Why more firms – from ad agencies to video game companies – are considering EMBAs

Harriet Green
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G Star 2006 Gaming Exhibition
Often people moving into leadership roles will have had lots of experience working on creative tasks, but won’t be sure how that fits in from a strategic perspective (Source: Getty)

Since Henley Business School started its MBA for Music and Creative Industries in 2011, the number of industry-specific courses being launched has shown little sign of letting up.

Most recently, Hertfordshire-based Ashridge Executive Education announced it would offer an EMBA for the Creative Industries for the first time this year. A key group the part-time course targets are those in the creative sector who are looking to “gain the strategic skills and knowledge required to respond to increased digitisation and globalisation”.

And it seems that the demand is there, with rising numbers of managers and aspiring leaders signing up for leading mainstream EMBA courses. Brett Hunter, senior recruitment and admissions manager (EMBA) for degree programmes at London Business School (LBS) says that, while increasing interest is anecdotal – it’s difficult to classify a lot of candidates if they’re not in a business as obviously “creative” as, say, an ad agency – it’s certainly a sector EMBA programmes have seen more of. “Ten years ago, we’d have been talking about three or four in a class from a creative background. Now, it’s 10 to 15 per cent.”

Why the rising demand? Hunter says that, ever since the dot-com boom and then bust, there has been a lot of soul-searching not just in industries directly hit, but those that support them. And now, sending staff, particularly those moving into leadership roles, to do EMBAs satisfies three vital areas of improvement for the sector.

The first is core business knowledge. “The creative industry needs people who can fashion the ultimate marriage of creativity and commercialisation, drive profitability and use market intelligence strategically to identify new products,” says Hunter. This is where the content of EMBAs comes into its own. At LBS, for example, core courses include data analytics for managers, decision and risk analysis and an introduction to management accounting. “Having creative talent is not enough; business skills are vital for anyone in a leadership role. There’s nothing worse than trying to sell, develop or innovate where you’re unaware of the content,” says Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at LBS.

Second, the creative sector needs to nurture leaders who can take a business in a new direction. Being able to do so requires training in general management and efficiency, says Hunter – which is why so many firms across sectors see the value of employees doing an EMBA. Dawn Eubanks, who teaches innovation and creativity in organisations on the EMBA at Warwick Business School, says creative industry leaders really need to be able to evaluate business ideas themselves, which means having in-depth expertise and the ability to determine where to put resources. “Often people moving into leadership roles will have had lots of experience working on creative tasks, but won’t be sure how that fits in from a strategic perspective. If you can’t do that, you can’t really understand what’s going on.”

Creative industries are also increasingly seeing the need to devise business strategies that both take advantage of new opportunities and which are robust enough to protect from threats. “This isn’t just about threats from suppliers and competitors, it’s threats from the outside. It means you need to be able to anticipate what the next direction for your sector will be and disrupt before someone else does,” says Hunter. An important aspect of the EMBA is learning from the expertise your cohort brings to the table: employees from a bank or large professional services firm, for instance, will know about heading off competition in a rigorous and structured way. A creative tech firm will likely be more familiar with curveballs from startup firms.

Going hand in hand with building disruptive companies is the third area focused on by creative industry employees doing the EMBA: digital dexterity. “In a world where most businesses are either disrupted or disruptors, the ability to spot and harness the next digital trend is essential,” says Hunter. While this is plainly a challenge for any sector, creative businesses often require an even higher level of digital skill: more than half of the jobs available in computer games last year required coding and programming skills, for instance. And even in more traditional creative firms, digital savviness is vital: with sales now an omni-channel business, without comprehensive digital knowledge, a company runs the risk of missing out on market share, and new customers.