In-housing higher education marketing – and why you need an external marketing team (too).

In recent years, many colleges and universities have embraced the move to create multi-disciplined in-house marketing teams. 

The reasons vary: from administrative restructuring to reduce outside spending; to seeking a more consistent voice for external communications as part of a move towards an interdependent institutional advancement model; to a desire to centralize the marketing functions that exist across faculties and departments; and so on.

Many of these in-house departments operate like ad agencies. They employ web designers, production managers, graphic designers, public relations professionals, content writers, and copywriters, and this team works under a creative director. And they have account managers to liaise with colleagues in faculties and departments as an agency does with its various external clients.

If you’ve decided to create an in-house marketing team, you’ve no doubt done the analysis and determined that the costs of new annual salaries and benefits offset your previous investments in external agency and consultant support. 

And besides the presumed cost savings, you get to build the team to your specifications, you build expertise and institutional knowledge, and you can be nimble in responding to ongoing and sometimes the unpredictable needs of your internal ‘clients’ (your colleagues in faculties and departments).

But whether you’ve made the move to hire an in-house team, or are considering it, you should know that even the most robust insourced marketing team will always benefit from an external perspective. 

3 advantages external marketing teams have in higher ed.

To better understand how this relationship can elevate and sharpen your marketing and institutional storytelling, let’s look at three ways you’ll benefit from an external marketing team.

1. Reality checks are unbiased.

An in-house team can often be too close to the institution to see the forest for the trees. You’re proud of the college or university you work for – that’s why you chose to pursue your career there! But unchecked, this can result in creative that’s too navel-gazing, instead of audience-focused.

It’s often not the internal team’s fault, either. For example, think about the concept approval process of an in-house team. In most higher education environments, several voices weigh in on the creative, and some are not marketers – they’re working in other areas of advancement, or other portfolios altogether. So by nature, in-house teams can sometimes fall into the habit of creating work they know will get approved by their internal cohorts – instead of allowing audience insights to power the creative.

External consultants who are worth their salt will do their best to prevent this from happening. We always start with research that guides the creative and provides our team with insights about the audience and their motivations. We harness your expertise and insight and combine it with our own. We ensure we document these insights to clients in strategies, communications platforms and briefing documents. And if internal pressure comes from inside the institution, we serve as the sober reminder that you’re not advertising to yourself – you’re advertising to your audiences. 

2. Internal audience persuasion.

Your university or college is filled with subject matter experts. FILLED with them. And you know you could bring any meeting to a screeching halt if, in your capacity in institutional advancement, you dared to give the Dean of Dentistry tips on how to do a root canal, or suggest pedagogical changes to the Academic Provost. Why? Because you’re not an expert in those subjects.

But somehow, marketing and branding is a topic everyone feels qualified to weigh in on. Not just as contributors to a consultative exercise (where they bring a ton of value!), but as arbiters of the merit of the strategic approach and creative output. 

I know this firsthand. I worked in-house at a top-15 Canadian research university, and found my expertise was questioned constantly by people entirely outside the field. But when I work with that university now – as an outside advisor – those same people engage in an entirely different way.

One of the challenges for internal teams is that their expertise is often taken for granted.

Is that fair? No. Often, your team has many seasoned marketers who should get more respect from their colleagues. But one of the challenges for internal teams – in any industry, but especially in higher ed. – is that their expertise is often taken for granted.

That’s where an external expert that you bring to the table will help. We work hand in glove with in-house teams to ensure that when work is presented to a broader group, it’s a united front. And often, our endorsement – in the room, shoulder-to-shoulder with our in-house cohorts – helps grease the wheels for adoption and advocacy long after your team takes the reins on implementation and evolution.

3. A fresh perspective by creative talent with diverse experience.

We’ve partnered with in-house marketing teams to rebrand several higher ed. institutions (including those which we’ve rebranded more than once). Each time we’re engaged, we tell clients that the task ahead may be daunting. But we also say it’s an opportunity that marketers get to do only a handful of times in their careers.

Unless they’re an external consultant. 

To be clear: it’s true for in-house marketers. But for those working in ad agencies and marketing firms, we might take on a challenge like that several times a year. And it’s likely we’re doing several at once. (We promise, yours is our favourite).

That kind of constantly-recurring engagement makes us very, very experienced in leading complex, broadly consultative, and highly scrutinized marketing projects. The kind of projects you can’t afford to make mistakes on, because your entire community is watching. 

It also attracts a specific kind of talent: people who thrive on chaos and debate, and the unfamiliar and ever-changing. While higher ed. institutions are multifaceted and diverse, they are also unionized, bureaucratic and deliberative.

The hallmarks of a great internal/external marketing model.

Chances are you’re going to develop at least some of your marketing in-house. But there will still be projects that your team either doesn’t have the experience to deliver, or the time to devote. Unlike many things in life, with marketing teams inside and outside your college or university, you really can have it all.

Whether you have a strong in-house capability, or are looking to an agency for help, an ideal external agency will enhance your school’s marketing work. That agency should meet several criteria:

  • A long-term relationship, so the agency understands, respects and adheres to your brand, even as it brings new and innovative ways to express it.
  • A team player that expertly navigates your processes and environment, and leans on your team’s knowledge while constructively challenging assumptions and internal biases.
  • A collaborative spirit devoid of any territorialism, that recognizes your internal team’s ability to enhance what the agency brings to the table, and embraces that interplay.

Every one of our higher ed. engagements has been some form of this internal-external agency model.

When we recently rebranded the University of Manitoba (U of M), they recognized that we’d led this process multiple times before, so they looked to us to lead the consultative engagement. But their internal team was better positioned for several steps within that engagement: bringing the right influencers into the approval committee, and deploying surveys via existing university listservs. 

That trust and seamless fit was earned through a 10+ year relationship, which years earlier had led to a meeting where the U of M’s advancement team challenged us with a blank slate: if we didn’t dictate your creative approach, where would you take us?

We rewarded their trust with the Trailblazer campaign concept, and for several years, helped the internal team translate its highly conceptual approach into every day communications.  

These long internal-external relationships always start somewhere. With Lethbridge College, ours started with a two-day branding intensive workshop. The college wanted to equip their internal team to develop a new institutional brand expression, and the workshop was designed to kickstart that process.

We took their lead and designed the workshop to suit their team – and by earning their trust we parlayed those two days into a concept development engagement (which resulted in their internal team’s deployment of an award-winning campaign). Today, we still enjoy a consultative relationship, even as their team has taken the reins on brand stewardship.

That’s a reality that ED, as a higher ed. focused agency, welcomes: when an internal team exists, we’re not needed for everything. 

Some agencies might see that as a threat. We believe it frees us to focus on where we bring the most value:

  • Big ideas. 
  • Expert creative leadership and innovative solutions.
  • Experience, familiarity, and methodologies to help guide you through high-level initiatives.
  • The ability to push the envelope while respecting the boundaries of your brand and the engagement scope. 
  • And helping you sell new and novel solutions to even the most skeptical of stakeholders.

If you’d like to talk more about our philosophy and approach to working with your internal team, we’d love to hear from you.

With ED. Marketing’s creative leadership, our in-house team developed an award-winning campaign that is shifting perceptions inside our college, and within our market.
Brian Freeman, Fmr. Manager, Marketing and Web Services, Lethbridge College

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