Should HE marketers serve without question?

I remember one of my first roles as a junior marketer at a UK university. I was enthusiastic and determined to put my skills and qualifications to good use.

I carefully did my research and devised my first direct mail campaign to encourage prospective students to come to the next postgraduate open day. The turn-out was a record high for the institution and I was delighted. I had found my dream career in a sector that I cared deeply about. And maybe I could make a difference.

However, one senior lecturer was far from delighted, even though he had seen more, high quality, prospective students that day than ever before.


One of the open day visitors had already applied and discussed the course with him. Having seen the event advertised, she wanted to visit again. She couldn’t wait for her start-date and jumped at the chance to experience campus life and chat with her inspiring future lecturer again.

He was furious with me. He thought I had re-contacted all of his applicants (I hadn’t), he was cross about needing to attend a Saturday event and he’d decided to teach me a lesson. I distinctly remember him bellowing at me in a corridor, with several colleagues around us.

‘You need to understand that you SERVE me; not the other way around’, he shouted as he prodded his finger at me. I remember my cheeks blazing red and not knowing what to do or say.


I recall my confusion from that day.  Was my job, indeed, to blindly serve? To downplay all of the skills I had acquired in the run-up to joining Higher Education? If I was instructed to produce a leaflet, suspecting that two giant boxes of the things would sit under a desk for two years, should I just do it? If I received a call from the VC insisting that we ‘get posters up’ at their favourite railway station, should I simply make the booking?

Well, I can tell you that I decided that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, deliver bookmarks, posters, microsites, bus adverts, new logos etc whenever commanded. Not without some further investigation. Twentyish years later in HE marketing, this approach has served me well.

Yes, it has led, occasionally, to some confrontation, but mostly it has resulted in a number of healthy challenges  – something that, eventually, I learned to enjoy.  To get things done and to see results I have taken some huge risks for myself and my teams; often followed by sleepless nights hoping that the risks would pay off. They usually did. And, yes, it could be stressful.

Sometimes it felt like career roulette.

I’m writing this because at least one HE marketer every week confides in me that they struggle to get their voice heard. They tell me that that they feel inadequate or have given up trying so just ‘give everyone what they want’. It can be a tricky line to balance. After all, we HE marketers are labelled under the catch-all banner of professional services. Perhaps the clue is in the name, and our colleagues would rather we just, well, served?

I can see a time when it won’t be so exhausting and where we will feel empowered to be innovative, to take risks without the fear of blame. To really deliver. Perhaps our time is now?

But… it starts with us.

How to handle challenging conversations


So how do we, as a collective, start on this path? Here are my five golden rules:

  1. Start to embrace the healthy debate. In HE, the verbal (or strongly worded email) challenge will never go away. After all, we have chosen to work with some of the most intelligent people on the planet. They have opinions. FACT.


  1. Fight the right battles. Sometimes we don’t do ourselves any favours by overreacting about a stretched logo. Learn to prioritise and be pragmatic.


  1. Let’s share and collaborate. Because we’re marketers and therefore innately competitive, we tend not to share our triumphs or our shame – but there’s a way of doing it without revealing our latest segmentation techniques or UX research. I recently set up a group of like-minded HE Marketing Directors where we support and push each other forward. It’s been eye-opening and an utter privilege.


  1. Remember, your ideas are important. There are tools and techniques to increase your opportunities to be heard (message me if you need a bit of help).


  1. And most importantly, approach your discussions with non-marketers with an ‘OBJECTIVES FIRST’ ethos. Find out what end result you both need to achieve. Be very clear on it. Ask questions. Make those objectives SMART. Don’t allow the conversation to veer into tactics. That’s your domain. Produce a plan, using your marketing knowledge, to fulfil those objectives. (Sometimes I wonder what were the core objective of that furious lecturer? Was it really ever important to him to have a class full of postgraduate students?)


It’s easy to fall into the trap of the misplaced service ethic. But instead of giving our colleagues the particular infographic that they want, let’s focus on what they need: A rising group of talented marketers, communicators and outreach practitioners who can help fly the flag for this amazing sector and engage the public and policy makers in ways we have never seen before.

Let us not blindly serve up a range of incongruent tactics. Let’s deliver on our strategy, broken down into key objectives to achieve our goals.