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Organizing the Marketing Department: Four Steps for Success


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What’s the best structure for a college or university’s marketing department? I’m hearing this question asked with increasing urgency by my peers at all types of institutions. Too often, they’ve inherited an organization chart that was built for a different time in the institution’s history, with position descriptions and reporting relationships that may have made sense for the conditions of 20 or 30 years ago but are no longer a good fit with the current reality.

Worse yet, many new CMOs find that their department’s structure simply grew like Topsy, without much in the way of intention. In these unplanned departments, jobs are organized around individual interests or skills and reporting relationships are based on convenience or seniority, rather than on what’s required for the department to succeed in the increasingly complex and politicized realm of higher education marketing.

In the May 2017 issue of Stamats Insights, Dr. Sevier outlined the four essential ingredients for a truly great marketing department: clear direction, political support, talent, and resources. Bob concluded his article by observing once these key ingredients are in place, then organizational structure should be considered next. Bob’s approach is similar to the process I’ve followed to realign jobs and reporting relationships at several points in my career.

I recently used it to help a colleague at another institution restructure her department. This vice president was a newcomer to higher education—but not to marketing. When she arrived she found that her department was full of jobs that were tailored to the needs and interests of individuals. Key functions like social media, web design and production, and news media relations were shared haphazardly across a number of positions, with multiple individuals handling parts of a function. Lines of responsibility were blurred, and the VP felt that she couldn’t refill one of those jobs because it would require her to find a “unicorn.”

I recommended she start by writing a marketing plan for her college, identifying the institution’s key business goals and the marketing strategies necessary to support those goals, as well as identifying the core messages and priority audiences that needed to be reached. The new VP did this and then obtained the support of the president and other senior leaders.

Next, she drew up a new organization chart that showed the positions necessary to deliver the strategies identified in the plan. I encouraged her to make this a “blank slate” exercise—creating the ideal set of jobs and reporting relationships that made the most sense. She passed this by the Human Resources director and received support. Then we set out thinking carefully about how to match the strengths and talents of each employee to the new positions that she’d envisioned.

The VP made some adjustments to tailor one or two roles to fit key individuals, but resisted the temptation to replicate the “unicorn” approach she’d inherited. Faced with changes, one person decided to retire, and the VP eliminated three more roles and started searches to fill the new positions she’d developed. For the staff who remained, the new structure provided opportunities to learn new skills and grow in their careers.

Today, six months after we began the process, the VP has successfully restructured and re-staffed her department with new job functions and clear areas of responsibility. The new skill set she brought on aligns with institutional priorities, and for the first time marketing goals and actionable strategies are being implemented to achieve these goals. Operationalizing the new vision requires ongoing change management to help transition her department from being tactical to strategic marketers, but it has invigorated them to experiment with new ideas.

While there are many similarities among institutions of higher education, no two are exactly alike or face the exact same conditions, and that’s why one size will not fit all when it comes to organizing the marketing department. You need to find the structure that works for you, and that comes from first crafting a strategy and gaining support, then building the structure that best delivers your strategy, and only then slotting in people.

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