The big debate: Do marketing experts need a qualification in marketing?

Written by: Charlotte Rogers
Published on: 1 Aug 2016

The big debate article

“Before you explain how marketing is changing you should understand what it was before you started announcing the change. You need a qualification to be qualified.” That is the view of Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, who sparked a heated debate among marketers by suggesting the lack of formal training of those held up as marketing ‘experts’ has paved the way for a new breed of marketers who are big on tactics but light on market orientation, research and strategy.

As a result, he fears these so-called experts are “openly and explicitly altering” how marketing is taught without truly understanding the fundamentals of the discipline. “Before you start creating new rules you should know what the existing ones are,” he argues.

A Twitter poll conducted by Marketing Week following publication of Ritson’s article shows 43% of the 380 voters agree with him, while the majority (57%) argue that having a formal qualification is no longer essential. The prevailing view swings the other way on Facebook, however, with the majority of comments relating to the column in favour of marketers having formal training.

Discussions with marketers at both ends of the spectrum reveal the debate is far more nuanced than a simple yes or no answer, however.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t an ‘expert’ in marketing be trained in marketing?


Prove you can take initiative

Having a degree-level marketing qualification is less important than being inquisitive about consumers, argues Annabel Venner, global brand director at insurance firm Hiscox, who says she can count on one hand the number of marketers who have a marketing degree in her 80-strong global team.

“If a candidate came to me without a marketing degree, I would not be put off. I look at what people have done to show they are interested and have taken the initiative,” she explains.

Launched four years ago, the Hiscox Marketing Excellence programme is designed to help maintain consistency across the team. The course spans five core areas that Venner argues have not changed for 20 years: customer understanding, communication development, commerciality, marketing planning and brand equity.

“I expect 70% of development to come through the role, 20% from working with other people and 10% from the learning programme,” she says. “If someone has recently switched into marketing, I encourage them to look at the [training offered by] the Chartered Institute of Marketing or digital courses.”

The need for a formal qualification depends on the individual, according to the Marketing Society’s global managing director Gemma Greaves, who recognises many of her members have cut their teeth at companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble. She cites Britvic CMO Matt Barwell as an exception, who started his career as a Mars marketing graduate after studying modern history though his training scheme would have quickly given him a grounding in marketing fundamentals.

“Give me someone with a degree in robotics, a masters in anthropology or a PhD in philosophy every time,” says Greaves. “That’s what gives marketers the edge and makes them stand out from the crowd. We have got the rest of our careers to fine-tune our craft, so I’m a big believer in getting out into the world and coming back to marketing with a fresh perspective.”

READ MORE: Unconventional routes to marketing: How marketers at Virgin Media, Instagram and Mini made the transition


Data and digital literacy needed

This opinion is shared by Addison Lee chief commercial officer, Peter Boucher, who moved into marketing after completing a geography degree and has since held roles at Kraft, Unilever and Vodafone.

“I went to Kraft and they said, ‘we can put you through a course but if you work hard, you’ll learn it all anyhow’. They were right. Between Unilever and Kraft I learned everything I needed,” he recalls.

When interviewing new recruits, Boucher looks for people with instinct and commercial flair rather than focusing too much on the need for a formal qualification. In his opinion the best candidates are highly data-driven and digitally literate, as well as possessing the “old fashioned skill of knowing what a good bit of communication looks like”.

Commerciality is key for the Addison Lee marketing team “because I’m expecting them to drive top-line and bottom-line growth,” he says. “I have got most of my team on specific key performance indicators, so their bonus is linked to how much volume and cost they generate, and so it should be.”

Boucher claims some formal qualifications are too “lightweight”, while university degree courses can lack the “scale and grit” needed to compete in the modern world. He argues that courses should reflect the digital-first agenda and contain more information on commercial performance and data analytics.


Despite having a degree in marketing, Creative England chief marketing and strategy officer Dawn Paine agrees that it is not essential to have a formal qualification to become an expert in marketing.

“My view has changed over the past 10 years. We have entered the new era of digital transformation and you need a different skill set from what you can learn in a book,” she reflects.

“Look at the success of Pokémon Go. I worked at Nintendo for 10 years and I know that no formally trained marketers will have launched that product, but they deeply understand how to surprise and delight consumers. You can’t learn transformational marketing in a textbook.”

READ MORE: Why Pokémon Go is a game changer for augmented reality and marketers

Although the principles of marketing are good building blocks, Paine argues that world-leading marketers have an extra “wow factor” relating to qualities such as leadership, intellectual curiosity and commercial acumen.

“The best marketer I recruited had a degree in history, but everything he exhibited showed he was a brilliant thinker and creative mind who wanted to do big transformational things,” she recalls. “He has gone on to have an excellent marketing career at Lego leading a digital team.”

The benefits of professionalism

In contrast, CMO Colin Lewis, who recently moved from airline BMI Regional to travel industry software supplier OpenJaw Technologies, believes the lack of formal training has given rise to “a creeping unprofessionalism” in the industry.

He suggests that, in the same way as accountancy and engineering, marketers should perhaps be required to get certification from a recognised trade body in order to qualify as a marketer.


Aviva’s brand communications and marketing director Pete Markey believes having a formal marketing qualification is more important than ever. Like Ritson, he believes it is essential to understand the fundamentals of marketing as the core principles of the discipline do not change. However, he remains open-minded about whether a formal qualification is an absolute necessity when hiring.

“Is having a marketing degree a deal-breaker? No. Experience is what matters and you can learn on the job, but a formal qualification is helpful,” he says. “My preference is for someone who has applied themselves and stepped up to do a qualification. It’s a signal of ambition.”

Markey adds that a marketing qualification is only useful if it is deep-rooted in commerciality, however, so it can help drive customer growth.

Andrew Warner, vice-president of marketing at online recruitment specialist Monster, argues that you cannot be considered a marketing expert unless you have influence, and to attain influence marketers today need a broad skill set. He insists credibility is especially important, since marketers are often responsible for the expenditures in the business.

“You will be successful as a marketer only if you have credibility, so it is important to understand the fundamentals,” says Warner, who believes having a marketing qualification “gives you a bit of an edge”. But he adds that it is not mandatory to have a marketing degree to be a marketing director at Monster.

“A lot of marketing courses teach people textbook marketing theory, whereas I would rather have someone who has the natural aptitude. However, if I was looking for someone to lead a marketing team it would help if they have formal training,” he adds.


The issue of credibility

Having a formal qualification gives marketers additional credibility, a level of robustness and a wider range of strategic influences, argues Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) CEO Chris Daly.

“You will get naturally fantastic marketers and we applaud those people, but they are pretty hard to find. If your knowledge is too narrow and things go wrong, you will struggle to look for the plan B, whereas having a formal qualification can help you react quicker,” he claims.

Marketing Week’s 2016 Salary Survey reveals only 42% of the marketing and digital professionals surveyed have a formal qualification, including 14% who have CIM accreditation. However, more than half (57%) plan to undertake a qualification in the future.

Daly argues qualifications give marketers additional confidence at the beginning of their careers, while training enables them to understand the broader effect of marketing on the business as they rise up the ranks.

Oystercatchers managing partner Richard Robinson, who manages the Marketing Excellence Training Academy, agrees with the assertion that in order to disrupt the status quo marketers need to understand what that is in the first place.

“If you know the rules and respect them, I’m the first person to encourage you to break them, but it needs to be a conscious decision. People with no formal training in the principles of marketing tend to focus on one area like communications or brand strategy, and end up being specialists who develop a one-dimensional view of what marketing is.”

Robinson believes the industry is caught in a “perfect storm” of people coming into marketing without qualifications at a time when employers are investing less in training. This assertion is supported by a 2015 survey conducted by job site CV-Library of 2,300 professionals across all sectors, which showed 51.4% of marketers had “no access” to training, well above the national average (29.6%).


The startup view

Many marketers in the disruptive startup space have broken new ground without a formal background in marketing.

Despite being sympathetic to the desire to make marketing a more scientific, competence-based profession, Martin Adams, co-founder and CEO of digital content marketing platform Codec, does not believe marketing training is the only answer.

“Having a formal qualification in marketing absolutely does not matter. The true competence of a marketer is to understand the market and the people you’re trying to serve. That skill is extremely difficult to teach and I don’t believe a degree is the way to understand that. You need an experienced person with emotional intelligence,” he says.

Adams wanted his team to have an eclectic mix of skills. The chief technology officer, for example, studied business, while Adams and his co-founder Thomas Graham met at Harvard Law School.

“We want a team fascinated by culture and society. Instead of someone with a degree, we would just as happily interview someone who had started [a business] themselves or quickly climbed the ranks in an organisation,” adds Adams.

Freddy Ward, head of sales and marketing at food box delivery business Hello Fresh, has a similar view. He does not believe his lack of formal marketing training has ever held him back, particularly in a startup business.

“In my view, formal qualifications are always useful and can help you develop a strategic marketing plan, but when you’re in a disruptive industry you need to start a new category and throw the traditional rules out of the window.”

Ward, who manages a team of six marketers, believes people with a traditional marketing background can be too focused on principles and structure, whereas he values the importance of test-and-learn methodology.

“You can have all the knowledge in the world, but nothing beats trying things. In a disruptive business the most important skill is to negotiate hard, find the right deal and make your money go as far as possible. Having a more marketing-specific background means you can lose some of that entrepreneurial spirit,” cautions Ward.

Dan Murray, co-founder and CMO of startup fashion affiliate app Grabble, goes further in his criticism of marketing qualifications.

“I’ve got a CIM marketing diploma and it was great at the time, but marketing has already moved on so much that for me it’s been a complete waste of time. I didn’t learn anything practical for digital or growth marketing, which when you’re starting [a business] you need,” he says.

Murray argues that starting his own business meant learning a completely new skill set and that ultimately academia misses a practical use. “Instead of writing a dissertation, I would have been much better learning how to run ads on Instagram or how to hack Pinterest, practical things that make much more difference today.”

Although marketers on both sides of the divide may struggle to agree on the value of formal training, one thing is clear – the arguments are as diverse and nuanced as the industry itself.