Christopher Simpson: A Legacy That Still Inspires

Cleaning out my home office recently, I came across quite a relic: an issue of CASE Currents from January 1998, back when I was the magazine’s relatively new managing editor and responsible for its marketing and communications beat. I had the cover topic that month, and printed in 60-odd point type I read: INTEGRATED MARKETING: What It Is, Who’s Doing It, How You Can, Too. This was the first time that CASE covered integrated marketing, and it caused quite a stir. Flipping through the issue, I fondly remembered commissioning and editing one of the lead articles by Larry Lauer, a pioneer of higher ed integrated marketing at TCU, and the other from none other than Christopher Simpson, then the head of marketing and communications at Indiana University who eight years later founded SimpsonScarborough. Evocative of his style, Christopher’s article had a very provocative title: “The Day We Closed the News Bureau.” (As a magazine editor, I loved him for being gutsy enough to run that headline.)

Christopher left this world much too soon, in 2008. I realized that this special issue of Currents marked not only my own 20-year anniversary of working in higher ed marketing but also the 10-year anniversary of Christopher’s passing. As I re-read his article 20 years later, I first noticed so many of Christopher’s professional characteristics that made him so good at what he did. He was honest: When his president asked him, “What is the perception of IU in Indiana?” he wasn’t sure, and he admitted it. He was a problem solver: He came up with a plan to find out. He was a reporter at heart: He and his colleagues conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with more than 100 legislators, business leaders, and IU alumni as part of that plan. And he was confident: After constructing a strong and detailed strategy for closing the IU news bureau and replacing it with an office of marketing and communications, he executed the strategy without wavering.

The second thing that struck me about the article was how much of Christopher’s advice about integrated marketing still holds true two decades later. Though integrated marketing is no longer a new concept in higher ed, and indeed has matured greatly in its sophistication and implementation, we can all still benefit from the following five recommendations for integrated marketers that Christopher offered at the end of his piece.

  1. “Find every available means to educate faculty and staff on the benefits of marketing.” Now more than ever, we need faculty and staff to understand the need to market the institution accurately and consistently in order for it to remain relevant and viable. A national conversation is starting around how colleges and universities can reclaim the higher ed story, and professors and administrators have a critical role to play if we are to succeed.
  2. “Be skeptical of outside consultants.” Believe it or not, we love this one. There are a lot of bad consultants out there, as well as a lot of good ones that aren’t good for every school (us included). Colleges and universities should take the time to identify “best fit” marketing consultants in the same way they spend time and energy identifying “best fit” students. This tenet of Christopher’s lives on at SimpsonScarborough, where we take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of our clients’ time and resources.
  3. “Don’t try to make marketing specialists out of every staff member.” In his article, Christopher wrote about accepting and leveraging the fact that some of his staff performed better as traditional journalists. There will always be foundational tools of the trade that technology and new frameworks cannot supplant. No computer can fully replace a designer’s sketch book and Sharpie; even the most sophisticated marketing operation cannot thrive without marketers putting on their reporters’ hats and hitting the pavement to find their institution’s best brand stories.
  4. “Measure every new effort.” Yes! This is why market research guru Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson agreed to enter a business partnership with Christopher in 2006. Early on, he understood that you need data not only to convince your skeptics but also because, as he put it, “had we not first conducted research, we would have only been able to guess how to best change some of the misinformed attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of our key constituents.”
  5. “Hang on tight.” Though Christopher was specifically referring to surviving the transition from news bureau to integrated marketing office, this advice can apply to any of today’s large-scale marcom undertakings. Sticking to your plan and focusing on education and buy-in will always be more effective than changing course every time a naysayer naysays.

Elizabeth remembers that after Christopher died, people asked if she was going to remove “Simpson” from the company name. She never hesitated to respond with an emphatic “Hell no!” He established the vision for the firm that we still adhere to today, and even as the years go by, his influence continues to guide our work in ways both big and small. As Elizabeth says, “I’m so proud to have the name Simpson in the name of our company, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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