The limits of MARCOMS & thought leadership in edu
I started my career in the business of education almost by accident 25 years ago, when asked to set up the Australian office of a UK company who specialised in MARCOMs to K12 schools.
So marketing to schools is not new and existed in edtech well before my time, as Audrey Watter’s recent book Teaching Machines highlights. Even 25 years ago we were acutely aware of what sort of programmes might work and be acceptable in UK schools as well as those in Australia, the US and other countries. How industry could market to schools and with educators varied enormously by country and by client. For example, when I began there was almost nothing you could do in Germany whereas in the US, where schools are a state and local responsibility, there were initiatives like the Scripps National Spelling Bee that were not even seen as MARCOMs projects.
My colleagues in the UK were all ex-educational publishers with vast experience of developing resources for the K12 sector. When I began working with them I was surprised by the serious ethical framework they applied to everything they did (or didn’t) do. This company was part of a larger media (primarily PR) group and there were often tensions between what clients of the PR firm wanted to do in education and what we considered acceptable (is it balanced, ethical, does it have educational merit for both teachers and students?) There was also a rigorous model used to develop resources that relied on experienced educational authors (teachers with current school experience) to write, review and test everything we did. This was the model that my peers had learned in the educational publishing industry and it is something they do to this day. As part of our work we also looked internationally for what we thought were the best ideas in educational marketing as well as engaging with peers, industry associations and regulators worldwide.
One of the events we used to attend each year was the IEG Sponsorship Summit in Chicago where the world’s top sponsors and agencies meet every year to showcase ideas and trends. One of the first big education case studies I saw was Visa’s sponsorship of Reading Is Fundamental’s Read Me a Story initiative. This eight-week initiative paid a percentage of Visa’s merchant fee on every purchase at participating retailers to RIF. The donation was set at a minimum of US$1m and supported by national TV, print media and in-store promotion. This support was acknowledged as key to the success of RIF not just in schools but in its broad community outreach through local libraries and related volunteer organisations.
By identifying what worked and equally importantly what didn’t, my company and its UK partner were able to develop clear guidelines about what we would do, how we would do it and how it would be evaluated. Like any agency, we were approached by clients whose ideas and goals we could not agree with. I can think of several instances where we turned down business because we thought it was a risk to both our reputations and the client’s. In one or two instances the clients found another agency and the projects completely failed. In one case, after wasting Aus$100k, the client came back to us to try and rescue the program which we did but only by rebuilding it from scratch.
I’m proud of helping to build World Maths Day, which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest maths competition . Equally I keep a weather eye on what works and what doesn’t in education. This is an Australian example of a recent problematic programme.
Is Learnit’s Hosted Leaders Programme’ – ethical?
When the Learnit check conference first emerged in 2019 (it’s now owned by Hyve Plc and run in tandem with BETT), I mentioned it in an article I wrote for Edsurge, where I praised some elements but was highly critical of its Hosted Leaders Programme. The critical bits didn’t survive editorial but my argument is that it pushed the boundaries of what is allowable in schools in England and probably went beyond things like the Nolan Principles and similar guidance for civil servants.
So what is do attendees who successfully apply for the 2022 event get?
- A complimentary ticket to Learnit, run during BETT, worth £995
- A travel and accommodation bursary worth up to £250 (within UK), £450 (Europe) and £1000 (ROW).
For a UK educator the benefit is worth £1245, is probably taxable as it seems to fail HMRC’s exemption test (Section 203(2) and Section 204 ITEPA 2003).
The cost to the companies participating is:
- Leader Plus – 6 x15-minute meetings £3960 (£264 per meeting) This gets them to meet with leaders who say they control spending for six or more institutions or £1m+ p.a. Or who work at a ministry, national, state or municipal level.
- Leader – 10 x15-minute meetings £3600 (£360 per meeting) for ‘leaders who control budgets and are seeking educational products or solutions’
In effect this is sponsored conference attendance, where school leaders receive funding for accommodation and travel, the trade-off being that they agree to attend meetings with suppliers matched to the ‘products and services they are looking to source…No random meetings or forced connections, just high-quality conversations between two parties who are perfectly matched to do business’. It’s a sponsorship deal where companies pay to participate and set a series of metrics to assess whether this is a worthwhile spend of their marketing budget.
Now Learnit (or rather Hyve Group who own Learnit and BETT) try to soften the harsher edge of this deal saying, ‘You decide who you want to meet. All meetings are double opt-in; both parties must agree to the meeting taking place. This means you meet with leaders where there is a genuine value for both of you. You also have the option to decline meeting requests from leaders where you don’t believe a productive, meaningful relationship could develop’.
But what if a delegate refuses all the meetings? They will already have been approved so is their ticket cancelled if they don’t take meetings? On the company side they get per-meeting refunds if delegates don’t turn up but what happens to the bursary, paid as a reimbursement (it’s unclear if this goes directly to the delegate or their school/employer).
No doubt this programme will continue, but the question is, is it smart and brand-building for BETT and Hyve’s shareholders? Hyve Group’s management obviously think so but so did Pearson’s when they used to fly delegates around the world to their thought leadership events run by the now defunct Pearson Foundation. The use of a charitable arm to deliver thought leadership is tricky for for-profit companies as both Pearson and their Foundation found out when a story in the New York Times eventually led to a tangentially-related prosecution by then New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The AG alleged, ‘misuse of charitable assets in a manner that benefited Pearson’, with the Foundation paying a $7.7m settlement despite Pearson denying ‘any violation of law in this matter’.
I first wrote about this problem in 2011 and the Foundation was eventually closed in 2014. I think what Hyve and Learnit are doing is similarly flawed; in my view public servants charged with spending public money on the procurement of educational products and services should not be accepting free lickets and bursaries worth at least £1245 to attend meetings with the businesses they may be buying from. If their school/MAT/employer thinks that their organisation and students will benefit from Learnit, then pay £995 for a ticket. If they want to meet potential vendors they can do it for free at BETT just as their predecessors have been doing successfully for over 20 years.
So I think this is sketchy from tax, ethical and transparency perspectives. Surely this is an employment-related pecuniary benefit taxable either to the individual education leader or their employer? Having asked the DfE for comment their media team seem to have forgotten to reply and a leading educational marketer who I worked with for many years said, ‘We’d never recommend something like this to any of our clients, ever!’ Maybe it slips into one of those grey areas somewhere between the high-minded Nolan Principles and the rather open and voluntary rules applying to PR, direct marketing, industry events, etc.
In an industry that’s about making people smarter, this is dumb.