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Ad executives grade new grads: the final exam that counts.

While a college degree does not guarantee a new marketing graduate a job in the workplace, a sound education is a good starting point. Obviously, the more knowledge a graduate possesses, especially regarding career opportunities, employment trends, and the expectations of potential employers, the better prepared the graduate will be when seeking employment. After all, a college degree is purported to help open the door to a successful career. And, providing career opportunities to marketing majors is a prime raison d'etre for a marketing education.

In today's world, advertising agencies can afford to be more selective when shopping around for an entry-level new hire. This is due in part to a sluggish national economy, Corporate America's new love affair with downsizing, and the overabundance of marketing majors. One estimate, for example, suggests that as many as 15,000 students graduate each year with a degree in advertising while there are only about 5,000 jobs available (Avery, 1991). In addition advertising agencies can often hire experienced people from other agencies. This translates into tough competition for graduating seniors for each available job. Further increasing competition for current marketing graduates is the fact that not only are they competing with other new graduates and experienced people moving from agency to agency, but they are also bumping up against the cohort of graduates still in the market from previous years.

The abundance of marketing/advertising majors translates into a ratcheting-up effect that means that the advertising industry can afford to be choosey and seek only the best and the brightest graduates. A 1994-95 survey conducted by Michigan State University indicates that new college graduates are often their own worst enemies (Scheetz, 1995). Employers say that new grads expect to get too much money; don't want to spend time in apprenticeships; are unwilling to start at the bottom of an organization; and lack interest and enthusiasm for assignments. On the bright side, successful candidates understand the employers' problems and look for solutions. Employers also feel that well-developed teamwork skills, communication skills, and practical work experience offer a distinct advantage for new college graduates seeking employment. Those selected for new agency jobs have to not only demonstrate business savvy and creative skills but also must have the personal attributes normally associated with a high quality new hire. Job seekers who do not exhibit the characteristics considered important by advertising industry employers will probably have problems finding employment (Kelly and Gaedeke, 1990). This study will examine how well new marketing graduates measure up to the expectations of advertising agency executives in an increasingly competitive job market.

Literature Review

A review of relevant literature suggests that employers look for specific qualities in new graduates. One study found, for example, the most sought-after qualities were motivation, communications skills, initiative, maturity, enthusiasm, ambition, assertiveness, self-assurance, and problem solving, leadership, and written communication skills (Gaedeke et al., 1983). The same study reported some criticisms of students applying for positions. These criticisms included: unrealistic expectations of the business world, vagueness about career goals, and lack of work experience. By understanding what employers want, students can better position themselves by selecting electives that will increase their chances of obtaining a job in the advertising industry (Arora and Stoner, 1992).

According to Lauterborn (1987), advertising agencies specifically seek graduates that have a broad-based knowledge encompassing a variety of areas. Another study (Deckinger et al., 1989) concluded that while academics tend to opt for more job-specific business course work, professionals hiring new graduates tended to favor a more broad-based education including courses such as history, humanities, and anthropology. Beyond this breadth of knowledge sought in new hires, advertising agencies seek people who have the zeal to achieve and can, simultaneously, use their depth of knowledge to solve complex business problems. Deckinger's study (1989) further supports the notion that ad agencies seek new hires that are strategic thinkers, problem solvers, organized, and "street smart."

Some advertising agencies expect to train new recruits, while others expect graduates to be productive from day one (English, 1984). Helping their graduates to be more real-world oriented, colleges/universities now offer an array of programs that give participating students some practical experience. For example, there are at least 23 student-run advertising agencies in the United States (Avery, 1991). While student-run agencies are an excellent way to help students gain practical knowledge of the field, the vast majority of colleges and universities are not involving their students to this degree. Other less-intensive approaches provide students with some practitioner applications. For example, Ducoffe and Ducoffe (1990) found in their study of ad executives in Michigan that executives most often recommended student internships in advertising as the best way of improving their job prospects. These types of hands-on programs allow students to hone their business and advertising skills. Hands-on internships give students a far better understanding of the profession and a clearer view of their ultimate career goals (Boyd, 1990). Supporting this contention, Urban (1993) notes that close personal contact with practicing marketing executives may be the best way for a fledgling marketing student to learn. It is important to note that other studies have indicated that while academics feel that school projects and experience are valuable activities for new graduates seeking employment, agencies have not universally accepted that notion - at least in the area of creative writing (Deckinger et al., 1989).

While some students can bridge the gap between theory and practice, some of their professors are doing so as well. For example, the American Academy of Advertising provides selected marketing faculty with the firsthand opportunity to stay in touch with what is going on in the field of advertising through their program of eight-week internships. This initiative allows academicians and advertising industry practitioners to closely interact. Sponsored workshops also bring advertisers and educators together (English, 1984a). Besides industry-sponsored programs, colleges and universities frequently draw upon the marketing/advertising expertise and talent in their local business communities. For example, area business people often serve as classroom guest lecturers, review or coinvestigate ongoing research, and supervise and monitor student interns.

Despite the initiatives to close the gap between theory and practice, the advertising industry still criticizes the quality of many new graduates. Part of the problem seems to stem from the agencies themselves. Boyd (1984), for example, suggests that most advertising agencies really have little knowledge of the typical advertising curriculum and have limited contact with local colleges/universities as well. While strides are being made to involve the business communities at many schools, more effort in this regard seems appropriate. If business schools seek to build bridges between themselves and the local advertising community, advertising executives may be enticed to contribute more to the development of effective programs that produce new graduates that fulfill their needs. The nation's advertising industry is at a point where it can demand high-quality applicants and, at the same time, can choose from an overflowing pool of talented young people. This fact begs the question: In the view of advertising executives, are colleges/universities educating their graduates to compete in today's advertising environment of diminished demand and over supply?
Table 1

Top-Ranked College Majors
(by Rank Order and Percentage of Respondents)

Rank order   Desired college major   Percentage of respondents

1            Marketing                          43.2
2            Liberal Arts                       22.7
3            Does Not Matter                     5.2
4            Journalism                          5.1
5            Advertising                         4.1
Others       General Business                    3.1
             Communications                      3.0
             English                             3.0
             Miscellaneous(1)                   10.6
Total                                          100%

1. Well-Rounded All Areas, Creative Thinking/Logic, Anything Other
than Marketing, Advertising, or Communication, and Depends on

The purpose of this study, then, is to determine if present marketing graduates measure up to the expectations of the advertising industry and, if they do not, what are their shortcomings.


A questionnaire was devised to probe the importance of college major and course work, personal skills and attributes, and academic excellence when advertising executives consider hiring a new marketing graduate. In addition, information was sought on the strengths and weaknesses of newly degreed candidates. Gathered data also provided demographic details on the size of the advertising agency (by annual billings), the location (by state), and the respondent's position (within the agency).

The questionnaire was mailed to a sample of 500 U.S. advertising agencies who were randomly selected from the June-September 1990, Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, also known as the Agency Red Book. The return rate of usable instruments was 20.6 percent, and the respondents represented 97 advertising agencies from a cross section of nearly all 50 states. The data revealed that 76.3 percent of the respondents held the position of President or CEO in the agency pooled. The remaining participants were also in the top echelons of the polled agencies. The annual billings of the responding agencies ranged from $100,000 to a reported $5 billion, thus encompassing the views of both relatively small and very large firms. The nature and high quality of the respondents and the breadth of coverage in terms of agency size and geographic location contributed sufficient data for analysis.

To collect these data respondents were asked to rank-order desired college majors, general knowledge courses, marketing-specific courses, and desirable skills and attributes of newly hired graduates. In addition, information was gathered on other important factors in the hiring process, such as work experience and academic excellence. Lastly, respondents were queried regarding the strengths and weaknesses of new graduates. Frequently, respondents gave comments and expanded on their views.


College Degree. Before moving on to explore the relative importance of a variety of college courses and majors, it was first essential to establish that the respondents felt a college degree was necessary. Otherwise, the question of the quality and relevance of degree programs becomes moot.

The majority of the respondents felt a college degree was an important factor in hiring decisions. Of these, 56.7 percent rated a college degree as very important, and 29.9 percent as fairly important - a total of 86.6 percent. Eleven percent of the respondents were neutral. Only a few respondents (2.1 percent) rated a college degree as fairly unimportant, and none felt that it was very unimportant. Some respondents suggested that a college degree showed that the prospective employee was trainable and that the degree entitled new graduates to an opportunity to compete for an entry-level position. Others felt that the degree was only the beginning of the educational experience, and it was the "ticket" that allowed the applicant to pursue a career.

College Major. With the need for a degree established, the questionnaire sought an insight from advertising agency executives into a preferred college major for entry-level positions. Table 1 details the rank ordering of college majors. The top two college majors were marketing (43.2 percent) and liberal arts (22.7 percent). Although Table 1 shows that a marketing major was preferred by the largest percentage of the respondents, it also suggests that some respondents preferred a more broad-based education.
Table 2

Top-Ranked General Knowledge Courses
(by Course Title and Percentage of Respondents)

Course title                       1st     2nd     3rd

English composition                 23      14      11
Communications                      13       5      12
Journalism                          12      13       5
English literature                   8       8       5
Creative writing                     7       7       9


All Business(1)                     18      24      25
All Social Studies(2)               16      17      22
Art/Design                           2       7       8
Miscellaneous                        1       5       3

Total                              100%    100%    100%

1. Finance, Management, Business Law, Entrepreneurship, Business
Policy/Strategic Management, Business Statistics, Marketing,
Advertising/Public Relations/Copywriting, Word Processing/MIS.

2. Economics, Current Affairs, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology,
Ethics, History, Logic, Speech.

Some respondents commented on the need for a liberal education, and one CEO from Georgia specifically lamented that "students are rarely as broadly educated as they should be." Yet, when queried in another part of the study, 75.3 percent of the sample replied that course work consisting of half business and half liberal arts was more preferred over other combinations, while only 9.3 percent preferred all liberal arts. Even when given the option of other courses, liberal arts was a popular choice for at least part of a curriculum. Some executives commented on the need for the integration of liberal arts into the business curriculum (i.e., the use of music and art in advertising). Others pointed out the need for graduates to have broad knowledge, especially for work in smaller agencies where there might not be a high degree of specialization.

General Knowledge Courses. When asked if they favored job-specific course work that would enable recent graduates to "hit the ground running," 48.5 percent answered positively, with 38.1 percent favoring more general knowledge course work. This suggests the need for higher education to focus a part of the education component on "job specific" learning while, simultaneously, keeping a strong, broad-based curriculum. Some areas of desired job skills mentioned by respondents were: desk-top publishing, salesmanship, and production. To glean more specific information in the area of course work, respondents were asked to choose five courses, from a list of thirty-six general courses and electives and rank order them from most important to least important. Table 2 shows the top five ranked general knowledge courses.
Table 3

Top-Ranked Marketing-Specific Courses
(by Course Title and Percentage of Respondents)

Course title                            1st      2nd      3rd

Marketing principles                     36       22       15
Marketing communications                 18       10       11
Advertising                              13       12       14
Consumer behavior                        11       10       12
Marketing Strategy                       10       18       10


Copywriting                               4        9        3
Marketing Research                        3       12       12
Advanced Marketing                        1        2        7
Miscellaneous(1)                          4        5       16

Total                                   100%     100%     100%

1. Promotional Strategy, International Marketing, Marketing
Planning, Retailing, Sales/ Retailing, Non-Profit Marketing,
Industrial Marketing, Marketing Channels/Distribution.

Table 2 illustrates that communication courses, such as English composition, communications, journalism, and creative writing, topped the list by their 1, 2, 3, and 5 respective rankings. The closely related English literature course took fourth place. An advertising agency president from Ohio said that in most cases writing skills were "glaringly absent" in the young graduates he has known in the industry. He also felt that English, spelling, sentence structure, and syntax were "deplorable with few exceptions." Underscoring the need for communicative skills, an agency president from Georgia said, "Advertising is communication."

Preferred Marketing Courses. Focusing on "marketing specific" courses, respondents were asked to choose five marketing courses from a list of sixteen and rank order them from most important to least important. Table 3 depicts the result of this ranking.

The data detailed in Table 3 reveal that 36 percent of the respondents chose marketing principles as their first choice for a "marketing specific" course, with 22 percent ranking it second and 15 percent ranking it third. In addition, marketing strategy was ranked first by 10 percent of the respondents and second by [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 4 OMITTED] 18 percent, with 10 percent of respondents choosing a third place ranking. Marketing communication, advertising, and consumer behavior took second, third, and fourth places, respectively. These replies were echoed in comments by respondents. Some expressed a clear and definite need to ground students in the basics. An agency president from Texas put it this way, "Focus on vision and problem solving first. Then give them the basics. Then get them the experience." Similarly, a Nebraska agency president said; "It is important that an applicant understand the role(s) that an agency plays in marketing, rather than the huckster concept." Finally, a president from Montana stated, "Teach principles, not rules." And, he went on to explain that "In a changing society, rules become quickly outdated, but principles such as marketing, advertising and promotion never go out."

Other Factors - Academic Excellence, Experience, and Involvement. To learn what other factors were important in the hiring of new college graduates, respondents were asked to rank factors related to academic excellence, work experience, and extracurricular activities. Table 4 recaps the results of this probe.

Marketing work experience and marketing internships were identified as the top two "Other Factors" related to hiring decisions by respondents. Related marketing work experience was rated very important by 59.8 percent and fairly important by 34 percent of the survey participants. Following closely, marketing internships were rated very important by 54.6 percent and fairly important by 36.1 percent of the respondents. Taken together, these findings focus on the strong preference of employers for new graduates with some hands-on work experience in a marketing-related field. The work experience that new graduates bring with them to that critical "first" job after graduation is yet another factor in the decision process of who is hired for the entry-level position. Putting work experience into perspective an ad agency head from Alabama said, "Students need to prepare better, out-of-class, for the real world." Similarly, a president and creative director from Michigan felt that the "best applicants . . . are those with work experience after graduation or internships during study."

From Table 4 it is also clear that the combination of marketing-related work experience and academic excellence are two very important components of the student's preparation that serve to increase a new graduate's job competitiveness. With respect to academic excellence, 24.7 percent rated "Student on Dean's List" as very important, and 46.4 percent felt it was fairly important. Similarly, "Awards and Scholarship" and "College G.P.A." were rated as either very important or fairly important by a majority of advertising executives. Although it seems that the relative importance of a person's academic excellence may depend on the individual making the hiring decision, it appears important to most respondents. Some respondents noted a relationship between G.P.A. and success on the job. For example, an agency president in Texas concluded that while "grade point doesn't guarantee success, very few [graduates] with average or below average grade points will succeed in the agency business." Other respondents noted that with competition so keen among new graduates, grade point average has become a discriminating factor in many hiring decisions.
Table 5

Top-Ranked Personal Skills/Attributes Considered in Hiring
Decisions (by Skills/Attributes and Percentage of Respondents)

                                        Percentage ranked
Personal skills/attributes           1st      2nd      3rd

Listening                             11        6        6
Creativity                            10        5        6
Common sense                          10        3        7
intelligence                           9        7        6
Leadership                             8        5        3


Problem solving                        7        9        7
People skills                          6        7       10
Written communication                  6        8        8
Oral communication                     6        6        5
Integrity                              6        5        3
Maturity                               5        5        8
Self-starter                           5        6        7
Miscellaneous(1)                      11       28       24

Total                                100%     100%     100%

1. Ambition, Enthusiasm, Cooperativeness, Team Player, Adaptable
to Change, Strive for Excellence, Time Management, Analytical
Thinking, Motivation, Self-Assurance.

Personal Skills/Attributes. Having established that a marketing degree, marketing-specific course work, related work experience, and academic excellence are significant factors related to the viability of prospective new graduates, respondent attitudes toward personal skills/attributes were next explored. Respondents were asked to choose five attributes from a list of thirty six and rank them. Table 5 recaps the ranking of the top five most desired skills and attributes sought in new graduates. The results in Table 5 emphasize the importance of communication skills yet again with 11 percent of respondents ranking listening as their number-one choice in personal skills and attributes. This finding mirrors the results depicted in Table 2 which showed that four of the five top choices for general knowledge course work were written communication courses. The fifth choice was English literature, a closely allied field. The other top-ranked skills and attributes were creativity/imagination ranked first by 10 percent of the respondents, followed by common sense ranked first by 10 percent of advertising executives. Intelligence and leadership were also ranked in the top five important skills and attributes by those responding. Taken together, these findings reveal a clear preference for leaders who possess the ability to think creatively and solve problems with intelligence and common sense. Underscoring the importance of listening and critical thinking, an agency head from Maryland said, "The ability to listen, to acquire knowledge, to integrate knowledge, to express oneself, to think innovatively and deeply - these are the qualities too often lacking in . . . graduates."

Greatest Strengths/Weaknesses of New Hires. Survey participants were next asked to list the top five greatest strengths and the top five greatest weaknesses that they have observed in new college graduates. Table 6 details the results.

Enthusiasm, ambition, appearance, people skills, and adaptable to change were most often listed as the greatest strengths of new graduates. Conversely, the greatest weaknesses of new graduates most often listed were: written communications, maturity, listening, common sense, and problem solving. These findings serve to underscore results reported earlier in this study. Critical communication skills, along with problem solving abilities and common sense, are perceived to be in short supply among new graduates. In addition, a lack of maturity shows up in this list as one of the top five weaknesses. Supporting the findings an agency head from Michigan said ". . . there is a need for graduates who are self-confident and mature who can be taught the business." He added that new graduates ". . . must be aggressive and positive and must be able to express themselves orally and be able to write presentations." Moreover, a Nevada respondent said, "The key attributes we look for are: (1) motivation; and (2) ability to write." Summarizing the personal attributes sought in new graduates, an ad agency head from Texas highlighted: "Required: Bright, hard working, honest. Desired: Curious, enthusiastic, aggressive. Unacceptable: Dull, lazy."
Table 6

Top Five Greatest Strengths and Weaknesses of New Hires
(by Rank Order)

Rank order      Strengths              Weaknesses

1               Enthusiasm             Written communications
2               Ambition               Maturity
3               Appearance             Listening
4               People skills          Common sense
5               Adaptable to change    Problem solving

Overall Satisfaction with Graduates. When asked if they were satisfied with the total quality of new marketing graduates, 63.9 percent of ad agency heads said "no." Only 28.9 percent said "yes." The remainder said "somewhat" or did not respond. From comments relating to the general level of satisfaction with new graduates, most respondents noted that the situation was improving with students tending to be more service-minded and having more experience through marketing internship programs. One CEO from Texas felt, "College applicants are generally pretty well trained to start." However, some felt agencies still must train new graduates in areas that should have been covered by college course work. For example, a CEO from Arkansas said, "Most new college graduates are poorly prepared for careers in advertising or any other business."


This study strongly suggests that a gap still exists between employer expectations of new marketing graduates and the qualifications that newly degreed applicants bring to the workplace. The major conclusion drawn from this study is that while higher education has initiated curriculum changes to address the deficiencies and problems associated with new graduates (noted in earlier studies), these initiatives still do not produce a graduate that satisfies the needs of many in the advertising industry.

While many changes have been made to bring the educational experience of students more in line with the needs of industry, the wheels of academia are turning much too slowly. Colleges/universities must move more rapidly to address the shortcomings of their graduates pointed out by industry.

Recommendations to Faculty. From our study, we recommend the following guidelines to those teaching at the university level:

1. Stress the importance of good communication skills by integrating more public speaking and writing requirements across all courses. Students should realize that good spelling and grammar are not trivial matters but the mark of an educated person and are skills that are expected by employers.

2. Require more general knowledge courses such as art, music, theater, literature, etc., as solid underpinnings to a broad-based education and a degree in marketing. Stress that learning does not end with the completion of a college degree: it is a lifetime process.

3. Expand the opportunities for students to get hands-on marketing experience through external programs that are occupation-related such as internships/cooperative education programs.

4. Integrate real-world experiences into marketing courses through semester group projects that give students the opportunity to apply marketing theory and problem solving techniques to existing businesses and nonprofit organizations. Projects such as this allow students to develop both technical and interpersonal skills.

5. Encourage critical thinking across the business school curriculum, especially in marketing course work - through case analysis and classroom exercises - thus enhancing student self-confidence and ability.

Many of the above recommendations are not difficult to achieve. Typically the framework to achieve these recommendations already exist in required marketing course work. Some, however, may be more problematic requiring a rethinking of the role of faculty in the education of the "whole person." There is no doubt that to achieve these goals, close coordination and a mutual commitment by both faculty and business leaders are needed. The result will be a better educated, more qualified graduate who will be better prepared to fulfill the role of a productive, successful employee in business organizations.


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----- "Three A's Supports the Three R's." Advertising Age, January 2, 1984a.

Gaedeke, Ralph M., Dennis H. Tootelian, and Burton F. Schaffer. "Employers Want Motivated Communicators For Entry Level Marketing Positions: Survey." Marketing News, August 5, 1983.

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JUDITH D. SCOTT is an assistant professor of marketing of the School of Business, Metropolitan State College of Denver. She received her Ph.D. from New Mexico State University and has done postdoctoral study at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

NANCY T. FRONTCZAK is a professor of marketing at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She earned a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Illinois in 1977. She has published articles in scholarly journals such as the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Advertising, Business Horizons, and the International Journal of Management. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of Marketing Education. Her current research interests are in the areas of experiential learning techniques and consumer learning styles.
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Author:Scott, Judith D.; Frontczak, Nancy T.
Publication:Journal of Advertising Research
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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