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Why MBA Marketing Courses are a Must: Q&A with Darden Professor

What are some reasons MBA students should pursue marketing?

With a marketing career spanning 20 years and encompassing management positions with Procter & Gamble (P&G), David'sBridal and PetSmart, professor Kimberly Whitler now teaches the core marketing course to first-year Darden MBAs as well as an elective in strategic brand positioning. Here, Whitler offers her perspective on why marketing skills are a must for post-MBA career success, particularly for graduates who seek to rise to the c-suite level of an organization.


Kimberly Whitler teaches marketing at DardenWhat are some reasons that students should pursue marketing in general – and particularly, at the MBA level?

As background, marketing at the MBA level is very different than that at the undergraduate level. Companies recruiting for marketers at the MBA level pay well over US$100k and are looking for general management marketers— marketers that can create, build, fix, develop and grow businesses. As such, MBA marketing courses prepare graduates for jobs in general management marketing (GMM), which can lead to c-suite level roles at top firms.

A key priority for MBA students should also be to identify a career that provides a wide launching pad. GMM does this better than most opportunities out of an MBA program as the training is valuable and portable, providing students with more options as they progress through life.

Part of your research focuses on studying the role of c-suite level executives. In this context, can you elaborate on the opportunities available to MBAs specializing in marketing, in terms of post-MBA career progression?

GMM trainingprepares students for work in important areas such as strategic thinking, conceptual thinking, analytical thinking, leadership, problem solving, etc. These skills are portable across industries and roles, which is why so many GMMs from top firms are valuable and hired into new industries and roles.

At companies like Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, E & J Gallo or P&G, GMMs are responsible for the profit and loss of the business — setting strategies to achieve business objectives and then leading a cross-functional team made up of sales, finance, accounting, operations and other divisions to deliver the plan. MBA-level training in general management marketing prepares a graduate to step into a CEO role at some point, arguably better than any other career path. For example, Meg Whitman [an MBA graduate], who worked at P&G at one point, ultimately became the CEO of eBay and now of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Whether or not MBA candidates are aspiring marketers then, there is much to gain from applying themselves in this industry in order to secure future leadership positions. Why is this?

Great question - right now, one of the top challenges CEOs and boards of directors are facing is how to drive growth. Which function in a firm is largely responsible for driving growth? Marketing.

So, the first reason is that if you have any desire to end up in the c-suite, you will need to understand how to leverage marketing competency to drive demand. Second, GMM is not about digital advertising, but about strategic positioning. How do you strategically position your firm, or your brand, to outperform rivals? This skill is beneficial no matter where you end up in a firm. Third, believe it or not, most consultants will end up in demand-generation consulting positions — because a big challenge firms have is to drive demand. So, if you are entering consulting, be prepared to consult on marketing problems.

In your opinion, what are the top skills marketers should have who want to future-proof their career in changing times?

I’m going to start with a non-obvious answer — the ability and desire to learn. Marketing is changing so fast that only those with a thirst for new knowledge will be able to keep up.

Beyond learning, I think the foundational skills are: Strategic thinking, conceptual thinking, analytical thinking and problem solving. Then there is technical knowledge, such as digital literacy, technology literacy, finance literacy, etc. Many people, including students, might prioritize technical knowledge, but don’t work on mastering the fundamentals — how do you problem solve in a principled way, for example?

You also have an MBA (from the University of Arizona). How did the degree help you in your own marketing career? 

I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer or go into finance. Those were my two priorities. However, the mentorship, advice and counsel of one faculty member, Dr Chris Puto [now president of Spring Hill College, Alabama], changed my life. Dr Puto helped point me in the direction of GMM. Up until that time, I thought marketing was about making advertisements, which didn’t interest me. When he helped me understand general marketing management, he changed the trajectory of my life. The degree helped me get my foot in the door at P&G.


And last but not least, if you had to ‘pitch’ marketing as a career, what would you say?

The work is fun, challenging and rewarding. I recall my first year at P&G as an MBA intern. It wasn’t work. I was jumping from an analytical project to a new product introduction to a positioning question, and on from a current business challenge to an advertising campaign. I was learning to argue persuasively, communicate effectively and think expansively. I was around really smart people who wanted to make an impact. Quite frankly, my friends in other fields were miserable. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to learn to run a business and to help improve the lives of consumers around the world. The work itself is rewarding.

Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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