In the latest episode of MARKETECH Mondays, we chatted for the very first time with a marketing leader in the education space – Neil Cullingford – the current director of marketing and communications of Murdoch University, the Australian-based public university in Perth.
With this, we aim to bring greater attention to the dynamics of marketing and branding in higher education, and most especially, what strategies are becoming the trend in the industry now that it has become one of the hardest hit this pandemic, shifting students and all stakeholders to navigate virtually.
Currently, as the lead of marketing at Murdoch, Neil is mainly responsible for the brand, marketing, and strategic communications strategies of the university, to build its reputation and future growth. Within Murdoch, he’s had quite a journey rising through the ranks, starting out as an associate director, and eventually landing his current position. Before we dive further into Neil’s inspirational successes, let’s first get to know his humble beginnings.
The journalism major that soon became a marketer
Neil in fact started his professional career in publishing. He was a graduate of Journalism, Film & Broadcasting at the University of Wales in London, and therefore started his career in the UK capital.
While not entirely related to marketing, Neil had his jumpstart in managing campaigns through a small publishing company called Quest Media. His first-ever was a B2B campaign with the target to drive subscriptions to a magazine. Neil shared how very different it was back then: direct marketing, sales letters, flyers, and call-to-action campaigns, and even going as old school as involving fax numbers.
I learned a lot there, and I still carry lessons with me that is about the importance of having good data, [and] also knowing your audience. While it didn’t go as I hoped, [and] didn’t get many subscriptions [at the time], what that did is kind of improve myself as a marketer and also how [I] perform in future campaigns.Neil in the MARKETECH Mondays Interview
Neil shared that most of all, the important thing is that Quest Media was an entrepreneurial company, where in such an environment, he was given the opportunity to work with other marketers and learn his trade.
From there, Neil started venturing to become a marketer of bigger brands such as market intelligence Centaur. He also became a brand and marketing manager at B2B events firm United Business Media (UBM), and most recently at electrical company Western Power, before stepping into Murdoch University.
Great success: Increasing student numbers
Each industry in marketing is different and goes with that is the uniqueness of what it means to call a branding and marketing endeavor a success. For Neil at the university, it has always been about working with ambitious and determined students.
What I really enjoyed about working in Murdoch is the audience – we get to work with high school kids going into university, using the breadth of channels, and that is from commercials to delivering campaigns and then performance marketing
Neil entered Murdoch University in 2016 as an associate director, and shortly after that, assumed the role of acting director. Within 6 months of entering the university’s team, Neil was given the big opportunity to lead as director following the incumbent’s leaving.
I took that opportunity to really draw [out] what I felt were the important things the university needed to do at the time. The experience has been really beneficial for me in terms of my development as a person but also as a professional. It’s taught me [to become the] determined and persistent [person that] I am. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from working in academics and the importance of that when you have your research, you gotta be spot on with that.
According to Neil, when he entered the university, the student numbers were in a decline, and so to name a great success within his journey, without a doubt, would be being able to lead the marketing team to increase the market share of Murdoch University.
“It’s a massive achievement for anybody. [To think] [that it’s a] very mature market, a disruptive market, and with some very strong local brands in terms of the universities here [in Australia], [and then] to see that growth and come back from the decline, so we’re very proud of it,” added Neil
One top achievement that Neil also cited is the recent rebranding of Murdoch University. It was unveiled in May, coinciding with its 50th anniversary, and was executed with the aim to better represent the University’s vision of a modern institution. According to a statement from the university, the revamp supports the university’s goal to be recognized as a world-changing university by Western Australians as well as national and international communities.
Leadership: “I believe I am someone who brings people and ideas together.”
Within almost 20 years in the industry, Neil started his leadership journey when he became a marketing manager for United Business Media. From there, he took on roles of brand and marketing manager and consultant at Western Power, and presently as Murdoch University’s director for marketing.
Neil said that as a leader, he is someone who brings people and ideas together, and strives to be a leader that drives change, and is committed to growing himself and those around him.
“You can’t achieve anything alone so it’s really important to work with others in a positive way in which everyone sees the benefit,” Neil said.
“First of all, I am myself. Being authentic is critical. I surround myself with talented people who share my values. I also believe that as a leader my role is to join the dots and see the opportunities ahead,” he added.
Marketing strategies for higher education
When we asked Neil what the biggest challenge higher education is facing now, he said that international student mobility is the imminent and obvious one. Adding to that, he said one of the challenges is demonstrating to students both local and international the value and relevance of university education.
With this, here are his go-to strategies as best response:
- Have a brand strategy that is a platform to differentiate and relate to both current and future students.
- Higher education institutions must challenge traditional notions of education and be prepared to adapt their educational offerings to meet the needs and expectations of students.
I think the biggest challenge in a university sector that is well-established is how do you keep pushing the boundaries, how do you stay relevant to your customers and stakeholders, and everybody that you want to connect with. And that kind of takes me back to looking at the brand and understanding within yourself what you are, what you stand for, and showing yourself authentically.
Advice for budding marketers
As part of his last words in the conversation, Neil shared his simple tips on how aspiring marketers can get their headstart and eventually trail the path of their own success:
- Don’t wait for the world come to you – always look for how you can do something differently or make a difference
- Be true to yourself and others – believe in yourself but always seek to be self-aware of your strengths and what you need to work on
- You’ll never know it all – and that’s ok, just believe and be kind to yourself.
“Don’t put yourself under too much pressure too soon. Let yourself make mistakes, understand where you’re at, at your career, and don’t be someone else, be yourself. People will quickly see through it if you know yourself,” said Neil.
Watch the interview with Neil:
This interview was done in partnership with Siteimprove. Siteimprove is a global SaaS solution that helps organizations achieve their digital potential by empowering their teams with actionable insights to deliver a superior website experience and drive growth.