Digital Marketers And The B-School Question

Is going to business school the right move for someone seeking a career in digital marketing? It's not an easy question. After all, some prominent venture capitalists such as Fred Wilson have questioned whether you even need an undergraduate degree to build a successful marketing venture.

And if you do go for that degree, you'll be in the minority. According to Adobe's latest marketing survey -- Digital Distress Study: What Keeps Marketers Up at Night? -- 82% of digital marketers lack a formal training in the field. Rather than going to B-School, they dive in and learn on the job.

Still, the fact that most people in digital marketing don't have the degree doesn’t mean the degree is not useful. Let's take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of going to B-School.

Why you should not go to business school



According to the same Adobe report, 66% of marketers believe marketing has changed more in the past two years than in the past 50. In other words, by the time you finish business school, the digital marketing landscape will likely have changed again, and there's no guarantee you'll be able to catch up.

And that's not the only challenge you might face. With a few exceptions, business school programs gravitate toward proven frameworks and case studies. And let's face it: The concept of the product life cycle isn't going to cut it in a fast-changing digital environment. The Holy Grail of creating a sustainable competitive advantage is hardly relevant when the most successful marketing initiatives are re-invented every six months or so. Fast Company recently highlighted that even the sacrosanct 4Ps are feeling the threat.

And then there’s the alumni problem -- that is, the "lack of alumni" problem. One of the primary reasons people are excited about business school is the opportunity to network with influential alums. But since most marketing technology companies are run by folks who didn't actually go to business schools, there are few opportunities to network your way to a job. Indeed, only 7 out of the top 25 digital marketers recognized by BtoB magazine went to business school.

Moreover, the skills required to be a great brand marketer have evolved radically, as Beth Comstock, GE's CMO, recently pointed out. Beth is looking for "the fish out of water," whereas business schools, almost by design, push a certain degree of conformity.

Why you should go to business school

So, sure -- there are reasons to question whether you need a business degree if you want to go into digital marketing. But the truth is that business schools still provide some fundamental training that is helpful to digital marketers when they reach a certain stage of their careers.

For one thing, CMOs at major companies still need to be able to put their traditional marketing skills to work if they want to thrive in the digital age. There’s no such thing as a digital CMO, as I discussed in a previous column, CMOs today have to build the brand, create consumer awareness, and drive conversions, just as they always have. This is where business schools excel. There’s a reason why classic brand marketers, such as Al Ries, are still making the news.

More importantly, the most successful CMOs are the ones who have a good understanding of the business, including financial and operational challenges. That’s where those organizational behavior or corporate finance courses taught during business school can help. It’s certainly possible to learn those skills on the go, or to attend executive programs, but it also certainly helps to master the skills early on in your career.

Interestingly, there’s another area where a well-rounded education can help. As noted above, digital marketing is always changing -- and quite frankly, there are times when the hype can obscure some business realities. Smart CMOs recognize the importance of attribution modeling, for instance, and it takes a good business acumen to overcome some of the fundamental weaknesses that our industry has created.

The takeaway? It comes down to you and your goals. You certainly can make it in digital marketing without a B-School degree, but the degree might just help you make it to the top.

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