Where Will Your Next VP of Marketing and Communications Come From?

With many academic institutions under financial duress, the role of today’s marketing and communications leaders has never been more essential. These executives must be innovative, collaborative and data-driven to help their institutions stand out in a crowded higher education market with evolving demographics. In the conversation below, Melissa Fincher, Education Practice consultant and leader of its Marketing and Communications specialty practice, looks at the recruiting landscape for the next generation of marketing and communications leadership.

With students and families questioning the value proposition of higher education, and colleges and universities rethinking their business models, how has this shifted the nature of marketing and communications leadership roles? Has it also shifted the types of candidates you’re looking for in, say, a VP of Marketing and Communications?

Fincher: Change has been dramatic. In a very short time institutions have shifted from a vice president focused on executive communications, media relations and in-house print services to an executive focused on delivering unique and innovative approaches to marketing the institution to a rapidly changing and splintering demographic. A growing number of presidents are intrigued by corporate America’s approach to Gen Z consumer marketing techniques and brand strategies and, therefore, willing to forgo the more traditional position description requirements like crisis and media relations experience in lieu of candidates with experience in branding, segmentation strategies and highly customized digital marketing campaigns. As the use of web, digital and social platforms multiply, so too will opportunities for talented marketing and communications professionals across industries to join the higher education workplace.

My colleagues and I ask our clients to seriously consider candidates with non-traditional experience. Higher education’s approach to connecting with Gen Z must continue to rapidly evolve. And Gen Alpha is coming . . .

Has the “deteriorating outlook” for higher education raised the stakes for getting great marketing and communications leaders, especially at highly tuition-dependent institutions?

Fincher: Yes, absolutely – institutions are looking to recruit proven, sitting chief marketing and communications officers and, as mentioned, more and more often looking beyond the academy. In both cases, compensation is often higher than anticipated. Additionally, the external pressures upon academia allow limited room for presidents to take hiring risks. It has increased the need for candidates to show transformative, demonstrable results in their previous career histories and, in short order, with their new employer. Candidates who employ data-informed practices and sophisticated predictive modeling have a decided advantage as resource-strained institutions consider taking calculated risks to differentiate their value.

As search consultants, we listen for candidates to discuss times when innovation, courage of conviction and collaboration led to success. We also listen for candidates who can own a failure and how they pivoted from that to course correct and get the institution back on track. As the looming enrollment cliff draws near, small and mid-size institutions are desperate to innovate academically and create a student experience that will appeal to new demographics of students while drawing students away from the elite colleges, research universities and flagships.

One expert states that students now have the upper hand in the admissions dynamic and, for many institutions, “it is now up to schools to apply to students, not the other way around.” How does this alter the objectives and strategies of marketing leaders?

Fincher: Colleges and universities are competing for the attention of students and parents in a severely saturated market. Not only must they attract students to the institution but they must also retain and engage these students through graduation. Today’s student desires the same on-demand experience they receive in every other aspect of their consumer life. Therefore, institutions are investing in brand recognition studies and seeking feedback from prospective and current students to help them anticipate what these constituents will demand in the future. Marketing and communications leaders have to rely much more on, for instance, predictive analytics and machine learning (working with their peers in enrollment and elsewhere) to stay ahead of student trends. In short, marketing has to be proactive rather than reactive, catering to student whims and wishes more than ever before.

At the same time, there has to be “truth telling” about the value of a given institution’s degree. Marketing and communications efforts can try to stay one step ahead of students, but they must still be genuine.

What do institutions and their search committees need to know about developing an exceptional and diverse slate of candidates for marketing and communications roles, and ultimately hiring the right person?

Fincher: They need to be more open to candidates with varying experience and backgrounds. For instance, we’ve seen colleges and universities insist on an advanced degree for chief marketing and communications officers. Yet data show that across industries such degrees are not mandated. Higher education’s requirements therefore severely limit the candidate pool. We have had to “turn away” candidates who were sitting vice presidents with very impressive portfolios because a master’s degree was a minimum qualification to the position. The number of master’s degree holders is even smaller for women and BIPOC candidates. If ticking this box cannot be argued as paramount to success in the role, I suggest refraining from listing it in the job ad. Candidates, particularly women, will self-select out even if the role stipulates “advanced degree preferred.” It leads to the perception that the cards are already stacked against them.

What are top marketing leadership candidates looking for in their next employer? Have their expectations changed post-Covid?

Fincher: Covid-19 has had broad impact on the world of work and professionals are carefully evaluating new career opportunities. In marketing and communications, the leaders I speak with are looking for a chance to do great, meaningful work at an institution they really believe in. This means looking at institutions that are primed for change and growth. Of course, top candidates want some guarantee that they can succeed. They’re looking for employing institutions to have a plan – a bold strategic agenda voiced from the top down and bottom up. Candidates are willing to take a bit of a risk to find a great new role, but they want assurance that the institution has a clear agenda and the champions and resources to support that agenda’s success.

Finally, great candidates tell me they want to have authority. They want to be a key player on the president’s cabinet and have the commitment of the entire leadership team to collaborate on innovative ways of moving the institution forward.