How one agency created a digital learning academy to make performance marketing an access-to-all career path

Over the past three years, 70% of graduates from Kepler Academy have gone on to secure jobs in digital marketing as the agency seizes the opportunity to promote diversity in the industry.

“We were really trying to address the reality of representation in our industry – specifically the representation of individuals from multicultural backgrounds and from lower socioeconomic status,” says Justin Roberts, Associate Vice President and Director of the DEI Center of Excellence at global digital agency Kepler Group.

Roberts is talking to PMW about Kepler Academy, the initiative built by the agency to address the skills gaps in the industry and open up digital marketing as a career path to people from all backgrounds and identities.

Launched in January 2020 with an initial cohort of 17, the eight-week distance learning programme zeroes in on digital learning with a hands-on approach as students tackle campaigns for real clients and get deep access to today’s platforms.

Fast forward two years and the Academy has seen its cohort numbers grow by 300%, with some 70% of its graduates placed in roles either at Kepler itself or elsewhere in the industry.

PMW sat down with Roberts to find out how the agency created and sustained the remote learning platform, as the next cohort at Kepler Academy gets underway during year three.

The challenge: keeping DE&I always on

Roberts says that through Kepler Academy, “we're really trying to close that gap in terms of opportunities that exist in our industry, all designed for greater inclusion, greater representation across the space”.

“Diversity is a much broader term than I think people often give it credit – it’s not just ethnic representation or gender representation. We want to focus on differently abled folks, on people that are neurodivergent and on the intersections of identity. We want to focus on making sure that LGBTQ+ representation is becoming more pronounced in this space,” he insists.

“[DE&I] is a topic that has stayed front of mind for people. The fact that the industry now exists in a different way than it has historically, I see that as a considerable measure of success. But one of the challenges we face is that it can be very personal work. It’s very much you leading with your heart, being vulnerable, knowing that you're going to make mistakes, that you're going to need to take accountability on things that maybe previously you didn't even have an awareness of.”

One of the areas that Kepler is hoping to perpetuate with the Academy is the idea of diversity, equity and inclusivity as ‘always on’. Roberts is adamant. “A company looking to enter into the DE&I space needs to understand that it's not a box to check or a goal to finish in a year. It is a consistent commitment over time – that is really the true path forward.”

The solution: introducing Kepler Academy

Kepler had a comprehensive training programme for its employees in Kepler University and the agency was keen to take resources from there and provide training for “hard” digital skills that people don’t get access to unless they are in a full-time role. It also leans on its successful partnerships, including a strong link with COOP, an organisation that aims to close the social gap, investing in development programmes for graduates.

Kepler Academy’s application process centres around confirming commitment and that cohort entrants will find value in the programme, rather than finding individuals to fit a strict set of criteria.

Roberts explains: “We promote internally to our own team members if they know individuals that could benefit from this kind of training. The COOP pipeline for us is really strong just in terms of accounting for a strong percentage of the students that we train with in Kepler Academy. We're not trying to exclude folks from the programme; we are very focused on representation within it.”

The distance learning approach, with students completing the programme remotely opens up Kepler Academy to potential applicants across the globe. It also offers training and courses that students can complete in their own time alongside the ‘scheduled’ sessions.

The approach: core digital focus - but promoting professional development too

The content of the programme has a digital focus at its core, but, insists Roberts, there is much more than a passing glance to general professional growth and development.

“We try to approach it from a variety of different angles, but in my opinion, one of the biggest barriers to opportunities in this space is those hard skills that people need to have when they're applying for entry level positions.”

“Those hard skills include working in platforms that can be confusing. The Googles, the Amazons, the DSPs that exist out there, we give people direct access to platforms. It's not just the training, but acting on platforms, building out live campaigns.”

Each student on the programme is placed with a Kepler employee who acts as a mentor, with that relationship focused on professional growth. Students meet with their mentor weekly to discuss topics like how to secure interviews, LinkedIn reviews or CV reviews, or hold sessions for interview preparation and practice.

What the graduates say

“I was a technology information management graduate and never thought I would end up working in marketing. However, I decided to attend Kepler Academy on a whim during the lockdown and ended up enjoying the work. I immediately began pursuing a digital marketing career and quit my job as a Project Manager for a technology consulting company. I've loved working at Kepler ever since, and I'm so grateful to Kepler Academy that I now come back every cycle as a Project Lead and mentor!” Dana Mishenin, Cohort 3 graduate; Kepler Senior Analyst

“I’ve learned more about digital media in six weeks, than I did during the past two years... and I’m a marketing major.” Cohort 1 graduate

“Verbal and written communication is something that we want to be very mindful of and we’ll look at presentation skills or how to bring data storytelling to the table when it comes to presenting information to clients. All of those things are also encompassed within the programme curriculum,” Roberts says.

One core facet of the programme is the students’ work on real campaigns for clients. The projects within the programme are tailored toward not-for-profit organisations, “to make sure that we're doing good in terms of marketing support that we're giving to groups that don't have experience in the space, and really need the pro bono forms of support which our students are able to provide”.

The network: client and vendor support

Kepler Academy is set up to provide networking opportunities alongside the training, with a number of the agency’s clients, vendors and partners supplying speakers from their organisations.

Roberts lists an impressive role call of past speakers to Kepler Academy cohorts: “We’ve brought them in to present to past cohorts – speakers from Amex to Hanes to Google to Amazon. We're really trying to give students insight into what working in this space looks like and how they can access those opportunities themselves.”

Post-programme, graduates are sent a quarterly newsletter that highlights networking opportunities and potential jobs at Kepler or its vendors or clients. Those graduates that have gone on to work at Kepler itself have access to a dedicated employee resource group to ensure a supported transition into a digital marketing career.

The results: placements, employment and growth

Some 70% of Kepler Academy’s graduates have gone on to find roles in the industry – a number of them at Kepler itself. The majority of Kepler Academy graduates that join the agency start in client solution roles, offering exposure to project management and client relationship development alongside the media buying and campaign management side of the business.

Those graduates that gain employment outside of Kepler are broadly following similar paths, says Roberts, or “what we see outside of our own doors is that a lot of graduates go to publishers or to the DSP side”.

One of the core learning points from the team running the Academy is the importance of the hands-on experience students receive in building real campaigns.

Roberts reflects: “We had a lot of internal discussion when we were originally building out our curriculum of, ‘do we try to recreate mock campaigns that aren't actually having people jump into the platforms, or build out real campaigns and put media dollars behind the things that they're strategizing and building out?’. Our North American CEO [Remy Stiles] made the push to ensure we're getting that hands-on experience for our students.”

What the clients say

“The comprehensive Google Ad Campaign the students have created and implemented for our organisation has significantly increased our website traffic and donor engagement. The students were able to understand our organisation, clarify our messages, optimise our website and present real ideas for our organisation that will yield profitable results. They were a tremendous asset to our team. I would unequivocally recommend Kepler Academy cohorts to any organisation looking for brand specialists to help drive strategic growth – it has been a game changer for our organisation!” Patrick’s Kids Foundation

“We just finished our second term with Kepler and already saw major growth. Their team took what was learned from the first term and applied it to the recent term, which resulted in major improvements. Our grant budget was used wisely, as the team modified the campaign halfway through to amplify the effects. They were also instrumental in identifying key phrases, popular pages, and the like – which has helped shape our marketing strategy in other realms. Their final presentation was insightful and helpful. We hope to continue working with them.” Educate. Radiate. Elevate.

The strength of the Academy’s partnerships has also been vital to its success – both from a training and opportunity standpoint, which in the current climate, Roberts says, has become more crucial than ever.

“It’s thinking about how we can make the jobs that exist, especially when we're thinking about all of the layoffs we're seeing across the industry. It's a really uncertain job market right now for graduating students. We want to make it as easy as possible for them to access opportunities, make sure that they're going to be well equipped to actually find roles.”

The future: scaling Kepler Academy upwards and outwards

In continuing the development of what Roberts describes as “some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been a part of,” Kepler is gearing up for the next cohort to take their places later in March 2023, and scaling the programme continues to be a priority, as is increasing the access.

Roberts acknowledges the sizable commitment of sustaining a programme dedicated to a career in the industry. “We need to adjust to the changes that exist in digital. When we are revamping the training programs for our staff, we're incorporating those adjustments into the curriculum that we use in the Academy, and that keeps things fresh and makes sure that it is consistently relevant. It makes staying on top of that content and making it fresh and relevant much easier for us than for, I would say, a university or somebody that isn't working in this space.”

“We have really big ambitions and a lot of them are focused on just getting this training to as many individuals as we possibly can because it's about creating opportunity as much as anything else,” Roberts concludes.

“Whatever we can do to create more opportunities for more people, that's really our guiding light.”