Do marketing roles need to require college degrees?

Some companies are moving away from education requirements in a bid to be more inclusive. Others, like The Wing, are keeping it more traditional—at least in the case of its CMO job description.
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7 min read

In June, women’s coworking company The Wing hosted an event in its newly reopened Bryant Park space. The “fireside chat” promised a conversation between The Wing’s recently appointed executive chairwoman, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, and Fortune 500 board member Shellye Archambeau about “the challenges for women—specifically women of color—in the tech industry” and how to “create a blueprint for personal and professional success,” per the email invite.

During the chat, the topic of college education came up—specifically, if degrees are needed for leadership positions.

“If your long-term aspirations are for roles in leadership, roles of significant influence, you need a college degree. Why do you need a degree? Because it’s competitive,” Archambeau, who attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, told the audience. Marcelo nodded along, whispering, “Yes, yes,” while holding eye contact with the majority-white crowd.

“Can I add to that? For women of color, tell us how important it is,” Marcelo, who has both an MBA and a JD from Harvard, asked Archambeau.

“I think it’s critical,” Archambeau answered. “For a woman; for a minority female.”

Their advice comes in contrast to a larger trend unfolding in corporate America: de-emphasizing college education. As corporations began responding to last summer’s racial reckoning, bachelor’s-degree requirements have been a hot topic.

In 2019, 40% of white people over 25 had a bachelor’s degree, according to the US Census Bureau, compared with only 26% of Black people. Because of this disparity, diversity and inclusion experts who spoke with Marketing Brew told us that requiring a bachelor’s degree is exclusive in nature.

Education ≠ knowledge

Celestine Maddy, Pinterest’s global head of consumer and brand marketing, formerly held marketing VP roles at Reddit and Foursquare. Before joining Pinterest last year, she was The Wing’s lead marketer. She worked her way up the corporate ladder without a bachelor’s degree.

“No one should require a college degree. It never came up at Pinterest,” Maddy told Marketing Brew. “Whether you get your degree or not, the world demands hustle. I don’t think you need a degree if you can show aptitude.”

Maddy said she would take on side gigs to prove that she had the chops, since she “couldn’t fudge the four years that everybody thinks are equivalent to that experience. In people’s minds, those four years of college dictate that you can do the gig. And I had to prove that in four years I could do the same,” she continued.

Over the past few years, Maddy has noticed the college-degree requirement becoming more and more outdated. And while all the turmoil inside The Wing spilled out into the public last year, Maddy departed after six months for Pinterest’s greener pastures.

In October, The Wing said it “rolled out extensive, inclusive hiring protocols to recruit and retain diverse talent.” Months later, while searching for Maddy’s replacement, it posted a job description that said a bachelor’s degree is “required” for the chief marketing officer role, while an MBA is a “plus.”

Over the summer, The Wing hired Jen Cho—who holds multiple degrees, including a bachelor's from Columbia University—to fill the role.

“When we started this search, we knew that the CMO at The Wing would be a key global business driver and leader, not only within our own organization but also with our investors,” The Wing’s CEO Lauren Kassan told us, when we asked about the seeming discrepancy between promoting inclusion and having an educational requirement for a job that doesn’t necessarily need one. “We also onboarded a new recruiting team guided by external HR practitioners to ensure that we are applying best practices around inclusive hiring as we continue to learn and grow.”

More specifically, Kassan said that “had someone applied without a bachelor’s degree and experience that made sense,” The Wing would have “provided them the opportunity to be considered.” However, those interested in the role would have had no way of knowing that when considering applying.

Just a piece of paper?

Both recruiters and people in high-level marketing roles without degrees themselves have seen that diplomas aren’t necessary for success in this industry. Further, some marketing professionals believe requiring them could actually inhibit a company’s diversity.

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Perri Grinberg—who’s specialized in diversity and inclusion efforts throughout her career and is the VP of human resources at RAPP, a global creative agency—told us companies that want to make their hiring practices more inclusive should require a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience. That’s what her organization does.

“We want to be able to ensure that we are attracting [the most] diverse slate of candidates, and not all strong candidates have a college degree,” Grinberg explained. She said adding the “equivalent experience” caveat to bachelor’s-degree requirement opens up the pool of talent to include those from all walks of life, not just those who can afford to go to college.

Claude Silver, VaynerMedia’s chief people officer, told us the agency took away the college degree requirement for its US marketing roles about five years ago—and it hasn’t looked back since. Silver said that since removing the requirement, she’s seen the diversity of VaynerMedia’s talent pool improve “by a million miles,” explaining that her definition of diversity includes race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious beliefs, and more.

“I don’t think the college degree is necessary for marketing roles, period. We learn hard skills, critical-thinking skills, and soft skills on the job. We can learn how to present to clients on the job. We can learn how to carry ourselves in front of clients and act professionally, and write proper emails, on the job,” Silver told us. She added that she doesn’t know if universities can teach those things.

Jack Appleby is a senior creative strategist at Twitch who does not have a bachelor’s degree, having dropped out with half a semester left due to “some personal trauma.” Working at Laundry Service and R/GA in director-level roles before landing at Twitch, Appleby thinks experience trumps education when it comes to marketing jobs.

“I functionally do not understand why for a senior level role, you should be required to have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, specifically. Presumably a senior role is at least five years’ experience for most companies, if not 10 to 20. So why are we looking back to what you did when you were 18, 19, 21 years old, and wondering if you got that piece of paper? You’re going to learn more fundamentals of business and marketing working in 10 years of marketing than you ever did taking a college class,” Appleby told us.

Additionally, Appleby told us he believes these requirements inhibit companies from getting the most diverse suite of candidates possible in their talent pools. “Anything you can do to make it so it’s not the same seven people who look exactly the same interviewing is a good thing. To me, the college degree is absolutely one of those things,” he said.

“In a C-level role, a name-brand college shouldn’t matter. It should be about the experience that you’ve had—have you been successful as a marketer? As soon as we start introducing the college degree back into this, it adds another ‘club’ element to the whole thing that’s just unnecessary at a senior level,” Appleby concluded.

Obviously, corporate America hasn’t come to a consensus on degree requirements yet. At The Wing’s Bryant Park event in June, Archambeau spoke about how college degrees play into the hiring process: “If I’m looking at a set of people, and I can hire you, you, you, or you,” she said, pointing at different folks in the crowd, “and you don’t have a degree, but everybody else does and it’s pretty close, I’m probably going to go with the degree. It comes back to how you improve your odds,” she continued.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.