At EAB we have an ongoing fascination with organizational charts. (Really, we do.) Org charts can tell a story about a university’s strategy, its priorities, and how it gets things done. And when positions start moving on an org chart, we take notice. The latest example: The rise of the strategic marketing and communications (marcom) leader.
It used to be that marcom generally reported to VPs of advancement, enrollment, or external relations. But now, 60% or more of marketing communications departments report directly to the president. It’s not just the seniority of marcom leaders that’s increasing, the need for marcom leaders at any level is also rising. We’ve seen a 40% growth in job postings for director-level or above higher ed marcom leaders over the past four years.
From brand police to leaders of strategy
Some of our members have likened traditional marketing departments to the “brand police.” These departments make sure that other offices and departments around campus are sticking to brand standards. They don’t play much of a role in managing the creation of marketing materials, and they’re far removed from helping set institutional strategy.
Over time, some of these departments have become centralized service bureaus. They still keep everyone “on brand,” but now also support marketing projects like printing, graphic design, and advertising. They have more control over unified institutional messaging but don’t get a say in strategy.
For many centralized service bureaus, this is a problem. It’s hard to develop clear institutional messaging without being given a voice in institutional strategy. What’s more, many higher ed marketing leaders are unsure of what the strategy actually is.
In a 2015 Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) survey, over a third of higher ed marketing leaders admitted that their institution had not defined its brand strategy. More than half said that their institutions didn’t have an integrated brand strategy that all departments, schools, and colleges were onboard with.
To address this problem, colleges and universities are starting to give their marcom departments and their chief marketing officers (CMOs) a voice in strategy development.
Today, the most advanced marcom departments are strategic marketing partners and get involved in everything from institutional branding to admissions to fundraising. And to make sure that there’s a single source of marketing and advertising truth, they function like an in-house ad agency—their clients are departments, colleges, and offices around campus.
3 lessons to build a strategic marketing communications department
We can learn a few things from the evolution of the marcom department:
- Give your senior-most marcom leader a voice in setting strategy: Promote your marcom leader to a CMO position to make sure their voice is heard in institutional strategy development. In an informal survey of our members, we found that over 40% of colleges and universities lack a dedicated VP-level marcom leader and instead delegate this responsibility to a lower-level official.
- Have your CMO report to the president: Even the best marcom leaders will struggle to play an active role in campus-wide strategy setting if their department is folded into enrollment, advancement, or external relations.
- Don’t benchmark against your average peer: If your institutional peers don’t have a CMO, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need one. In fact, colleges and universities most in need of a CMO reporting to the president are often least likely to have one.