A Conversation on the Future of Higher Ed Marketing

RHB vice president Rob Zinkan joined the Enrollify Podcast recently for a wide-ranging conversation, covering topics such as the implications of the pandemic on marketing department structures and budgets. A transcript of the episode is below.

·  ·  ·

Transcript:

Zach: Hello, and welcome to the Enrollify Podcast. My name is Zach Busekrus, and I am the host of today’s episode. And today I have the great privilege of speaking with Rob Zinkan, who is a higher education leader and strategist who currently serves as a vice president at RHB Global. Welcome to the show, Rob.

Rob: Hey, Zach, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me. I enjoy listening to the podcast. You’ve had an interesting cross section of people who touch enrollment marketing in a variety of ways. So I’m glad to join the mix.

Zach: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Could you just start, Rob, by giving us a quick overview for our listeners who are not familiar with what RHB Global is? Can you just give us the crash course overview of who you all are?

Rob: Definitely. RHB is a higher education marketing consultancy based in Indianapolis, and we are now in our 30th year. RHB helps institutions gain clarity for their market positioning and equips them to confidently communicate their distinctiveness throughout the student journey. And so the work could entail anything from research to strategy to CRM integration. At RHB, I serve as vice president and lead our practice and marketing and communications organizational assessments, and I have the privilege of helping institutions and their leaders dig into critical questions around structure and staffing and systems and spend—some of the things that we’ll be talking about today.

Zach: Fantastic. I really appreciate that. It’s my understanding based off of stalking your LinkedIn profile, that you’re relatively new to this role at RHB, but you’re definitely not new to higher education. So could you just give us a CliffsNotes overview of your career to date? Where did you start, how long have you been in higher ed and what are some of the things that you’ve done along the way?

Rob: Sure, yeah, not new at all. I’ve spent 20 years in higher education administration in marketing and advancement. I’ve always worked on the university side until moving to RHB last year. I started my career in athletics administration, working in external affairs. College athletics—it’s a ton of fun, especially when you’re young in your career. I loved the energy of it and seeing student-athletes grow and develop over the course of a four-year journey. I think I learned “the hustle” there; every dollar counts when it comes to sponsorships and ticket sales and fundraising, which was certainly the case at a Division II school and at a smaller DI school.

But I was always intrigued learning from colleagues in university administration—that it would be a growth opportunity to work in more of a campus-wide role. So I eventually returned to my home state and joined Indiana University. I was at a regional campus location and was a frontline development officer and alumni relations officer, became assistant dean for advancement, and I was fortunate there to work with a visionary leader, Nasser Paydar, who currently is chancellor of IUPUI, and I followed him when he became chancellor at another Indiana University campus, a larger regional campus.

I became vice chancellor for external affairs working with him. It was a period of growth and transformation for the campus, Indiana University East, which was transitioning from more of a community college role to a bachelor’s and master’s institution. It’s rare to be part of a mission and image transformation, so that was a rewarding experience. I really enjoyed the smaller campus setting in terms of the relationships and feeling really close to the student experience and being able to impact several facets of the campus. Among the takeaways from that time was an appreciation of being nimble and able to innovate at a smaller campus.

For example, I led an integrated advancement model there, and we even brought campus life into that portfolio, which is certainly unconventional, but worked really well for us there. So we had the entire lifecycle from admission to marketing to student activities and student communications, all the way to alumni engagement and philanthropy. That was before any lifetime CRM, but we saw a visible increase in alumni engagement, particularly younger alumni because the transition was more seamless from student to new graduate. They no longer had to reintroduce themselves, if you will, to the university.

I also started working on my doctorate at that time, knowing that it would be helpful to have if I ever considered trying to go the small campus president or chancellor route from a nontraditional path, not being an academician. At those regional campuses, I saw how much of the chancellor’s role was really community-focused on external relations, especially when the mission is to serve a particular geographic region and be really connected to the community. So I thought, “Hey, I might want to do that one day.” But next, though, I moved to a system-wide role for Indiana University as associate vice president for marketing, covering 100,000 students with campuses all around the state.

There we developed and deployed the institution’s first university-wide brand strategy. We developed the university’s brand in terms of helping bring coherence to the institution’s marketing efforts across 300-plus distributed marketing and communications professionals across the university. So it was really interesting being on both sides, first at the campus or the unit level, and then at the system level. Those three stops totaled 17 years with Indiana University, and last year I left to join RHB, which had been an important partner over the years to multiple schools and units at Indiana while I was there. It’s been a great transition. There you go, Zach. That’s 20-some years in about five minutes.

Zach: I’m impressed. That was very well done. Very well done. I’m curious to just piggyback off of something that you were saying. You have really seen, you’ve straddled a wide variety of different roles in higher ed and seen different contexts. A lot of the times higher ed is known for being a very siloed space, and it being really, really hard to collaborate across departments. So in your time, as you moved up through the proverbial ladder at IU, as you again oscillated between roles in external affairs and advancement and ultimately marketing, were there any particular perspectives that you garnered about how different departments, how different groups within an institution can do a better job of collaborating specifically with respect to consolidating resources? Obviously, we’re living in a time right now where resources are thinning and there’s a lot of fear around how organizations, how institutions will restructure. Any tips or tricks that you’ve garnered along the way with respect to how different departments can be more collaborative with each other?

Rob: Yes, it’s certainly easier said than done when some of those elements of decentralization are deeply rooted in culture or deeply rooted in structure, such as a responsibility-centered management budgeting model that is completely decentralized. I had the benefit over that time of being in so many different frontline roles in athletics, alumni relations, development, communications and marketing and in working across an institution at a unit level, campus level and then enterprise level. I think I learned over the course of the time where those points of common interests are, where those points are that we can be on the same page. It may sound cheesy, but you can bring everybody together when you’re talking about mission.

When you start with the mission and can base a conversation on that, that’s one point. Then two, so critical for marketing communications is the audience-centric nature, bringing the voice, bringing the perspective of those you’re trying to reach, influence and move to action. If you can get people to step out of their silos or step out of their tunnel view (because they’re so focused on their discipline or what they’re trying to do) and try to step back and put themselves in the shoes of their audience. I think that can be a way that you can bring people together. I know we’re going to get into some of the specifics around structures and spend, but I think those overarching approaches just to create some high-level common ground is critical.

Zach: I appreciate that. That’s fantastic insight. So yes, we’re going to talk about the future of university marketing and communications, and I’m really looking forward to diving into that. But first, you wrote this article in Inside Higher Ed, which is how we first connected. In it, you talk about having a child in college, high school, middle school and elementary school, and all of your children have been learning from a distance over these past several months at home. I’m just curious if you could speak a little bit to the great, the good, the bad, maybe ugly over what these past few months have looked like. I think that your perspective is pretty unique. Any specific observations gleaned during this increased in quality time together?

Rob: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s made for an interesting household. That’s for sure. Even with just everyone trying to find a space to do work and be on Zoom. A new adventure each day and a challenge to the parental roles. But yeah, it’s been interesting. I would say on the positive side—especially for our high schooler—the ability to manage her own time and her own schedule with less seat time was nice. So maybe that felt closer to how it might be in college for her. That was across the board though. The kids felt they could be more efficient with their time, and they liked getting a little more sleep in the morning too, each morning. Schools had to be creative and get creative in all sorts of ways to keep students engaged and connected to one another, and that was fun to see how they would go about doing that. In fact, just last week, we had eighth grade graduation and it took place outdoors at drive-in movie theater. That made for a pretty cool video presentation on the big screen. There was still social distancing, but it was a shared experience. Everyone could do that together. On the negative side or leaning towards the negative side, the learning experience was probably less robust overall, especially at those ages during such a formative time. Actually, among our four, it was probably toughest on our college student, to be a freshman and be fully immersed in that coming-of-age experience, and then just like that it’s gone. That was a tough adjustment for him.

If your university’s educational experience is built as a residential experience, that extended spring break period was simply not enough. It was not going to be sufficient preparation for true online learning. It was remote learning, and everyone tried to make the best of it. I was always peppering him with questions about the experience and if there were any moments that he experienced where he thought that the university’s brand came to life or the experience was consistent with why he chose to go there. I think that was hard to deliver, especially under those circumstances.

Zach: Sure, sure. That’s incredible. I have two brothers, one just graduated from high school and the other just graduated from college, and they both have been totally disrupted in their semester and just missing out on all the ceremonial sendoffs that students are used to. I appreciate you sharing that perspective. I was sure that it would be a unique one, having people that span the entire education system right around your dining room table. So I’m sure it made for a great family time, hopefully some bonding. I want to shift and talk a little bit about this article that you recently wrote in Inside Higher Ed, and you highlight some troubling quotes, to put it lightly, from discussions that you and team members have been having with CMOs over the past couple of months. Can you recount some of the highlights of these conversations with us? What are marketing leaders most worried about as we enter, what is it, month three, month four of this global pandemic?

Rob: Yeah, it’s all blending together. Interesting times for sure. Everyone’s work has shifted, no doubt. Marketing and communications teams are doing a lot of heavy lifting for their institutions right now, and that’s been incredible. It’s been a lot, it’s been stressful as things change daily and weekly. We’ve seen much more of the workload shift to internal communications, and in some cases, two-thirds of the current work for a marcomm team is being focused in this area, which makes sense.

Teams are getting much more involved in student retention and student communications, and I think that’s a good thing, which I hope continues beyond the pandemic. I was presenting for a CASE conference earlier this month on the topic of marketing organizational structures with Julie Zito, AVP for marketing at American University. Julie talked about some of the new opportunities where her team and her team’s skillset have benefited the university. She’s been telling her team that this is our moment, particularly in reimagining events, such as commencement. The marketing team is well versed at bringing an audience-centric, customer experience mindset to problem-solving.

They’ve been assisting the university in new ways and providing important leadership as a result. But in terms of worry, beyond the general fatigue, I think it’s all about the financial fallout of this. Budget cuts are an unfortunate reality now for many places with lost revenues and state budget reductions. It’s tough to see that play out when marketing staffs and budgets are negatively affected. The prospect of being asked to do more with less and having positions eliminated, obviously that’s extremely, extremely difficult right now.

Zach: Sure, sure. Yeah. Colleges and universities, many have already announced that hiring is frozen, some have already canceled or planned to cancel salary increases. I’m curious, how do you as somebody who’s a professional marketer, you’ve been in the space for a while, you’ve seen a lot, you’re now working on the partner side of things, how do you think that this is going to impact, not even the long-term evolution of higher ed marketing, but the short term? What do you think the next 12 to 24 months are going to look for your average higher ed marcomm team—I know that this varies so much depending on context—but what is the next 12 to 24 months going to look like?

Rob: Well, I hope not too much smaller as a result of cuts. As I mentioned in that article, I think to some degree, it’s going to be a moment of truth for what marketing and communications teams look like in the coming months and the coming years. That goes to how the institutional leadership will look at marketing and will see those investments in marketing. Obviously, it’s not just marketing that’s going to get heavily scrutinized. I mean, all parts of a university will be. But if I had to categorize all marketing departments across higher ed, I would broadly put them into two general categories, those focused on outputs, providing services and support and churning things out, various pieces of materials. Many marcomm offices started as publications offices. In this case, the marketing director or the marketing lead is more of the chief everything officer. They’re taking requests in all directions. The dean wants this and a faculty member has an upcoming public lecture and they need a brochure. They want to get butts in seats. So, it’s this constant reacting and responding to needs and requests. In the other category are those departments that are focused on outcomes, where the work is tightly aligned to the institution’s strategic priorities, and marketing’s impact is understood in strengthening an institution’s reputation and increasing the flow of revenue into the institution through enrollment and philanthropy. That’s why VP-level CMO positions have entered higher ed in the last decade-plus.

Now with the competition for students and resources and talent intensifying, the role of marketing has needed to shift and evolve from being just focused on outputs. But the reality is that many are still trying to get there and become more outcomes driven. So, while there are a lot of challenges right now, just as you said, it’s also a great opportunity, just as in the American University example. Marketing has had to step up and really help the university in this critical time. When it comes to cuts, if cuts are across the board, they’re going to be unavoidable. Sure. But in other cases, I think that this question of outputs versus outcomes will be a core consideration. Is marketing seen as a cost center or truly as an integral part of the institution’s ability to achieve its strategic priorities?

Zach: How do you think that folks who are listening to this podcast right now, they’re working in marcomm, maybe they have an average-sized team, let’s say they’ve got three or four people on their team, they’re at a small- to medium-sized institution, how do they go about it? If they’re listening to this thinking, “Okay, oh, we might be more of an output team more than we are an outcome team,” what are one or two things that folks can do to start orienting themselves to become more truly an outcome-driven group of people? What are one or two or a couple of different ways in which folks can measure their progress as they move from outputs to outcomes?

Rob: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think it starts with a very fundamental question, and that is, What is the change that marketing should affect for this college or university—or, as you said, if it’s a team of three, perhaps at an academic school or academic unit. It’s getting alignment around what we are supposed to do, what we should be doing to advance the mission of this organization and advance the university’s strategic priorities. Is there alignment around that from the team and the leadership and the campus community? Everyone should understand marketing, they should value it, they should see their role in it. It seems like such a basic question of “What is the change marketing should affect?”, but it’s harder than one might think for everyone to be on the same page with that.

If I’m in fundraising or I’m in admissions, those metrics are clearer and much better understood. In marketing, that’s not always the case. That would certainly be a beginning point and we can talk more about some of those measures and trying to educate leadership on what we should be focused on, what we should be measuring and what matters. I also think—even going back to your previous question about what does the future look like—it’s an opportunity for higher ed marketing to evolve in a variety of ways. To this point about playing an important role for the institution, seeing the CMO as more of a chief strategy officer—not just being aligned with the university priorities, but helping set direction for the university and where it needs to go, by bringing that intimate understanding of your audiences and intimate understanding of the marketplace.

The CMO, in higher ed at least, is typically not involved as much or at all in product development and in shaping the student experience. Those are some of the opportunities now where these times, I think, lend an opening for the CMO to get more involved, engaged in those product development and student experience discussions that a CMO should be involved in.

Zach: Absolutely. Do you think that—and maybe you can pull from a story or even just a learning during your time at IU—what sort of relationship do you think that these teams need to have with advancement and enrollment management and potentially others? In other words, for years—and again, I know this varies quite dramatically depending on the context of the institution—enrollment management has operated in one bucket and marcomm’s over here and then advancement is in a different bucket. It sounds, based off of what you’re saying, you see marketing—marcomm teams— being this bridge, especially in this new reality, they need to be working harder to work with enrollment management, to work with advancement, to understand KPIs—what does success look like, what are the things that we’re doing from an outcome standpoint that will realize success within your department’s context. So, do you have any specific examples of great collaboration that you’ve seen between marcomm teams or enrollment management, or are there any lessons that you’ve learned around how marketing can do a better job at supporting the departments that maybe ROI or impact is a little bit easier to track?

Rob: Yeah, and I think that gets into some of the complications around what is marketing supposed to affect, because if you look across an institution, the marketing objectives could vary pretty drastically. You might have within one unit the focus is on graduate recruitment. Another academic school focuses on reputation for rankings of key programs. Another might be faculty recruitment. You can have a more level playing field, if you will, across philanthropy or enrollment management. With philanthropy, for example, it’s much more likely that you might see a model where development officers are embedded in the units, but they report centrally because we all can measure the work similarly. Whereas across the marketing activities of an institution, those points of emphasis or those individual objectives can vary widely.

But to your point about connections with admissions/enrollment management and philanthropy, certainly a marketing department should be connecting its work to those ultimate objectives. If marketing is supposed to be about enhancing reputation and enhancing the flow of resources into the institution, you need to connect your work directly to those outcomes. And yes, a lot of other things go into affecting those measures, but you need to be wedded to those as well. So, I think aligning your work and your goals to those business objectives is key, and also in this time, thinking differently about the ways that we can collaborate. This opens so many possibilities to thinking differently about structures and models.

To follow up on your question specific to advancement and using that as an example with alumni relations and development. Alumni relations, for instance—the predominant organizational alignment for alumni relations is to be with development. That’s what you typically see in higher ed, and now you’re seeing more examples of alumni relations being connected to career services that is a much more audience-centric approach. I think, what if alumni relations and marketing/communications were connected? I go back to the CASE metrics for alumni engagement that are being developed, and they’re focused on these four areas of volunteer, experiential, philanthropic and communications. Actually, I’d add a fifth, that being “learning” as a metric as well. But if you look at those four or even five, just one of them is philanthropy, but yet the predominant model is for alumni engagement to be connected to development. Again, why can’t we think of marketing and communications in that way (as a natural organizational alignment with alumni relations)?

Again, just to continue on this rant about models and structures, here’s another example. Doing an organizational assessment for marketing and communications recently, part of this project was a competitive peer review, and looking at those peers, the range of staff size was 6–48. So it was all over the place. That’s not necessarily a surprise because there’s no one model or no one structure when it comes to higher ed. The organizational models and staff sizes, they vary widely. But there is one relatively common broad characteristic to these organizational models for marketing and communications. They’re function-centric—function-centric meaning that they’re organized around things like operations, creative, content and design. If you look at that, they’re really optimized for outputs—back to this question, are you output-oriented or are you outcomes-oriented?

If you look at the majority of org charts in higher ed for marcomm, they tend to be optimized around outputs. That’s another opportunity area for marketing and communications professionals and VPs and AVPs, to step back during this time where there might be an opportunity to think differently—or we may be forced to think differently about how we’re structured and how we collaborate—and look at your current org chart. What does it say about what you’re currently optimized for and optimized to do?

Zach: Yeah, I bet that that will open up a wonderful conversation about, “Hey, why are we siloed in this way,” or, “Wow, who knew that if we could get better access to this data that advancement has, to enrollment management to marketing, we would be able to operate a lot more sustainably?” I’m right there with you. I think that what this moment—the shaking that this moment is doing to higher ed—while painful, is probably a good thing at least in the long run. Because I do think it’ll open up a lot of opportunities for increased collaboration, a better allocation of resources. Do you think, speaking specifically about marcomm here, how do you predict a spend will shift? Again, I know that these questions are hard because it varies so much depending on the context of the university. Do you see higher ed moving to outsourcing more during this moment? Do you see a doubling down of internal resources? How do you think that marketing spend will shift or won’t shift over the coming 12 to 24 months?

Rob: Yeah, that’s another great question. I would predict a smarter spend, a more precise spend in both areas. Definitely this issue of efficiency—having that focus, that interest around efficiency—being so important right now, now more than ever. Frankly though, it was already an issue for higher ed because relative to other sectors, higher ed marketing spend is not huge to begin with. Everyone has already been trying to make their dollars go as far as possible. So, for instance, a large public university may only be spending about a 1% or 1.5% percent of its annual operating budget on marketing, compared to other sectors where that average would be 10% or more.

But the thing is, that spend is typically coming from lots of different places across the university, and in many cases, the majority of that spend is coming from everywhere else, not necessarily the central marketing unit. It’s happening in athletics and admissions and school of business and various other schools and units. So, if I were starting from scratch to build a marketing organization that would maximize effectiveness and efficiency across an institution, it certainly wouldn’t be that type of model that risks being siloed, risks being uncoordinated and inefficient in terms of marketing expenditures.

So again, it’s imperative, especially now, to figure out how to make the most of those investments. For many institutions, they don’t even know what that total spend is. They can’t answer that question, and that’s the first step, just understanding what the total spend is. At Indiana University, we had a process for tracking total marketing expenditures across the enterprise. I did some benchmarking across the Big Ten about three years ago, and only two other universities at the time were able to track total spend, so that’s three out of 14 universities. And those other two did it by working with purchasing and trying to make sense of purchasing data and codes, which sounds like you’d want to pull your hair out, trying to figure that out—but at least was a process. At Indiana University, we took a different approach. Each spring we requested marketing plans and budgets from campuses, schools and units for the upcoming fiscal year, and it was incredibly useful. We knew it wasn’t going to be 100% accurate because it was projected spend, but at least we were now counting the same things the same way across the university. Benchmarking is really hard in higher ed for marketing spend because what one institution may consider a marketing expense, another may count that or define that differently. We were at least starting to count everything the same way, and we could see trends and we could identify opportunities and overall could better steward the university’s resources.

To your question, I think focus should be on these internal resources, even the purchasing data—what does your purchasing data tell you about your outsourced spend and your vendor relationships? So, I would predict fewer partners. Instead of dozens of graphic designers in the purchasing system that a large university may have done business within the last year, you develop a network of, say, a half dozen and you create more efficiencies around that—and a better expression of the university’s brand. In our reviews, our organizational assessments, as I said, we look at structure and staffing and systems and spend. These systems I think are an important question. How many different CRMs, how many different digital asset management systems or how many different project management systems are being used across the institution and why? There’s opportunity there. Maybe in previous years, units had to figure these things out themselves. They could just go out and say, “Hey, I want to use this.” But now it’s time, now it’s time to lead from the center. I think those are just a few of the opportunities, and you can take any area—professional development and training, hey, let’s look at that more holistically. I think there are a lot of ways that marketing and communications teams and universities can take a more holistic look at those internal resources.

Zach: Speaking of this move towards increase in efficiency, if you were a director of marcomm at let’s say a mid-tier university…We’re in the middle of June right now, right? So, for many, many institutions, people are about to get their budgets, at least hopefully come July 1, they’ll have a better understanding of, “Okay, what is it that we’re going to have access to in terms of resources over the next 12 months?” How do directors of marketing and communication teams, how do they spend these next couple months? The summers, which are typically a little bit slower and higher ed, probably not this year, how do they wisely take a look at the resources that they will have at their disposal and start crafting a semblance of a plan? If you were in their shoes, how do you spend the month of July and August prepping for the fall with an understanding that you’re probably operating with, let’s say, a third fewer resources than you had at your disposal last year?

Rob: I know many are going to be answering that exact same question and in that same kind of the dilemma. There are a few different ways to think about it, and again to make the fundraising comparison of, you have 10% of your donors account for 90% of your fundraising dollars, I think to some degree, you’ve got to take that same kind of approach with marketing and you’ve got to be focused. You can’t be all things to all people, you can’t do everything that you’re going to want to do. So I would be sitting down and spending a lot of time with my institution’s strategic plan to figure that out—and hopefully you’ve already done that and you were an integral part of crafting the strategic plan and were part of those discussions and helping inform the strategic plan.

But I would want to make sure that there’s focus to what our marcomm plan looks like and you have identified what are the areas where we can make the biggest impact and move the university forward in the most important ways? Again, focus is really hard when you’re trying to move from outputs to outcomes and you still have a lot of work that you have to push out and generate. And as we think about resources and crafting the plan and making the case for that, I again would harp on this issue about outcomes and outputs. Are you thinking about, or is leadership thinking about, the budget from a standpoint of outputs where you may be talking about, do we eliminate an issue of the alumni magazine or go from print to digital only? Those are important things to decide, and you’ve got to figure that out. But is that the kind of mindset that is being applied towards what marketing is going to do and what is marketing’s investment going to be for the coming year? Whereas if it’s about outcomes—and to your question about planning for the next year—I would also be looking at opportunities. If marketing is about outcomes, we might be having a completely different discussion. We may be talking about how now is a time of opportunity for us. It may cost less for us to enter a new market, or our competitors—for health sciences related programs or whatever—are going to have to cut back. They’ll have to reduce their spending. So, hey, here’s an opportunity for us, and we can get an even stronger return on certain marketing investments.

Zach: I love it. That makes a lot of sense, and hopefully folks, if they aren’t already doing these things, should start doing these things. Sort of the same question, but a different perspective here. If you’re university president or you’re in leadership within the context of an institution and you’re in charge of determining, okay, what budget do you give to your school’s marketing team for the next academic year? How do you go about determining what a fair budget is? For so many schools it might feel like their baseline metrics have just been totally disrupted. How do you help guide, coach your team in determining what resources you are able to give to them? Then what sort of metrics would you be looking for to evaluate—and again, you’ve hit on this a little bit already—but what sort of metrics would you be looking for to evaluate the success of this allocation of spend?

Rob: You’ve hit on such a critical issue for higher ed marketing right now, and that’s metrics. How do we know that we’ve been successful? How can we show that our work has made a difference? As I said earlier, it’s a much easier case, a much easier discussion if you’re in fundraising, if you’re in admissions. There’s an education component to this to help colleagues understand the measures of brand strength and measures of brand health, and how those connect to the key business indicators. Again, we should tie ourselves and our work to those key business indicators if marketing is ultimately about reputation and ultimately about revenue. That education component is so important.

And also around playing the long game, brand strategy is about building long-term value. So just you like wouldn’t want to view a major gifts fundraising success over just a short window, neither should you do that for assessing brand. I think there are a lot of reasons for this disconnect around metrics. Again, I’ve talked about how marketing objectives can vary across the university. It would be easy to just say, “Hey, this should all be centralized.” Absolutely, a centralized model would drive better effectiveness and efficiency across the university. But there is a lot of nuance to it, with the decentralized culture and the decentralized budgeting systems and things that we’ve already talked about that for many colleges and universities have been there for a long time. Once again, this is an opportune time to step back now and look and say, “Is this right for our institution?”

There’s a lot of room to be exploring interesting hybrid models right now that may lean more towards a centralized approach—but would still be more of a centralized approach than a university has now—that can bring a more unified, integrated approach across the university, that’s more center led. And again, there’s this issue of total spend, thinking about what’s happening across the total university, because you can’t determine ROI without knowing the “I” and understanding what all of those expenditures are. If you’re in one of those central marketing positions where your central team is only accounting for 25% of the marketing spend across the enterprise but you’re in a position of having to answer to the president and to the board for all of those marketing activities and expenditures across an institution, you’ve got to figure out a way—your institution has to figure out a way—to look collectively at that. There are so many ways, like we’ve already discussed, to be more efficient or effective in that spend. But in making a case and what those metrics are, Zach, I think it’s less about what the metrics are and more about there being alignment among everyone, among leadership, among the marcomm team about what the key metrics are. That alignment has to exist.

Zach: Yeah, absolutely. I think now more than ever before, as everything is scrutinized, it’s just absolutely essential that both the leaders of the institution as a whole and the leaders of various departments are in unison about what it is that they’re going to be focused on, especially over the next 12 to 24 months. I appreciate those comments as well. Rob, this has been a really exciting, fun, insightful conversation for me. Do you have any just a couple of takeaways that you hope our listeners will walk away with? Any parting words before we conclude today’s combo?

Rob: Yes. I’d start with, lead from the center, reiterating some of the things that we’ve touched on. I was talking last week to a unit-level marketing director, and she said something that I loved. She said, “I consider myself an extension of university marketing,” and I thought that was just great. Our instinct in central marketing might be to say, “Hey, consider us an extension of your school’s marketing team,” telling those marketing directors at the unit level, “Hey, we can help you. We’re a resource for you.” But we should be thinking about working to build an overall marketing community, creating a culture across the institution regardless of what reporting lines look like and regardless of what the org chart looks like. Of course, that comes from relationships and trust and expertise, and that takes time. But lead from the center.

Another takeaway is about the org chart again, and taking a fresh look at the organizational chart and what your org chart is optimized for. Then last, I think during this time of reorganizations, I would say to rethink the reorg, to think of reorganization or organization design more like web design, where ideally there is constant iteration. Reorganization tends to have a negative connotation, but we need to embrace constant realignment. Now, for you to remain competitive, organizational alignments should be an iterative routine practice where on an ongoing basis you’re adapting the marcomm function to the work that your university needs and to the talent that your university has.

Zach: Rob, that was awesome. Some real golden takeaways there. I really, really appreciate your time today. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Thank you for sharing your learnings over the years with us. It’s been a privilege speaking with you, and I look forward to continuing to get to learn from you.

Rob: Absolutely, Zach. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

  • Spread the word
Rob Zinkan

Rob is Vice President at RHB.