Marketing education in Canada: investigating the skills gap

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December 2020
What is marketing? Often called both an art and a science, this enigmatic discipline requires both creativity and expertise. Working within tight timelines and budgets, marketing teams in businesses and agencies are tasked with conceiving, developing, and launching campaigns that win the attention, interest, and favour of busy audiences.

Although there is no one job definition called “marketer”, most practitioners and academics would probably agree that working in the field requires a blend of theoretical and practical skills, often used in tandem to solve problems. For example, marketers employ a range of primary and secondary research skills to collect data, and then process the data they retrieve using a variety of theoretical models developed by thinkers and academics, such as “the 4P’s”, “SWOT”, “the 5C’s”, and “PESTLE”.

This interplay between theory and practice makes it understandably difficult to “teach marketing”. How much time should be spent on skills, as opposed to theory, is a subject of much debate among marketing educators. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that marketing is a rapidly-changing discipline, which means that the particular blend of knowledges, skills, and attributes expected of new graduates is constantly shifting.

To make matters even worse, the advent of the digital revolution, brought about by the internet and smartphone, heralded massive changes for the marketing industry. Entire sub-disciplines (SEO, SEM, UI/UX, social media management, marketing automation, CRM) appeared almost overnight. Marketing practitioners were - and still are - scrambling to master the new ways of doing business. Marketing educators, one step removed from industry, are even more behind, with many courses on digital marketing appearing years after the field became a major factor in industry.

Furthermore, many “new” entry-level marketing roles require technical skills, such as social media management, Google Ads management, graphic design, or video production – and that’s in addition to a university degree. Speaking from experience, these types of jobs feel more like a skilled trade than knowledge work, and the skills required for them are difficult to address within the confines of a traditional university education, focused as it is on lectures, papers, and exams.

All of this leaves marketing students in an awkward position. Their education alone, which is already expensive and arduous, is not enough to secure a role in their field of choice. Their professors, and perhaps even their career counsellors, don’t have easy answers about how to become competitive in this job market. Furthermore, “marketing education in Canada” is a bit of a niche topic, which means that data, research, and potential solutions are scarce.

In this article, I will draw upon the work of several scholars, as well as my own experience and research, to explore what is known about the disconnect between education and industry in the Canadian marketing field. I will also highlight some emerging innovations; ways that students, industry, and academia are collaborating to provide students with much-needed opportunities outside the bounds of a traditional marketing education.


Part 1: Industry demands

What can a marketing student expect when they leave school and enter the workforce? This is a complicated question, as no two marketing roles are quite the same. An SEM specialist spends most of their time analyzing keyword data and writing ads that will appear on Google searches, and an email marketing specialist crafts compelling emails and optimizes subject lines. A more generalized “marketing associate” or “marketing specialist” might have a wider set of responsibilities, including the management of social media accounts and websites, the production of branded materials using programs like Adobe InDesign, and market research.

To illustrate the demands of the current job market, I will examine what things look like “on the ground” by analyzing four of the most junior postings I could find in my area. Then, I will review the findings of a 2012 study conducted by a group of Canadian researchers that thoroughly investigated what employers needed in new marketing graduates.

First, the job postings:
  • Marketing & Sales Associate for an online training academy
  • Junior SEO Specialist at a digital marketing agency
  • Marketing Specialist at an arts institution
  • Marketing Coordinator at a recruitment agency

As you can see in the table below, all of these roles required experience of some sort, which highlights how competitive the job market is. Beyond that, all of them required technical skills like the ones I have previously discussed, many of them related to digital marketing. Only one job posting – the Junior SEO Specialist – would accept education in lieu of experience. Two required both a degree and experience.

CriteriaTrainingAgencyArtsRecruitment
Degree RequiredNoNoYesYes
Years of Experience31-2 or degree2-31-3
CopywritingYesYesYesYes
Graphic DesignNoNoYesYes
Social Media MgmtYesNoYesYes
PPC AdvertisingYesYesNoNo
Data AnalyticsYesYesYesYes
Website DvlpmntNoYesYesNo
Video ProductionYesNoYesNo
Market ResearchNoYesYesYes
CRMYesNoYesNo

If one thing should become clear from this table, it’s that digital marketing skills are a necessity in today’s marketing landscape. Most companies aren’t looking for direct mail specialists or out-of-home specialists: they need people who know how to run Google Ads campaigns and manage Facebook pages. Although it may be impossible for graduates to have all of these skills when they graduate, it’s arguable that they should certainly have some. Copywriting, a “classic” marketing skill that has found new life in the digital era, was needed in all four roles.

However, despite all the changes brought about by the digital revolution, marketing is more than just social media and search engines. Many marketers are responsible for making strategic decisions about branding, messaging, and budgets. Additionally, marketers typically work on cross-functional teams and interface with stakeholders in other areas of the organization, which means they need to be adept at leading change, collaborating with others, and getting buy-in for their ideas.

In a 2012 article titled "The Future of Marketing Education: A Practitioner’s Perspective", Canadian scholars David Finch, John Nadeau, and Norm O’Reilly documented the industry viewpoint on marketing education through reviewing curriculums, surveys of practitioners, and focus groups to deepen their findings. Their results, although reflective of industry attitudes at the very beginning of the digital revolution, reveal several key growth areas for undergraduate marketing programs in Canada. I have highlighted some of their findings below:

  • The debate between skills and knowledge in the marketing curriculum, and in undergraduate curriculums in general, extends back decades. Proponents of the knowledge/theory approach believe that the demand for specific skills in a discipline changes rapidly over time, whereas theoretical foundations are more stable and therefore more important to teach. This is the prevailing ideology in many undergraduate marketing programs.

  • Through research and consultation, Finch, Nadeau, and O’Reilly narrowed down the marketing discipline to a list encompassing 46 different skills, grouped into seven headings: meta-skills, strategic marketing, channel management, product management, marketing context, communications, and design skills. Then, they had 253 Canadian marketing practitioners (the majority of whom were either involved in hiring young marketers) rank the importance of those skills as well as the performance of new hires in that area. Both importance and performance were ranked on a 7-point scale, which allowed them to be compared.

  • The greatest disparity between importance ratings and performance ratings was in the area of “meta-skills”, which are things like creative problem-solving, setting priorities, managing time, selling ideas, and leadership. These types of competencies, commonly called soft skills by business professionals, were generally rated as being more important than the “hard” skills like public relations, pricing strategy, and budget development.

  • The single skill with the largest importance/performance gap was “measuring return-on-investment”. This is surprising, because measuring ROI is a core activity of almost all marketing roles, agency- or brand-side. Marketing budgets and decisions have to be justified to someone in almost all cases. This seems like an easy fix for marketing programs.

  • Other skills with a notable importance/performance gap included positioning strategy, brand strategy, and customer relationship management.

  • Following their survey, Finch, Nadeau, and O’Reilly engaged an expert panel to discuss their findings and provide context to the results. One of the insights from that process was the emerging importance of evidence-based decision-making in the marketing discipline, and the failure of marketing programs to teach the type of research and synthesis competencies used on-the-job:
Panel members suggested that the challenge is that the processes, resources, time, and rigor taught in a theoretical market research course are rarely available to marketers today in practice. Instead, practitioners typically purchase market research and intelligence, which they tend to synthesize along with other data in real time to make evidence-based decisions.

  • The expert panel also reinforced the importance of meta-skills in today’s marketing landscape. They stressed that a strong foundation of these competencies form the basis for every successful marketing career, regardless of trajectory. Some of these skills, such as time management and prioritization, transcended the discipline and were a prerequisite for a career in business.

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The top 10 skills deficiencies, as measured by Finch, Nadeau, and O’Reilly.


Part 2: Insight

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp in marketing is the idea of the “insight”. What is an insight? How are insights obtained? What do marketers do with them?

I first discovered the importance of insight as an undergraduate student. In my fourth year, I was involved in an experiential learning program for teams of aspiring marketers called MARS Apprentice, where we had the opportunity to pitch solutions to real-world marketing problems. We very quickly discovered that the industry judges to whom we were pitching expected us to have impactful research that provided new perspectives on the problem at hand, as well as a strategic plan that took advantage of our key findings.

This expectation, although it sounds straightforward, is actually quite difficult to meet, especially in the compressed timelines of the program (more about that in Part 4). For example, what makes a piece of research “impactful”, and what justifies a “new perspective on the problem”? Furthermore, how does one operationalize research to create appropriate strategies and tactics? What constitutes an appropriate strategy?

One of the biggest problems in marketing, as I quickly learned, is that everything is contextual. A piece of data is useless on its own; it needs to be housed within a particular inquiry, housed within a hypothesis, housed within a problem statement. There are no hard-and-fast rules determining whether a piece of data is relevant or not: part of that is up to the judgement and storytelling ability of the marketer.

Similarly, when it comes to insights – actionable statements derived from data – there are almost no rules about what makes a good insight. A great deal is left up to interpretation and judgement.

Following my participation in the MARS Apprentice program, I had the opportunity to facilitate the program in 2014, mentor participants from 2013-2019, and conduct some academic research on the program between 2016-2019. I can say from experience that aside from teamwork and pitching, “insights” are one of the single biggest stumbling blocks that students face in the program. One of the participants put it like this:

Other case competitions have no research. They provide you with all the information, you just have to connect the dots… In MARS, information isn’t strategically provided to you in order to guide you to an answer… it’s up to us to find the dots AND connect them.

How insights are created, and how marketers can become more insightful, is a topic I plan to cover in more depth in the future. For the moment, I will simply stress that – at least from my experience – insight generation seems to be so important in the marketing industry, and students seem to be so challenged by it, that it deserves some close attention.


Part 3: Postsecondary constraints

In a discussion of the skills gap that exists in the Canadian marketing industry, I would be remiss if I did not discuss some of the reasons that this gap might exist. In my opinion, marketing education at the undergraduate level faces a number of existential challenges that make it difficult to deliver a quality education at scale.

First, university enrolment in Canada (and especially the United States) has skyrocketed since World War 2 ended, especially when it comes to business education. Driven by the marked increase in industry and population in the post-WW2 years, the need for competent managers and leaders led to the creation and expansion of degree programs to suit those needs. During the period of 1970 to 1990, for example, the number of business degrees awarded in Canada grew by 450%.

What this translates to, in my experience as a student and educator at the postsecondary level, is larger class sizes and the outsourcing of grading activities to less-experienced teaching assistants. Larger class sizes make it more difficult to design and scale educational interventions, and the lack of qualified feedback on students’ work makes it more difficult for them to improve. Most of the innovations I have seen in marketing education operate at the level of small groupwork: in a class size of 300-plus, it is difficult – if not impossible – for most educators to provide the level of support and feedback that students need to make actual progress in the quality of their thinking and work.

This is especially the case when professors and teaching assistants lack meaningful industry experience themselves. Consider that a Ph.D is virtually required to teach marketing at the undergraduate level, whereas many marketing practitioners don’t even have a commerce degree! Although educators who lack experience are able to evaluate students’ use of tools such as the 4P’s and SWOT, and may even be able to offer a critique on a proposed marketing solution, the only person who can reliably tell a student why their idea sucks and what to do about it is someone who lives and breathes those types of problems every day.

“The problem is they are grading your papers and they do not know how to value a paper. Of course they can tell an A+ essay and they can tell an F- essay, but they are pretty foggy on everything in between. But they do not realize they are foggy. They think the problem is “the students complain.” So they judge essays in comparison to others in the class or they fall back on the usual heuristics: page length, sentence complexity, and “looks like you put a lot of work into it.” And worse– much worse, given that they are supposed to be educators– they have no idea how to take a so-so student and make him better; what, specifically, they should get him to do, because they themselves were similarly mediocre students who got inflated As… when a student comes to them asking, “how can I do better?” they respond, “You need to apply yourself.”
(from thelastpsychiatrist.com)

Second, given that marketing education takes place within universities, this opens the field up to an entire host of competing perspectives and goals that may not necessarily be concerned with producing graduates that meet industry needs. In a 2015 paper entitled "The Culture of Business Education and Its Place in the Modern University", Russell A. Evans observed that business schools are often black sheep within the academic world, as they have the trappings of academia (journals, research activity) yet the goals of industry (furthering management practice).

On one hand, business schools have to develop skills and competencies within graduates. On the other, they exist within universities, which are institutions with the stated goal of providing a “broad” or liberal” education to students. What this translates to at the curriculum level is often a focus on theoretical exercises that favour intellectual activities, rather than on producing quality marketing work from start to finish.

An example: for some time the (only) digital marketing class at my alma mater had a project that required students to correlate a company’s SEO rankings with their stock price. Although this is no longer the case, the fact that such a useless exercise made its way into a university-level marketing course at any point in time is a testament to the disconnect between the objectives of universities (transmit knowledge, grade at scale) and industry (produce work that works).


Part 4: Interesting innovations

Despite the limitations of the university model, some forward-thinking students, professors, and practitioners have been working for years to create educational opportunities outside of the classroom that satisfy some of the unmet needs I have discussed. These opportunities, often in the form of conferences or case competitions, create spaces where practitioners can speak directly to students about their careers, and even give them feedback on their work.

  • DECA U is a set of case challenges in an array of business fields, including accounting, law, human resources, and marketing. Operating on highly-compressed timelines (30 minutes in the Marketing Management category), contestants must come up with a solution to a problem and present it before a judge. Although this format rewards quick thinking, a solid grasp of the fundamentals, and effective pitching, it doesn’t address the need for nuanced analysis and insight generation. That said, it builds a host of soft skills (or "meta-skills") that would serve any young marketer well.

  • JDCC is the largest undergraduate business school competition in Central Canada. Hundreds of delegates from different schools compete, most often in teams of three, in case competitions where teams have three hours of prep time and twenty minutes of pitch time. This format encourages thinking a level deeper than the DECA U model, but the time limits still prevent students from conducting meaningful research and digging into the problem they have been presented. Again, the opportunities to develop soft skills - teamwork, crafting a solution, pitching - are numerous here.

  • Canada’s Next Top Ad Exec challenges undergraduate and MBA students to develop a real-world solution to a marketing problem presented by sponsors. For the first ten years of the program’s history, the case was regarding an upcoming car launch, and the top prize was a car of your own. This program’s timeline spans multiple rounds of judging over a period of months, allowing students to develop their own lines of thinking around the issues at hand and come up with truly innovative solutions. Although the commitment level is rather high, there are other prizes to be won, as well as internships. This is likely a good competition for students looking to flex their marketing muscles in an in-depth way.

  • MARS Apprentice is where I first developed my love of marketing. A type of program that seems to be unique to the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, “MARS” (which stands for Marketing, Advertising, Retail, and Sales) puts two teams of six students through a veritable gauntlet of compressed-timeline case competitions. Students are given one or two weeks to come up with a full solution to a real-world marketing problem, and then present that solution to a panel of industry experts. They then receive their next brief and start the process again - this repeats four or five times. As part of the program, the students receive feedback and mentorship from practitioners almost daily, helping them grow to meet the challenges expected of them. Although this program, in my opinion, is unparalleled in Canada when it comes to the depth of learning it offers to marketing students in a 10-week timeline, MARS can be prohibitive due to its time commitment (40-50 hours per week) and its intensity (everybody cries, everybody thinks of quitting, some do). It’s not for everybody, but I think some of the core principles can be applied to mainstream education with some creative thinking.