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A masterful exchange

It might cost you a year's salary, but an MBA can get you into some very interesting conversations
The MBA gives you fluency in the language of the top table, with its focus on numbers
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The summer break is a natural time to review your career progress, and perhaps you are one of those marketers wondering whether it makes sense to embark on an MBA. The idea, once it pops into your head, triggers a whole cascade of conversations, the first one with yourself.

‘Think of the doors it will open, and the broader perspective it will bring,’ says Positive You – to which Doubtful You retorts: ‘Yeah, and think of the sheer, bloody graft.’ This is one of those debates in which both sides are spot-on, and yet, nine times out of 10, it’s the doubtful voice that will hold sway. Very few marketers go further than this.

Let’s assume, though, that you are one of the few. The next conversation will be with your partner/spouse/bank manager and anyone else with whom you are intimately financially linked. An MBA at one of the top business schools will set you back upwards of £50,000. You can borrow, of course, but it’s going to make a big hole for a while.

Inevitably, you will begin to explore the idea of opting for an Executive MBA – whereby you combine study with your normal day-job – and testing the willingness of your employer to contribute. After all, a more rounded approach to problem-solving will be their gain, as well as yours.

So your next conversation is with your boss. Here, things tend to get muddy. Often, the boss will suggest you take the internal course for fast-trackers instead. Without wishing to denigrate internal training, my counsel is to hold out for the MBA: the skills it will give you will be broader-based and more transportable than learning, say, ‘the Diageo’ or ‘the P&G’ way.

If you get into one of the top business schools I can promise you two years of the most stimulating conversations of your career. MBA teaching is based on assessing cases, working together in deliberately heterogeneous teams to evaluate the multiple, and often hidden, options at crucial stages. The thrill of tackling complex variables with smart people from diverse disciplines and cultures is genuinely transformative.

Even if you choose a brand-management elective to run alongside the compulsory modules, you will find all your assumptions about your own discipline challenged, and perhaps turned upside-down. You will emerge both more inventive and more self-critical, the best possible combination.

And when you have earned those three letters? How will conversations go then? Well, discreet chats with headhunters will be more interesting, since your qualification will put you in a tiny marketing elite. Conversations with agencies, conversely, will feel more frustrating than ever, as your ability to see branding issues through the lens of other factors such as operations and finance will contrast even more sharply with the agency’s narrow communications worldview.

Career advancement was your coming-in point and the MBA can be your key to the boardroom, where marketers are under-represented. The MBA gives you fluency in the language of the top table, with its focus on numbers. The compulsory corporate finance module, nightmare though it may be at the time, is the foundation of your credibility at this level.

When you do make the boardroom, your MBA will have done a great service to both you and your chosen discipline. We could do with more of the sane, human voice of marketing in industry’s top-level conversations.

Top 10 global MBAs

The Financial Times’ annual ranking is the one the business schools chase; here is the 2011 top 10.

London Business School number one

London Business School number one

1 = London Business School The only UK school that makes the list. Perhaps that’s why the fees are about double those of most other UK schools.

1 = Wharton Alumni from the Pennsylvania-based school have one of the highest average salaries, at more than $170,000.

3: Harvard The management consultant’s favourite, it boasts more than 40,000 living alumni.

4: INSEAD Established in 1957, with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, it has an intake of more than 80 nationalities.

5: Stanford The California school has three Nobel Laureates on the faculty.

6: Hong Kong UST Business School The leading school in Asia offers a complementary course in Mandarin.

7: Columbia The leading consumer-behaviour guru Morris Holbrook is an Emeritus Professor.

8: IE Business School Based in Madrid, it offers a full-time MBA in either English or Spanish.

9 = IESE Business School Based in Barcelona and Madrid, it also offers executive MBAs in Sao Paulo.

9 = MIT Home to Grant McCracken, an anthropologist with much to offer the marketing discipline.