Marketing Quant 101: Universities Gear Up for Data Talent Crunch

The Creative Analytics Geek Is Sorely Lacking In Marketing

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On an icy January day, more than 75 ad-industry executives made their way to the upper Manhattan campus of City College of New York for a brainstorming session. Sitting in the 106-year-old Shephard Hall -- an homage to the past, as one of the oldest Gothic campus buildings in the U.S. -- the group came together to determine what would be the ideal marketing executive of the future.

City College of New York and a cross-section of advertising executives got together to identify the skill sets needed in the evolving world of marketing.
City College of New York and a cross-section of advertising executives got together to identify the skill sets needed in the evolving world of marketing. Credit: BIC-CCNY

City College will have a new graduate program in the fall semester for branding and integrated communications, or BIC, and professor and program director Nancy Tag was convening a brainstorming group of executives from mobile, interactive, public relations, branding, creative and human resources to determine what skills were going to be most important to teach.

The conclusion? The next-generation advertising exec will be a data geek with the soul of an artist, the business acumen of Warren Buffet and the storytelling skills of Don Draper. Importantly, the group zeroed in on data analysis and management as a crucial skill still lacking in many marketers and one that's not being taught in many traditional marketing programs. Data scientists and people who are good at statistical analysis aren't often the types interested in a marketing career.

"We're going to need a different mind-set," said Ms. Tag. "There is beginning to be some cross-disciplinary examination of these areas, but it is still extremely silo-ed. We are known as an engineering campus, and we have students who are passionate about a lot of this stuff who don't even know we in marketing have the need for what they do."

The need is certainly there. A McKinsey Global Institute report on big data predicts that by 2018 the U.S. alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills, as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

Columbia professor Oded Netzer said the shortage of data-minded managers who can extract insights and help point data scientists in the right direction will be as big, if not bigger, in the coming years. Business schools, including Columbia, continue to evolve coursework, layering in more business-analytics tracks, but they've not fixed the problem.

"I don't think the industry is doing enough. The shortage is still there," he said, noting that the idea of the industry's working with higher education to shape future marketers is "still in its infancy."

Belle Frank, exec VP-global director, strategy and research for Y&R and an adviser to CCNY's BIC program, believes the advertising industry needs to do a better job explaining to students what opportunities are available. "Analytic people don't think about advertising," she said. "We tend to get a lot of people who have an artistic sensibility, which is great, but we have other jobs to fill too."

Likewise, Peter Fader, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School Customer Analytic Initiative, believes the industry undermines its own message when it comes to recruitment. "It really bothers me that there seems to be a divide between creative and analytic, and where you sit depends on what species you are. That reflects bad training on our part -- either you are a smart person or you are not," he said. "We can't just have the creative types running the show with the analytic types sitting in the back helping. ... And we at the university tend to play to that stereotype, classifying marketing as "soft' courses. ... We need to change the model."

Several master's degree programs have sprung up in the past two years to answer the need, and major corporations like IBM are just beginning to partner with universities to ensure the talent pool expands.

In November, IBM and Ohio State announced they would establish a new analytics center in Columbus, Ohio, dedicated to advancing research, development, client services and skills training in areas such as analytics and big data.

And just last month, New York University launched an Initiative in Data Science and Statistics that includes the creation of a Center for Data Science and graduate-degree programs. The Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology last spring started offering a master of science degree in business intelligence and analytics that includes a strong focus on retail and social networks. Columbia University also recently launched a cross-disciplinary graduate program dubbed "From Data to Solutions."

Wharton's Mr. Fader teaches a popular but grueling course known as Applied Probability Models for Marketing, which he describes as a serious math course designed to teach students how to understand data sets and draw out stories about what consumers are doing. He cautions that data expertise alone can't replace sound business-management skills. Like CCNY's BIC, his goal is to graduate students with a full-fledged business education who know what to look for in the data, not just how to manipulate it.

Mr. Fader brings in engineering and math students as research assistants, ensuring they are exposed to marketing fundamentals and basic patterns, such as product-adoption curves and how first-time buyers act vs. repeat purchasers. "There's nothing more gratifying than getting a kid who's a straight math major and turning them on to marketing," he said.