The university & agency relationship – what’s the best model of working?

The university & agency relationship – what’s the best model of working?


Working in partnership, Stori and Education Cubed spoke to marketing and communication leaders across the HE sector to understand how they were feeling about the future, the big issues that are affecting them currently and what they see coming over the horizon.

For part one of the series we discussed how universities currently work with agencies and how our panelists think this will develop in the future.

Extension of our team

One central theme that emerged from our research was the concept of agency as an adjunct to service. Demetria Maratheftis, head of marketing at London Metropolitan University explains: “The way that I work with my media agencies in the past — they’re an extension of my team. They have to be an extension of my team because even though we have experts we are also very small, we just need all hands on deck. We absolutely need their expertise and attention at all times.”

This requirement sees Maratheftis leaning towards agencies with specialisms outside of traditional media buying. She states: “When we say, ‘we need creative people’, It’s not just one kind of creative person. We need graphic designers, we need HTMLers, we need people who understand CMS, we need people who understand SEO, we need people who can help us with content.”

Providing space

Alison Kerwin, Director of Marketing at the University of Liverpool says that the current workload means there is always a place for agencies in the HE sector: “We could all double or treble our teams and we could still all feel that there’s much more to do. And I think agencies give you that space.”

She says that her preference is for using a mixture of specialist and generalist agencies. Although it is hard for non-specialists to get a handle on the nature of the work needed, it is “really helpful to have that completely different perspective on campaigns and what resonates for audiences and so on”.

Skills exchange

At The University of Dundee experiences of the agency/HE relationship are slightly different, according to Rebecca Trengove the director of marketing and communications.

She states that Dundee tends not to work with brand agencies on an “ongoing basis” as this sort of work is brought in-house more and more. “We tend to work with agencies on more discrete projects.”

One thing that her team focuses on is what they can learn from the agency whilst working together, she says her team always ask: “what can we learn from our agencies that we can bring back in house? Marketing is a fast moving discipline and we want to learn from agencies as we go along.”

Agencies as ‘pump-primers’, agencies helping set strategy and upskill teams, is a service that will never go out of fashion. They can help advance and boost capability within teams and “there will always be a demand for that,” says Justin Cole, director of marketing and communications at Bournemouth University.


An agency roster strategy is used at Leeds Beckett, a strategy that Dee Reid, director of external relations, says has helped at times when extra capacity is needed and also negates the need for the complicated tender process once a network of trusted partners is established.

She explains how the relationship with one agency has been “incredibly powerful”, with a series of masterclasses offered by the agency at the heart of HE staff training. For the HE marketing and comms staff that we spoke to, there will always be a need for healthy relationships with agencies. As Reid says: “I’m quite comfortable with agency relationships. I think that they have their place and I think that if you get it right, that they can really add value.”

External Validation

Martyn Edwards, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough University, has strong and well-resourced internal creative and delivery teams, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t advantages to seeking external support on specific projects. “Our teams are the brand custodians and highly skilled, but they too can benefit from working with outside creatives on campaigns. External partners can bring a different perspective of working outside the institution and even the sector”

And it doesn’t just apply in the creative space, bringing in external experts to help lead change, research or new ways of working can really help. “Having that external voice that is neutral and objective can carry more weight with internal decision makers.

“They can be seen to bring an unbiased perspective that cuts through internal issues and helps to drive change.”


Lastly, Dan Barcroft, director of student recruitment, marketing & admissions at The University of Sheffield states that there must be a truthfulness to any relationship between HE and agencies, regardless of whether they are HE specialists or more general in approach: “I will only work with agencies where I feel like when they say they’ll be an extension of your team, they actually mean it, and there’s authenticity there.”

Cubed View

“What’s clear from the conversations we’ve had with our clients, friends and panelists, and from working with the sector over the past two decades, is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model to universities and agencies working together” says Vicky Hayhurst, agency strategy director at Education Cubed.

“A good agency should be aware of that and be set up to respond and evolve as the needs of our clients evolve too. At Education Cubed we’ve always set ourselves the challenge of understanding and planning for those needs, so that we can be ahead of them ready to go.”

“And I understand the need for agencies to be an ‘extension’ of their clients’ teams but I feel that the term has become a bit overused and lost its impact.”

“At Cubed we’re more than an extension, we’re an integral part of a client team working alongside them every step of the way. And because of our love for, and investment in education we have to make sure we get results consistently for every single client to maintain our reputation in a sector where many people are connected and where there is a lot of movement of staff.”

‘Insert university name here’ – what agencies and universities can learn from each other.

As part of our discussion we asked our panelists what the big no-no’s were from agencies when working with their HE teams.

1. Mind the gap

Although agencies pride themselves on being an extension of the HE team, they are not living the daily reality of HE staff members, says Alison Kerwin, director of marketing at the University of Liverpool.

Despite the fact that offering a solution to capacity issues at critical junctures is a key reason that agencies are considered a ‘critical friend’, this shouldn’t be mistaken for complete inclusivity: “I don’t like it when an agency talks about themselves as if they are you,” she says.

When employing the inclusive “we” when talking about a project that agencies are involved in, it should be borne in mind that some may be put off by this inclusivity; staff from agencies and HE institutions are not one and the same and it is this different perspective that should be celebrated. So perhaps avoid “we need to do X, Y and Z”.

2. Sweat the small stuff

The devil is in the detail, Dee Reid, director of external relations at Leeds Beckett University states. It is not a good look if an agency uses the wrong version of the logo, regardless of if the work is otherwise amazing. Likewise, spelling mistakes and missing details reflect very badly on an agency and show a lack of care and attention.

3. Transparency

Another big thing for an agency is to be transparent. “Hidden costs stuff isn’t helpful,” according to Reid. Be up front about costs. In addition, if the HE marketing team is going to be required to undertake considerable amounts of work on a project “then your costs need to reflect that”.

4. Openness

Getting the pitch right is obviously integral to winning contracts and one big turn off can be a defensiveness in response to being asked challenging questions in this process, according to Dan Barcroft, director, student recruitment, marketing and admissions at The University of Sheffield. A close-mindedness bordering on arrogance when it comes to a pitch is a big no-no. A pitch “is never going to be the finished article,” says Barcroft and agencies should have broad enough shoulders to take constructive criticism on board during the pitching process.

5. Generalists vs Specialists

Although some HE staff prefer working with smaller, more specialised agencies and some with bigger agencies, honesty can never be overvalued as a commodity. It is a “massive turnoff” when generalist agencies pitch up in the HE sector without the specialist knowledge of it and are “not genuine in their engagement,” says Justin Cole, director of marketing and communications at Bournemouth University.