Why Higher Education Needs Marketing More Than Ever

As Former Agency Exec, Northwestern's First CMO Is Looking to Develop a Distinct Brand Position for the University

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This month, Mary Baglivo is going back to school.

Mary Baglivo, VP-global marketing, CMO, Northwestern University
Mary Baglivo, VP-global marketing, CMO, Northwestern University

The Northwestern University alumna is returning to her alma mater as its first VP-global marketing and chief marketing officer. For Ms. Baglivo, working in higher education is a big change. She's a longtime agency executive, having served as the former chairman-CEO, Americas, for Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide. Prior to that, she was president of Arnold Worldwide, and she also spent two years as the chief operating officer, North America, at JWT.

Ad Age: How is the transition from agency life to university life going?

Mary Baglivo: It's very different, and I realize that like many people, I idealize what life at a university is. But I'm excited about being in an environment like that. The biggest change is that this job is like going from being the [agency] to being a client. It really is like a client job. But I think the skill set I have as an agency person will be relevant. I'll be influencing and collaborating. Agencies are filled with strategists and writers and business people -- it's an eclectic and very interesting group, and it's not a traditional command-and-control business environment and neither are universities. There's a logic and order and chain of command that just isn't true in the agency world, and I don't think it's true in higher education.

Ad Age: How is Northwestern responding to the challenges of marketing higher education at a time when that industry is changing dramatically, thanks to online learning?

Ms. Baglivo: It makes it more multidimensional and more exciting. While I don't think anyone knows the ultimate impact of online courses, certainly there's an enthusiasm for engaging in the experimentation, and I think that's great because we'll learn a lot from it, and our students and faculty will benefit. Northwestern is also doing some online courses for credit. It's access to our brand, and it makes it an interesting experimental, creative environment for faculty.

Ad Age: What are your goals as CMO?

Ms. Baglivo: Northwestern has never had a CMO. So first it really is about developing a compelling and cohesive brand position for the university. Once that is articulated, then it would be operationalized throughout all aspects -- the student experience, student communications, potential donors. My role is not just a marketing-communications or advertising role. Fundamentally, what the brand beliefs are and position is has to be alive in everything, for students, parents, faculty and alumni.

Ad Age: Do you expect more universities to hire CMOs?

Ms. Baglivo: There is a growing interest and belief in the importance of defining and articulating your university brand, because it's important to be differentiating and compelling -- not unlike a product in the consumer space. One of the interesting challenges is there are a lot of common needs and challenges in what we think of a brand and what we think as a university.

Ad Age: Why is branding so important for universities?

Ms. Baglivo: Because the competition for the best and brightest students, faculty for transformational research and donor dollars is more competitive than ever. I felt it was a fantastic opportunity because this is an important mission. When you have the combination of the best and brightest and most gifted faculty, researchers and the funds to enable them, great discoveries will be made in medicine, engineering, journalism and other areas.

Globalism has a lot to do with competition. All of a sudden you have a much larger world to communicate to and [it's necessary] to make your brand clear in a much broader universe.

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