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix run extensive paid advertising," says Tom Hoof, who left the Tampa Bay Rays Major League Baseball team after eight years to take on the newly created CMO post at the University of South Florida last year. (Prior to baseball, Hoof was a marketing director for Walt Disney World and a brand manager for Disney Sports.) "Your school may have the best research and the best academic programs, but today you have to raise your hand to get people's attention. You have to actively tell your story."

Perry and Hoof are part of a growing cadre of high-level marketing professionals moving from the private sector to higher education. Many of these recent arrivals are assuming new cabinet-level positions, reflecting not only the growing acceptance of marketing in higher education but a rising emphasis on sophisticated market research as institutions strive to differentiate themselves in a tough environment—and at a time when the cost and the value of a college degree face unprecedented scrutiny.

Rising profile

The Ward Group placed its first private-sector marketing professional at a university in 1998, says Julie Ried, an executive recruiter at the Massachusetts-based executive search firm, which specializes in the higher education, technology, financial services, and health care industries.

"The pace has been steady since then, but it's been robust in the last five to seven years. It's accelerating," Ried says, noting that higher education recruitment searches now constitute a large part of her firm's portfolio. "University presidents say they need someone who understands market research, data and analytics, audience segmentation, and digital marketing campaigns. In some institutions, those skill sets just don't exist."

The economic downturn, which took its toll on enrollment, government funding, and fundraising, prompted many of Ried's searches in recent years, but the intensity of the higher education marketplace has contributed as well.

"University officials realize they need to develop a more proactive approach to how they position their institutions," Ried says. "It's far more complex than 20 years ago when marketing was simply a matter of putting together a nice viewbook."

"The change has been dramatic," says Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of the Virginia-based higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough. Most notable, she says, are the number of CMO or vice presidential appointments that are cabinet-level posts reporting directly to the campus CEO. This is "a new position that didn't exist 10 years ago."

"[Institutions] realize they're in danger of starving themselves, shrinking, or going out of business," says Rob Moore, president and CEO of Lipman Hearne, a Chicago-based higher education marketing firm. "So they are turning to a true marketing approach, looking at the return on investment—on what they need to invest to not just differentiate themselves from the school down the street but to make sure they get the kind of revenue they want."

One sign of the profession's increased significance is the growth of the American Marketing Association's annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Six years ago, about 400 professionals attended; last year the number grew to more than 1,100. (At press time, attendance at CASE's Annual Conference on Marketing and Branding is expected to be double its 2013 total.)

"It was awesome to see so many people in marketing leadership positions with strategic responsibilities," says Terry Flannery, vice president for communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and a former chair of the AMA's conference.

Institutions are turning to private-sector experts for a simple reason, says Flannery: "There are not enough of us inside higher ed who have the requisite tools. We're working really hard to develop more marketing professionals, but until that time, we're going to have to borrow from other sectors."

What new blood brings

Outsiders often take more risks, notes Bob Brock, president of the Colorado-based branding agency Educational Marketing Group Inc. "They come with a different mindset," he says. "They are more willing to embrace innovation and let go of what is ‘safe' and has worked in the past," than someone who rose through university ranks.

For Butler University President James M. Danko, the decision last summer to tap an outsider—Matt Mindrum, a former marketing director at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company—as the Indiana institution's first vice president for marketing and communications was clear-cut.

"I wanted someone strategic and visionary," says Danko, a former entrepreneur who served as the dean of Villanova University's School of Business in Pennsylvania before taking Butler's helm. "We interviewed a number of finalists, several who worked at other universities. But Matt's profile, including his corporate experience, offered greater value and instincts around strategy and awareness."

Placing Mindrum's position in the president's cabinet emphasizes marketing's significance, Danko adds. "I don't want to relegate it to a small corner of administration and hope everything is going to be fine."

For Mindrum, the underlying business of marketing remains the same: understanding the customers' needs, identifying a unique position in the marketplace, and inspiring action through efficient and effective communication. But the environment, he acknowledges, is different.

"In consumer goods companies, the marketer is the star, the one who directs what changes need to be made in the products and packaging to keep attracting customers," he says. "In academia, the stars are the researchers and educators. Innovation will require close partnership with academic leaders who create and deliver the institution's learning experience."

Mary Baglivo, vice president for global marketing and CMO at Northwestern University in Illinois, believes that the skills she gained during more than 30 years in the private sector are relevant to academia. Last fall, she became one of the highest-profile marketing professionals to transition to higher education when she left her post as chairman and CEO for the Americas at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide to assume the newly created position at her alma mater.

"Agencies are filled with an eclectic and interesting group of people," Baglivo says. "They're not a traditional command-and-control business environment, and neither are universities."

Just months into the job, Baglivo declines to detail her long-term goals, other than to say she wants to engender "loyalty beyond reason" among the university's constituents. Her first step is to optimize the university's story by developing a consistent message that also allows each school, department, and faculty to shine.

To be a successful higher education CMO, one needs to be an orchestra conductor, says Teri Lucie Thompson, senior vice president for university relations and CMO at the University of Arizona—and a veteran of the insurance industry. As a university CMO since 2008, Thompson was part of the growing wave of private-sector marketers moving to higher education when she became vice president for marketing and media and CMO at Purdue University in Indiana.

As the first CMO at both universities, Thompson has invested in market research and segmentation to determine how audiences perceive the institution, which enables stronger differentiation and storytelling.

Just as Coke and Pepsi have distinguished themselves despite selling the same basic beverage, institutions also need to better highlight their differences, Thompson says. She anticipates that many of the look-alike promotional materials that institutions now produce—often featuring similar photos of tree-lined campuses and historical buildings, researchers in white lab coats, and spirited fans of standout football or basketball teams—will instead be replaced by stories and images illustrating the characteristics that make a particular college or university unique.

"Stories and images with dimension, depth, and nuance—not the easy clichés of teaching and research," Thompson says.

The lure of campus

What has attracted corporate marketers to higher education's ranks? Most cite the rewarding nature of academia as the primary motive.

"I'm not someone who can sell widgets," says Michelle Davis, who left Boston Children's Hospital in 2012 to join Massachusetts' Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering as its first CMO. "I need a mission, and here was the fabulous mission of helping shape the futures of young people through education."

For USF's Hoof, the job also promised new and different experiences. After several years in major league baseball, "every day seemed like the movie Groundhog Day," he says. "There was always an opening day, always bobblehead dolls for the team. It was one product: baseball. At USF, the product is much more diverse, offering a wealth of challenges and opportunities to make a difference. I don't think it's ever going to get boring."

In 2012, Ria Carlson took a pay cut to go from senior vice president for global communications and branding at Ingram Micro Inc., the world's largest technology distributor, to associate vice chancellor for strategic communications at the University of California, Irvine. "I wanted to build something again. We had built a strong marketing and branding strategy at Ingram, but UC Irvine offered a unique challenge to build a new program in an institution that already had a good reputation."

Baglivo says she returned to Northwestern largely for the chance "to reapply my skills and experience where world-changing discoveries are taking place." She also has personal ties to the university: She earned a master's degree there in 1981, has served as a university trustee, and is the parent of a recent alumnus. Helping her decision was an admittedly idealized view of college, although so far, she says, the university is meeting her dreams and expectations.

"One day I get to talk to a brilliant chemist solving some of the great environmental challenges of the day, and the next I'm chatting with an artist participating in the new American theater initiative," Baglivo says. "It's incredible in terms of content, people, and innovations."

But for many private-sector marketers, academia can be a difficult adjustment. "There is a huge learning curve and some landmines," Scarborough says. "In the corporate world, things move quicker [and] change faster, and CMOs have more authority and bigger budgets. They move to higher ed and find an internal constituency that may be somewhat reticent to embrace and appreciate the fundamental principles of marketing and branding. It can get frustrating."

Consequently, she says, sometimes an outside CMO works out, and "sometimes one doesn't. What's a great solution for one campus may not be for another."

And while marketing is no longer a dirty word at institutions, marketers can still face formidable resistance, according to UA's Thompson.

"Resisters argue that the school should sell itself and that money dedicated to marketing should be used to build facilities, increase faculty, and develop research and programs, which in turn will bring students and research funding to the institution," says Thompson. "I agree, but I also argue that we need both because many of our efforts will be invisible unless we tell people what the school is doing. There's too much clutter in today's marketplace for the average student looking for a college. And funding agencies won't reward us with grants if we are not effectively communicating our story."

But winning over resisters may be easier than adjusting to a slower pace of decision-making that typically requires many voices to be heard before a resolution is reached.

Unlike the top-down decision-making at many corporations, the university is "consensus-driven, with many stakeholders who are invested in the school and care about it deeply," says Olin's Davis. "You need to engage all those audiences in your strategic thinking, and as a nonprofit, you have much more accountability to the public. That all requires a different set of skills than traditional marketing."

Davis thinks her transition to higher education was relatively easy because she came from a hospital, an environment that's similar to a university. Like faculty members, medical doctors are extremely well-educated, opinionated, engaged, and care a lot about their institutions, she says. In addition, both hospitals and universities are marketing an experience. "I think I understood pretty well what I was getting into," she says. "In both cases, I'm not marketing a product but a group of people who have spent their careers developing an expertise."

For an outsider to succeed in academia, "the key lies not with the CMO but rather the CEO, whether it is the university president, chancellor, or even dean," says EMG's Brock. "The CEO has to understand, embrace, and support marketing. If the CEO doesn't, there is a low chance of success, no matter if the CMO comes from within higher ed or from the outside corporate world."

The prospects are exciting, though, for former corporate marketers such as Bentley's Perry. "Marketing is about intellectual property and content," he says. "There's no better place to leverage content than at a university where there are rich, compelling stories. Where else do you see students enter, progress, and succeed? It's much more rewarding than marketing cereal."

About the Author Caroline E. Mayer

Caroline E. Mayer, a former business reporter for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer in Arlington, Virginia.




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