The ivory tower is a symbol of academia—and an implicit critique of the isolated and often aloof nature of scholarship. It seems only appropriate to talk about why the ivory tower is failing marketing graduates in a publication called MarketingProfs.

Since ancient days, education has grappled with a problem: Should people be taught how to think, or should they be taught how to act?

Although I have immense respect and gratitude for the professors who mentored me, I believe marketing programs teach too much theory and too little practice. With some unconventional changes in marketing curricula, we could balance the two and better prepare marketing grads to succeed in their careers.

An Ancient Debate

The theory-versus-practice debate goes back to classical Greece, where philosophers and sophists clashed. The philosophers emphasized inquiry and dialogue. The sophists promoted rhetoric and technique. We remember the philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) as heroes, and sophists as frauds.

We don't know which approach was "better," though. Consider Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who studied ethics and political philosophy with Aristotle. He went on to build the largest empire the world had ever seen. Did his philosophy "degree" make a difference? Who knows? Without it, perhaps he still would have conquered his way past the Indus River.

I raise that example for this reason: Today, as in the past, it's impossible to look at a person's success and attribute it to any one educational experience.

That said, we can look at the education offered at American universities, talk to recent graduates, and observe how they adapt to life in a marketing careers. What do they (and we) wish they had learned?


Since finishing my bachelor's degree at University of Wisconsin—Platteville in 2005, I have had many discussions about the successes and failures of marketing education.

My professors at UW were exceptional men and women who taught me theories of marketing that I continue to use today (e.g., value creation). But, they hesitated to teach emerging technologies (for example). Would the digital platforms of the early 2000s endure, or would the professors risk teaching concepts doomed for obsolescence?

In 2009, four years after I joined Widen Enterprises, our then-new and current CEO, Matthew Gonnering, gave me a blindsiding project. He asked me, supposedly the tech-savvy young guy, to overhaul our marketing technologies. Dozens of costly mistakes and years later, I can say confidently that we have dialed it in. But could a semester course on marketing technology stacks have prevented that painful process? I think so.

Brian Quinn, who joined Widen one year ago, said practical experience was lacking in his marketing program at UW—Platteville. He graduated 10 years after I did, and our educations were remarkably similar (he didn't have classes on radio marketing though...). During college, Brian was fortunate enough to run his own balloon artistry company, so he, unlike most of his peers, could test and apply what he learned in the classroom.

A New Marketing Curriculum

Brian's story led to an idea: Couldn't colleges make starting and running organizations part of the business curriculum? Might students in marketing, finance, accounting, graphics design, and other fields collaborate as undergrads to start those organizations?

I am by no means the first person to suggest that education include practical training. Students in Seth Godin's four-week altMBA deliver 13 projects that they'll put into action at their companies. The Thiel Fellowship famously offers a "two-year, $100,000 grant for young people who want to build new things instead of sit in a classroom"; the students drop out of college and attend the school of entrepreneurship.

Today, I propose a middle ground: a four-year program that blends theory and practice while still allowing students to have a traditional college experience.

Here's the type of curriculum I envision.

1. Launch Semester

Students in the business school are assigned cofounders through a lottery that matches students of complementary skillsets (determined, perhaps, by a test). Just as in the real world, the students can't choose exactly whom they'll work with. That way, they learn how to deal with personalities who think and act in different, even disagreeable ways (conflict and divergence in a college class... what a thought!).

The students launch a for-profit or nonprofit organization. It would last at least all four years; if it dies sooner, they'd launch another one. It doesn't matter how grand the organization is. If students want to create a late-night meal delivery service or flash mob organization, more power to 'em.

I will add this: The college should remind students that business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2C) companies are equally valid. The existing curricula skew heavily toward B2C simply because it's "click-baitier."

But marketers who sell automotive parts, geographic information systems, and B2B software platforms love their work, too, and I know because I work with all three types. Students might not realize that a Web development service for local business could be more rewarding than pursuing Insta-fame.

2. Breaching the Theory-Practice Divide

Students should still learn how to think in the tradition of Aristotle. But, like Alexander, they should set out to conquer (nonviolently) a market.

Theory, I want to be clear, is valuable. So why not teach students the theory, architecture, and operations of a marketing technology stack, as I implied above? Why not encourage students to apply their marketing psychology classwork to a real campaign for their business? Conversely, why not teach the philosophy and invisible mechanics of social networks to complement the practical skills students have developed unintentionally?

Students can take responsibility for translating knowledge into skills. Isn't that why they go to college?

3. Soft Skills

My conversations with recent grads led me to a realization: Few, if any, learn the soft skills of thriving in an office. By "soft skills" I mean the interpersonal tasks we take on daily: emailing, conference calls, meetings, presentations, discussions, giving feedback, taking feedback, organizing projects, and so on.

Soft skills could easily fill up four years. Email writing for different scenarios (internal, sales, marketing, partnerships, account management, etc.) could be a semester course. Conference bridges, presentations, and other speaking scenarios might constitute their own class.

Professors could build out four years of soft skills that few grads bring to the office on Day One. (We forget now, but writing a five-line email to 50 people after a lifetime of writing five-paragraph essays is tough.)

Ivory Tower to Concrete Bridge

The ivory tower implies that students will spend four years in the clouds and then faceplant when they return to Earth. Let's add a concrete bridge to the ivory tower in education—connecting theory to practice.

Again, I deeply respect and admire the professors who welcomed me into marketing at UW—Platteville. But my hope is that colleges will free educators to design more creative, hands-on curricula that prepare grads for the real world.

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image of Jake Athey

Jake Athey is VP of marketing at at digital asset management (DAM) software provider Widen Enterprises, where he has worked with CRM, campaign management, DAM, email, blogging, and social media management platforms.

Twitter: @JakeAthey

LinkedIn: Jake Athey