The Honest Marketer

Friday, 8 July 2011

Media madness – but who’s to blame?

Nobody could fail to be anything but horrified at the latest claims that the phones of Milly Dowler, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and a number of servicemen were hacked by private investigators working for the media. It’s quite rightly been dubbed as “one of the biggest scandals in public life for decades” and everyone is – naturally – quick to criticise the media concerned, which has ultimately led to the closure of the paper this Sunday.
But as we happily pointed the finger, I do think we need to take a closer look at our own consumption of media and whether we share any part in the blame.

Having started out my career working as a journalist, I do feel some sympathy with the media – not that I in any way condone the recent events. The traditional print media faces a very challenging climate where news and information is much more freely available. To continue to make a profit journalists are being driven to find every angle in a story – ideally different to that of their competitors – because it’s what sells papers. The News of the World appears to have been the extreme point of a continuum in which most other media also sit when it comes to the means justifying the end.

When you consider it, the practice of interfering to find intimate news is one that is well established – though admittedly ‘doorstepping’ is legal. This accepted practice is driven purely by the public’s desire to want to know more when something horrific, tragic or criminal occurs. Some people will quite happily open up their lives for publicity and some journalists enjoy the thrill of persuading individuals to do this. It was never for me. One of the reasons I chose to take my career in a different direction was because of the increasing desire to probe into the most tragic moments of everyday life. I particularly recall the accidental death of a young boy by strangulation, which occurred one Sunday. As the only reporter on duty, it was up to me to find the name of the victim – as the police don’t reveal these details – by whatever means possible. In the end I discovered the identity from a group of schoolchildren who had known the youngster and my next step was to approach the parents. I actually never did. On arriving at the house and seeing a group of people clearly extremely distressed and agitated, the photographer and I took the decision to leave them to their grief. I did get the story – or ‘tribute’ – from a neighbour, but I felt extremely uncomfortable and I don’t regret my decision (though my old Editor would not be best pleased).

As a journalist I felt that I should not approach others unless I would be prepared to provide an interview in a similar situation. As a parent, I’m just not convinced that giving an interview after the death of one of my children (God forbid) – even if it was intended to be a tribute piece – would be my top priority. Yet, if I’m honest, I remain as curious as the next when tragedy and misfortune touches someone else’s life.

The hard truth is that ‘we’, the public, demand the ins and outs of these stories and we’ll happily read the headlines that no doubt arose from some of this phone hacking. Just look at how many gossip magazines have been created in the last decade. We want to know every aspect of a celebrity’s, politician’s, criminal’s or victim’s life and it doesn’t really bother us (at the time) who the ‘close source’ who reveals the information is.

The wakeup call for me into how low human behaviour can sink when it comes to curiosity (or sheer nosiness) is the shocking trial of Florida’s Casey Anthony, who was cleared this week of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The trial became a media circus which was fuelled by the press and led to tourists queuing from 5am to get seats in the gallery. I may be being cynical, but I somehow doubt their motivation was a genuine concern for the tragic death of a beautiful little girl.
The News of the World may now be doomed, but I don’t think that entirely solves the problem (and worse still, this decision penalises dozens of innocent individuals who had nothing to do with the behaviour being criticised). The demand for that type of news clearly still exists and we’ll seek it out. The root cause of the problem is being pushed underground and potentially we are just transferring the pressure (or the temptation) to meet this demand to another media source.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A personal perspective on the White Paper

Having spent an afternoon trawling through the Government White Paper, it left me perplexed. I'm struggling to see how universities, like mine, despite our rising popularity will benefit, but I'm trying to remain open-minded. This is my personal perspective and my comments on the points that particularly stood out to me.

The report is launched with a foreword that begins: "Our university sector has a proud history and a world-class reputation, attracting students from across the world". That’s true and it’s nice to see the Government acknowledge this, but we won't for much longer with the restrictions the UK Border Agency is putting in place. The message overseas is not a positive one and other countries are being quick to capitalize on the opportunities to divert international students their way.

The second sentence I found particularly amusing as it stated that "Higher Education is a successful public-private partnership: Government funding and institutional autonomy". Unless I'm missing something, the Government funding seems to be reducing and, the last time I checked, autonomy means ‘self-government’, which is hardly the case when our full-time undergraduate numbers are strictly monitored and there is a Government-imposed limit on what we can charge for our services. The partnership, I’d suggest, is an increasingly uneasy one.

The foreword goes on to tell universities that we will be under competitive pressure "to provide better quality and lower cost". How exactly – with a magic wand? Where else does low cost mean better quality?

The Paper itself starts with an admission that “Higher Education has a fundamental value in itself” (I wholeheartedly agree) and that “the challenge [universities] face is putting the undergraduate experience at the heart of the system”. Again, true, but excuse me, I would suggest that most universities have been focusing on putting the student experience at the heart of what we do for some time now because if we don’t, we won’t have any students. I’m also not convinced that restricting student numbers, cutting funding and limiting university income potential are the really best ways to do this.

It points out that “the current system of controls limits student choice because institutions are prevented from expanding in response to demand from applicants”. This has been one of my biggest frustrations: UCAS applications to Birmingham City University rose 63% in a period where our numbers were capped. The Paper talks about creating “a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow”, which sounds fantastic until you take a look at the criteria for releasing places. The Government is going to allow unconstrained recruitment of roughly 65,000 high-achieving students scoring the equivalent of AAB or above – okay, so that keeps the Russell Group happy. It’s also going to create a flexible margin of about 20,000 places to reward universities and colleges “who combine good quality with value for money and whose average tuition charge (after fee waivers) is at or below £7,500 per year.” But what exactly constitutes good quality and value for money and how much influence will the price have on the decision to award extra places? What if, as a result, your university doesn’t meet the eventual criteria but remains one of the most popular? It doesn’t sound like the “level playing field” the Government is keen to foster.

Where I think the Government has it right in terms of creating real market forces is the focus on transparency when it comes to our performance. I do support the plans to “radically improve and expand the information available to prospective students”. Universities should be proud of what they have to offer and unafraid of the indicators that benchmark them. And, in a university where we are leading the way in student engagement (on the back of our THE ‘Outstanding support for Students’ win last year), it’s not surprising that I support the move towards greater student feedback and consultation. Our services should be market-driven.

I do fundamentally agree – though I might not like the personal implications for my family – of having a system where the beneficiaries make a larger contribution to their costs on a “pay as you earn” basis. What I’m less comfortable with are plans to charge a levy on those who want to pay off their loans early. Consultation on the Early Repayment is taking place now and, following all the negative publicity about the fee rises, it’s particularly important we get this right.  To make sure your voice is heard, visit

On the whole, for me, the White Paper raises more questions than it answers and is somewhat self-contradictory. I do sympathize with the “enormous deficit” and resulting “spending pressures” the Government has inherited, but I am particularly anxious about plans to reduce the core allocation of student numbers at universities every year, particularly if the focus on additional numbers remains cost-driven and on an assumption that better quality equates to lower cost.

Against all odds - marketing British universities in 2011

Barely a day goes by these days without another headline screaming from the nationals about the extortionate future cost of a degree. What with the ongoing saga of the UK Border Agency and the new warnings of the risk of extremism on campus, I’m beginning to wonder ‘What next?’

I’ve been marketing universities for over 15 years – Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Northampton and now Birmingham City – and never before has it been as challenging to convey the genuine advantages of a university education as it is now. The only positive from my perspective is that Marketing is certainly in the spotlight!

The damaging publicity about the rising cost of a degree for UK full-time students is so frustrating; particularly for someone who is marketing a variable fee that we believe is fair given the circumstances and in terms of what this University can offer prospective students.

The message that you don’t have to pay for a degree up front is clearly not getting through. It is such a shame.

In fairness, the Government is trying. Its ‘Make Your Future Happen’ campaign has lots of information to counteract some of the myths about the cost post-2012 and repayment. Unfortunately, the Government has to be seen to be fair to all of the options post-18, so it isn’t conveying the benefits of university alongside this campaign – and while I accept that’s clearly the job of universities – it is a bit of a problem when all people see is the cost. There are three paragraphs on the benefits of Higher Education elsewhere within the directgov site, but that’s it.

There is so much evidence to demonstrate the value of a university education and even with higher tuition fees, the cost over a lifetime career is fractional. The student loan repayment amounts are negligible – just check out directgov’s repayment calculator at and pick a career. A Sales Executive on a salary of £25K will have a weekly take home of £379 and pay back just £8 a week on their student loan!

Concerns about UK undergraduate students aside, what is particularly worrying is the fact that there’s evidence to suggest (from colleagues elsewhere in the sector) that the popular phrase being bandied about by the media that the ‘cost has tripled’ – which incidentally isn’t the case for all courses and all universities – is now causing confusion in the postgraduate and international markets too.

It would appear that some postgraduate students are now anxious that their courses are going to triple in price – certainly not the case at Birmingham City University or the majority of other universities I am in contact with. The fact is that most postgraduate courses will probably stay at a similar price because we know that people otherwise won’t be able to afford them.

International students are worried that their fees – which have always been higher to reflect the fact there was no Government funding to begin with – are due to rise phenomenally too. Again, not true.

And let’s be honest, part-time students are completely confused. They have no idea what they’ll pay, what support they’ll be entitled to and how and when they have to pay it back.

In university marketing departments up and down the UK, we’ll keep battling on, pushing out the graduate case studies, highlighting our links with employers and what we are doing to enhance our students' employability. But at this rate it’ll be a minor miracle if anyone turns up to university in 2012 and I come back to my initial question. What next?

Should universities advertise?

As Birmingham City University launches its ‘Upgrade your future’ campaign to demonstrate how we deliver a student experience that gives students the skills employer want and combat the negative publicity around rising costs of HE, it will only be a matter of time before we receive the inevitable question – how much did it cost?

Whenever a University dares to re-brand, develop its website or launch a marketing campaign, the spotlight is immediately and often publicly drawn to the thousands of pounds being spent on these endeavours. The general criticism is that universities are spending “tax payers’ money” – but is this accurate any more and is it justified?

Public funding to universities has been decreasing at phenomenal rates over the last decade and increasingly universities are having to source income from elsewhere – not only additional tuition fees from students themselves, but also third stream income and, in many cases, voluntary giving. Over the last three years, funding to the University through the Funding Councils has fallen by nearly 25 per cent and now represents less than a third of the University’s total income.

What about our motivations for advertising? Are we wasting money that should be diverted instead to enhance the teaching experience – implied in the criticisms we receive – or is this a fundamental part of any business.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every business, organisation and charity promotes itself in some way. From the adverts in Yellow Pages and local newspapers placed by smaller businesses to multi-million pound global advertising of companies like Nike and Microsoft and the direct mail and television campaigns of charities like the NSPCC and Marie Curie, advertising is a means to an end. People don’t come knocking on your door (or website as is increasingly the call to action) unless you first tell them who you are, what you do and give them a reason to want to find out more. Universities are no different.

There are now hundreds of universities and colleges in the UK and if we genuinely want students and businesses to find the university that’s right for them and their individual needs, we have to give them the information they need to make that decision and first point them in the right direction. Advertising remains the quickest way to do this, though we are all looking at the new channels provided by social media and remain reliant on some of the traditional channels of media coverage, school liaison and word-of-mouth.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s 2010 Marketing Trends Survey found the average marketing spend as a percentage of turnover (excluding marketing salaries) for all UK organisations to be 7.29%. For public sector/charity it is 6.55%, compared with 7.79% for the financial services sector. Having worked at four universities, I can tell you that my budgets have never been anywhere near these levels – I generally benchmark at about 2%.

The reason I’ll make do with my 2% is that I believe investment in the teaching, research and business experience should quite rightfully be the priority for universities, but in order to ensure that the right people access these services, there has to be marketing spend as well. Why not let individual universities decide the balance of that spend and respect the professional decisions being made? In what can only be described as a very difficult financial climate, no university is going to be taking financial decisions lightly. So, please give us a break. Why not focus on the messages of our advertising – and the value in what we deliver as educational establishments – rather than the cost?