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Five Ways Higher Ed CMOs Are Institutional Leaders

Five Ways Higher Ed CMOs Are Institutional Leaders

Eddie Francis

So, there I was one day, manically going through assignments. I felt like a server at a New Orleans restaurant on Mardi Gras weekend. It was as if campus departments were patrons—both intoxicated and obnoxiously sober—and I was running from table to table, feverishly taking orders. That’s because I didn’t realize that, as the chief marketing officer, I was supposed to be the chef—planning a menu, tracking product quality, monitoring customer satisfaction, and more.

A simple thought from former AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education planning committee member Chris Hudson changed my mindset about being a higher ed CMO. During one of our meetings he told me, “You have to go from being an order-taker to a strategist.” As I grew, I realized that to strategize is to lead. It hit me one day that there are five ways that higher ed CMOs are institutional leaders.


CMOs’ expertise authority carries weight.

Expertise authority is mastering the skills and knowledge of your discipline. Among campus administrators, a higher ed CMO is most likely the only one who knows the Four Ps (plus the additional three of physical evidence, processes, and people) and can apply them to their institution’s specific needs. However, that knowledge doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s the key to understanding every segment of the campus in a way that many others outside of the president may not. 

CMOs are positioned to be institutional diplomats.

In her book “How to Market a University,” Terry Flannery suggests that CMOs work with their presidents to form marketing task forces as a way to gain buy-in and input across campus for marketing initiatives. Holy diplomacy, Batman! What a tremendous way to build influence.

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Leadership is about people.

During a panel discussion with The Chronicle of Higher Education about higher ed’s talent crisis, Jaime Hunt, another AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education planning committee member, noted that leadership is about people. To take it a step further, I see higher education as a people business. It may not be true of every higher ed CMO, but the vast majority understand that colleges and universities thrive when the people who work and enroll there are at the center of how business is conducted.

Marketing means business.

One of the reasons that so many of us love higher education is what it means. It meant the world to me to lead marketing at three Historically Black Colleges and Universities, institutions that pride themselves as engines of social mobility. With all the feels, however, my marketing hat stayed on. One faculty member told me that they hate it when higher ed is referred to as a “business.” I shot back, “We all find out that it’s a business when we lose enrollment.”

CMOs adapt quickly to change.

I wanted to find out what some of today’s biggest leadership challenges are, so I looked at more than 30 articles and conducted an informal social media survey. Among the articles and survey responses, the number one leadership challenge cited is managing change. There is no question that CMOs are highly adaptable, recognizing the need to respond to market changes and trends as well as the need to update approaches in stu in dent outreach in addition to other areas.

With all of this higher ed marketing goodness, let’s recognize that the more a CMO owns their expertise, the stronger a leader they are. The higher ed marketing space, however, is filled with CMOs and other marketing professionals who don’t hesitate to share knowledge with their colleagues. As I have found, sharing even the smallest morsel of insight does wonders for building one’s leadership skills.

About the Author

Eddie Francis is a member of the planning committee for AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. He hosts the podcast “I Wanna Work There!” which focuses on employer branding in higher education. Eddie is the principal of Edify Ventures, LLC, a brand strategy consultancy based in New Orleans. Learn more about Eddie and his work at

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