ESMT: Tear Down Walls (No, Not That Wall)

ESMT Berlin’s banner ad seen here raised a few eyebrows.

The ad campaign raised a few eyebrows — as a good ad campaign should. Just not in the way its creators originally intended.

ESMT Berlin recently wrapped up a European and North American marketing campaign for its full-time, one-year MBA that exhorted would-be applicants with the declaration: “YOU ARE THE ONE WHO TEARS DOWN WALLS.” Given the politics of the moment in the United States, where President Donald Trump is on a divisive (and, many say, myopic) quest to build a 2,000-mile wall along the country’s southern border, the phrasing of ESMT’s ad drew a little extra scrutiny.

Rick Doyle, head of marketing for degree programs at ESMT Berlin, says that the ad does invoke a very real wall: The Berlin Wall. You know — the one that once divided East and West Berlin and that became a symbol of Soviet repression, cheered when it finally was torn down in 1989.

“The idea was really just tearing down walls, doing things new, but I guess the reference of it was initially the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in an effort to move ahead,” says Doyle, adding that his team had an inkling the ad, which was developed by an outside agency, might be seen as having a double meaning. But a far more relevant fact for them was that Berlin had had an infamous wall of its own. In fact, Doyle points out, ESMT’s campus is located in the former seat of government for East Germany, the historic State Council building that also served briefly as the reunified nation’s Chancellery.  “And now it’s a business school,” he says.


Rick Doyle. Courtesy photo

The “Tear Down Walls” ad campaign was devised more than 18 months ago, Doyle says, which means it predates the current heated debate in the U.S. (though not Trump’s vow to build a wall, a promise first made in 2015). “I think there was no real intention to tie it to anything political in the United States,” Doyle says. “But certainly I could see how somebody would draw some allusions to it. When we did run it in North America we thought, ‘Well, let’s see if this resonates with anyone in that part of the world for any particular reason.’ But there was no real intention of that being a link.”

He acknowledged, though, that some ESMT students saw it “and they thought, ‘Hey, that looked like it had a double meaning.'”

Martha Ihlbrock, head of corporate communications and marketing for the school, says the ad “was conceived a while ago with the tag line ‘Tear Down Walls’ referring to the Berlin Wall, and new ways of looking at business, innovation, and the fact that ESMT Berlin is located in the building where the head of the East German Communist party was located. We did discuss a bit how it might resonate in the U.S. and Mexico at the time, but that was before the wall there became such a hot-button issue.

“We usually don’t get a whole lot of information about a direct ad campaign,” Ihlbrock continues. “We’ve talked to some of our American students who are in the newest cohort of the full-time MBA, and of course they have this idea of coming to Europe to a different mindset than might be in the U.S right now. It’s just one factor among many that would make them choose to come to ESMT Berlin, but we can’t ever place anything on one ad campaign.”


And now, even as it has gained some attention, the “Tear Down Walls” ad campaign is over.

It has “run its course,” Doyle says. “It’s not the slogan itself that we’re getting rid of for any particular reason, it’s just that we decided to move on and market the program in a different way. This is sort of just the tail end of that campaign because they’re restructuring the MBA. We restructured the MBA program, so it was to finish that out. Now we have the new information and we’ll be going forward in the next month or so with a new ad campaign with a new program.”

That “restructuring” hasn’t been officially announced yet, but Poet&Quants got some exclusive details from ESMT Berlin about what it will entail: a curriculum overhaul for the January 2020 intake that features more flexibility and more practical projects designed to better prepare students for the German job market.


Nick Barniville, associate dean at ESMT Berlin. Courtesy photo

ESMT Berlin, ranked 79th this year by The Financial Times, has 51 students in its current cohort, 92% of whom are international. Adjusting to the German job market can be a challenge for foreigners, says Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs. “German companies, especially German Mittelstand, tick quite differently than companies in the USA or Britain, countries in which the MBA has a longer tradition,” Barniville says. “Recruiters here don’t just want to hire someone with the potential to be a great leader, but are looking for candidates who also have specific, highly practical skills. That’s what this MBA is designed for.”

Among the highlights in the new curriculum: After completing the core modules, ESMT Berlin students can choose between three areas of specialization in the second half of the year: Managerial Analytics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or Strategic Leadership. The curriculum also comprises an optional pre- and post-MBA program in which students can take an intensive German language course, do an internship, or participate in a coding boot camp; within this period they can also opt to do a six-month Responsible Leadership Fellowship in a developing country or set up their own business at a startup incubator.

“The main differentiating factor within the changes is flexibility,” Ihlbrock says. “In addition to the three tracks, there is really a focus on what international or national employers within Germany want and especially what they need. So we looked at the markets and found out they need certain skills, and some of these are analytical skills, especially. With our other electives we focused on allowing people to extend the program and do the coding boot camp, or putting that as one of the tracks they can choose within the program.

“Overall, students have a little more time to focus on other things during the program like themselves, the soft skills, and be able to concentrate on the core courses during the first part of the program.”


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