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By: Joseph Master

Why Joseph Master is Banking on Higher Ed Storytelling

Drexel University’s Joseph Master opens up about the challenges facing higher ed, the campaigns that inspire him, and the marketing tool you’ll wish you knew about years ago.

Lessons From the Field /
By: Joseph Master

6 minutes

Joseph Master entered the workforce with dreams of writing the next great American novel. Or screenplay. Or record. He always considered himself a writer first. Everything else was secondary. His first gig out of college was working as a nightlife and restaurant review correspondent for a now-defunct bureau of the Asbury Park Press. He went on to serve as a managing editor for a medical publisher, where he learned to multitask, manage, and write about eyeballs. By the time he found higher ed — because we all find it, it does not find us — he’d covered everything from the genius of The Hold Steady to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. 

Over the past nine years, Joe has reported to five deans at three colleges within two large Philadelphia universities; one public and one private. He’s worked on teams large and small and he’s built a couple of his own. Currently, he serves as the assistant vice president of marketing and digital strategy for Drexel University. When he’s not in meetings, or working with a collaborative team on Drexel’s Ambition Can’t Wait branding campaign, he enjoys going on adventures with his family, fixing vintage mechanical watches, playing his beat up Harmony Sovereign guitar, and trying (feebly) to write the next great American novel. Or screenplay. Or record.

I wanted to work in higher education because…

Print had already been declared dead. I was working for a publishing company at the time and, after two rounds of layoffs, and a couple of promotions — it was no longer enough to be a “good writer.” I had to learn some HTML, use Photoshop, and run social media accounts as well. I found myself managing websites and writers and watching — in real time — this sea change from print to digital transform how people consume and create information. It was a crazy time.  

I made a very deliberate choice to enter higher education communications because it was one of the few verticals that valued my skill set — and would pay me to write. Little did I know that higher ed would teach me so many things I never learned in school majoring in English and philosophy — from marketing to media relations.

The marketing tool I can’t live without is…

Moat.com. Go there. Now. You’ll thank me later. I accept PayPal and Venmo. 

The best marketing I’ve ever seen is…

I’m such a sucker for the 1960s Doyle Dane Bernbach Volkswagen “lemon” ads that introduced the Beetle to America. Imagine us calling our degree programs lemons or asking our prospective students to think small

Also, as a kid, my father (my hero) was part of Apple’s first dedicated sales force. He was larger than life to me. So, I am particularly fond of the Ridley Scott “1984” commercial announcing the Macintosh 128K. I even wrote a story about its special Drexel connection and was able to interview my dad. That was a fun article to write. 

My favorite memory from undergrad is…

Taking a senior writing seminar in fiction with the legendary novelist and University of Pittsburgh writing program director Chuck Kinder, who passed away this spring. The day he explained Chekhov’s smoking gun principle (if there’s a gun, there had better be gunsmoke) changed everything for me. In any narrative, every single element must be absolutely necessary. To this day, I apply the smoking gun to each piece of creative that touches my desk. It has also rendered me an incredibly annoying movie viewing partner, because I will always attempt to call out the smoking gun in the first act.

In the next five years, I’d like to…

Be a better dad. I think we all work in a pressure cooker — and so often I see people answer questions like this with job aspirations. My aspiration is to make my son proud of me when he’s old enough to understand, or even care about, what I do for a living. Right now, he thinks I go to work in some kind of castle in Philadelphia where people make commercials with dragons.

Recently, my son started taping pages together and writing little books about a king who has  some kind of conflict with Pinocchio. That’s my goal. To do what he does.

The teams that succeed aren’t run by people who are always right. It’s impossible and ridiculous to think you will always kill it and that your team won’t mess up. The teams that succeed are managed by leaders who trust their staff and make choices.

My biggest professional mistake was… 

Sometimes, you have to recognize that you just plain lost. Even if you’re right, you can lose — and that is a hard pill to swallow. I was in a position where I was advocating for my team and a very large project. As the conflict got more tense and the team began to feel the heat, I dug in and fought harder. I didn’t realize that I had actually become an apparatus of the problem. I didn’t realize that I was the face of the project and that removing myself from the situation was the necessary hand grenade that needed to be thrown to clear the room for the team to succeed. Sometimes, you have to accept and own a loss. And learn from it. 

When I’m not working I’m…

This summer, I’m reading Anthony Bourdain’s novels. I just finished The Bobby Gold Stories. It’s wonderful and full of humor and, like, prophetic insight into the human condition. Most weekends, I’m hanging with my family in the backyard, cooking seafood and making cocktails. I’ve been mixing a Hemingway Daiquiri lately: Silver Rum, Maraschino liqueur, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and just a bit of simple syrup. 

Again, I accept PayPal and Venmo. 

I start my day at… 

Six o’clock. First step: Twenty-two minutes of exercise (because that’s about as long as one episode of The Office). Then I check the box scores and eat breakfast. If I’m lucky, I get to actually eat with my wife and son before I leave for work. 

In the car, I have been listening almost exclusively to 90s rock playlists. They bring me back to those halcyon days before responsibilities and bills.

The secret to a student succeeding at my school is…

Wanting to start a career on day one. Drexel’s cooperative education program, which is actually part of the academic model, is so idiosyncratic and so metamorphic that it often needs explaining. We run on the quarter system and students have co-op cycles where they are actually working full-time. Then, they bring that experience back to the classroom and challenge their professors — who, in turn adapt curricula. That relationship — between industry and academy — is special. To succeed at Drexel, it takes a special kind of student who truly doesn’t want to wait to go down that path.

Because ambition can’t wait. [Insert trademark please]

I admire the marketing at…

Right now, there are so many schools that are doing great work, from Temple down the street to Oregon State across the country. But I’m going to go with an oldie. Back in 2012, when I was working for Drexel’s LeBow College of Business, I was totally blown away by Babson’s Redefining Entrepreneurship campaign. They riffed on René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images painting (i.e. the “this is not a pipe” painting), and I remember thinking, “damn, they beat us.” I felt the same way when I saw “Temple Made” for the first time. 

The biggest challenge facing higher education marketers is…

There are too many to list, but I’ll try. Shrinking budgets for some. Increased budgets of the competition. Population and demographic shifts that have triggered Manifest Destiny for so many. Outdated staffing models. Affluenza. The consumerization of something that is not a product, but rather, a pathway. 

Marketing in higher education is so incredibly rewarding. Telling student, faculty, and alumni stories across all media is a privilege I do not take lightly. But as our marketing technology stacks grow and we continue to try to beat the shift on Google, target down to the atomic level with display, and adapt so many new tactics, I do often fear that the message will be lost; that the machine will engulf the stories. It can be like “Saturn Devouring His Son.”

My biggest professional achievement is…

The most rewarding experiences I’ve had have not been mine. They have been those poignant moments when an employee has said “thank you,” or expressed that I, in some small way, made an impact. I’ve gotten choked up my fair share — and I’m not embarrassed to admit it. 

A key to my success has been…

I don’t think I’m successful. I haven’t written that novel yet. 

One thing I’ve learned about managing teams is…

Get your data. Do your research. Cover your bases. But you need to make a decision. The teams that succeed aren’t run by people who are always right. It’s impossible and ridiculous to think you will always kill it and that your team won’t mess up. The teams that succeed are managed by leaders who trust their staff and make choices. I have been humbled by so many leaders who have taught me this by example — including my current boss. 

And no, she did not PayPal or Venmo me to say that. 

The hardest part of my job is…

See above. Once you make those tough decisions, the universe has a way of making you own them.

Joseph Master

Joseph Master

Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Digital Strategy

Joseph Master is the assistant vice president of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He serves on the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).

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