The Interim Marketing Director - A flexible and accountable solution to a short-term leadership gap

Against a backdrop of political uncertainty about student fees and the need to provide students with value for money, the market remains as competitive as ever. The impact of the HE and Research Act and Brexit is still unclear. Technology, internationalisation and brand reputation development will be key priorities for many universities.

Now let’s throw a spanner in the works. Your marketing, recruitment or communications director announces they are leaving. Probably good news for them. A headache for you.

You have three choices:

  1.      Move a deputy to an acting position – but can they really give up the day job/do two jobs at once?
  2.      Do nothing, and whilst you wait the 3-6 months for the replacement to come in, someone might manage down, with the COO or a PVC taking over the strategic leadership. That’s fine but the same 2 into 1 issue applies and almost certainly they are not a marketer or a communications specialist.
  3.      Recruit an interim. But one with a lot of HE-market experience. One that is not flying solo with no back up.  One with university interim experience. Someone who can add value and not just hold the fort.  

Ian Cairns is one of TKP’s experienced interim consultants, here he reflects on the key question: how can interim managers help universities achieve their objectives in priority areas and add value to existing strategies and current activities?



I have over 25 years’ experience in director level posts in the Higher Education sector across a mix of universities and working as both interim and permanent in-house director. What I have learnt over this period is that if you have the right fit, an interim manager can provide many benefits.

Objectivity -  As an interim I have always managed to gain the respect and trust of team members and senior management at the universities I have worked for. With experience comes cultural empathy and interim managers can provide a fresh perspective and act as a critical friend. I have often found that an independent assessment and outside view is helpful and provides less emotional “detached” decisions to be made, that are not subject to internal or indeed external politics. 

In my experience interims can deliver a good objective “take” on developments; they appreciate organisational dynamics and can identify issues, evaluate options and design appropriate solutions for situations that are not always clear. It is often easier for an interim to surface an important issue or elephant in the room that has been kicked into the long grass, evaluate it, and then get buy in to address it. 

Expertise – Most interims at director level will have strong experience and knowledge and will often bring skills and knowledge to address a skills gap or problem. My own experience and expertise across a range of universities has enabled me to make a noticeable impact from the outset, providing consistent success levels in all assignments and interim roles. This has included marketing audits/reviews, restructures, marketing strategies, integrated student recruitment plans, brand development and so on. Skills and experience relating to the management and recruitment of marketing staff is also overlooked. Interims are often well-networked and can tap external expertise.

Accountability – This is an important area and it should be emphasised that interim managers (unless told otherwise) should not operate on a purely advisory basis. It has always been my experience that university staff will ask for advice but interim managers are leaders who should take responsibility for and manage a function(s) or project. I would always expect to be held accountable for outcomes and delivery of a project and not simply to ‘hold the fort’.

Effectiveness -   Interim managers will add value to client universities because of their experience and approach, even when the work and decisions to be made are difficult. The interim must ensure that strategic and operational momentum is maintained and short-term targets are met. However, where appropriate it will be important to evaluate current strategies, processes, capacity, capability and structures while ensuring the current teams feel valued and are productive.All of which allows any new permanent director to make a more immediate and informed impact. It may also inform the profile of director that is recruited.

Commitment – An interim manager is only as good as his/her last assignment and maintaining high professional standards and a successful track record will be important for their career. I have always had a strong work ethic and l ensure that the outcomes/ results are achieved in the timeframe agreed. This would, of course, be detailed in an initial brief. Bringing in an interim who is mentally “retired” is not a sound option.

Availability – I have been recruited in days as opposed to weeks or months, which has been essential when time constraints are paramount to a university that requires change to be implemented. As highly experienced resources, interim directors can grasp challenges quickly and can add value immediately. The interim can also be recruited to work full time, part time or on a project basis which can be helpful when managing costs. Time on campus and the associated costs might be varied over time after an initial embedding period.   

Return on Investment – The USP for interim managers is the added value that they provide by using their skills, expertise and knowledge base to help a university to deliver an outcome, solution or service. Interim managers can focus on performing and delivering against agreed goals and objectives. Focus is critical.

In short, highly skilled interim directors allow universities to react quickly and effectively to both internal and external circumstances, making it feasible to bring in the right resource at the right time. A good interim will lead transformation and change, putting projects in place quickly and effectively. Their purpose is to effect change and their role is to speak openly and highlight what a university should do to achieve its goals.