As digital media increasingly pervade our daily lives, demand is rapidly growing for strategic thinkers who can manage diverse teams, implement ethical practices, and bridge the creative and business aspects of the field.
The trend toward digital media omnipresence has accelerated in recent years, as consumers rely on technology to deliver information, entertainment, human connections — even groceries and supplies. Digital platforms are driving growth across multiple industries and are expected to soar in worldwide revenue from $293 billion in 2021 to $414 billion by 2025, according to a July 2021 Digital Media Report by Statista.
Below, experts from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism outline the benefits and career-boosting opportunities available for those with graduate degrees in this burgeoning arena.
Meeting Growing Demand
“Companies are looking for directors, vice presidents, even C-suite execs who have more digital strategy and management skills,” says Freddy Tran Nager, USC Annenberg Lecturer and a digital marketing professional for over 25 years. “We saw a need in the marketplace.”
While various Annenberg degree programs include courses in digital media management, the area has become so specialized that the need for a dedicated program became increasingly clear. So the school launched the Master of Science in Digital Media Management (MSDMM) program, which enrolled its first cohort in Fall 2021.
“This program fits our mission to not only cultivate leaders in media but to also create a lasting, positive impact on the industry and our global community,” says Neil Teixeira, director of online learning at USC Annenberg.
“To be competitive in the modern marketplace, an understanding of digital media management is imperative,” adds Stylés Akira, a brand strategist and market researcher at Casa La Doniccé/The Annie Agency LLC, and a USC Annenberg lecturer. “The area is going to continue to become more refined and specialized in the future.”
“All media is evolving toward digital media. It is a vast landscape, from NFTs to feature films, podcasts to advertising. It is an undeniably exciting time, but it requires more tools and strategies than ever,” says Joseph Itaya, award-winning film director, digital content creator, technology innovator, and entrepreneur. Itaya and Nager are co-directors of the MSDMM program.
The MS in Digital Media Management is designed for working professionals who want to advance their careers in the field. It prepares students for a full spectrum of organizations and roles, including jobs with such titles as creative director, content strategist/director, community manager, campaign manager, experience director, startup founder, growth director, content marketing director, media manager and partnerships director.
“The possibilities are vast and expected to increase over time as this sector grows,” says Caroline Leach, Annenberg lecturer and founder of digital branding firm The Carrelle Company. “The program prepares managers with the leadership skills and entrepreneurial mindsets to thrive in these settings and to create the future of the field.”
Having the expertise and knowledge to translate technology to non-tech corporate executives is invaluable and will become increasingly important in the future, adds Aaron Settipane, a 25-year veteran of the entertainment and media industries and an Annenberg lecturer. “This type of degree never existed before.”
“We don’t teach programming or design in the MSDMM but we teach how to identify a good programmer, designer, writer, videographer and other talent — and how to manage them in building a website, for instance,” Nager says.
Digital media management goes well beyond websites, apps and social media, however. “Gaming is bigger than most entertainment media together,” Nager notes. “Los Angeles is a hot spot for gaming, and we want to create leaders for the gaming community.”
The degree can benefit professionals from many fields and backgrounds. A journalist who wants to take their career to the next level would be a natural as a content strategist, he says, or an engineer may be good at coding but not know how to turn coding into a business. “An aspiring or working producer in Hollywood may want to create a broader range of media entertainment than just a straightforward movie,” he adds.
“And I’m guessing students are going to come to us with aspirations we haven’t even heard of,” Nager says. “We also want to serve people who might be ready to start their own business. USC has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship. Our current Annenberg students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, often come up with ideas for businesses.”
Itaya agrees, noting that the mindset of innovation and entrepreneurship are woven throughout the program. “Because there is so much noise in the marketplace, it is imperative for creators to operate on the bleeding edge of storytelling, technology, and beyond.”
Managing Diversity and Evolving Regulations
In addition to the need for more skilled talent, companies are looking for leaders who can assemble and effectively manage diverse teams.
“It’s not just about a racially diverse team, it’s also about globalization,” Nager explains. “Your creative staff might be here in the United States, your programming staff in India, and your ecommerce staff in China. There’s a wealth of diversity, and it really takes skills to manage them all well.”
Other issues facing executives are concerns about privacy, hate speech, advertising fraud and the use of social media to divide rather than unite a culture. The program also addresses the legal nuances and challenges that come with a worldwide digital audience, and the skills needed to lead in a dynamic and rapidly evolving landscape.
For instance, momentum is building for changes in the regulation of social media and tech companies. “We could wake up one day and find out that one of the giant companies has been broken up by the government,” Nager says.
“In the EU, privacy laws are far different than in the United States,” Settipane notes. “It’s a different rulebook. Students in the program can become versed in those requirements and apply those concepts immediately in their workplace. They’ll also learn the impact of data collection from apps.”
“A lot of what we produce on the American web is inaccessible in China,” Nager notes. For instance, an Instagram campaign is “going to leave out 1.2 billion Chinese people. When you send intellectual property over to another country that has different laws regarding copyright and trademarks, how do you factor that in as a manager? You don’t want to ignore the Chinese market, but it requires accommodation.”
Access and Equity
Access to technology and content is not just an issue internationally.
“Technology is a great thing if you have the resources and the knowhow to use it,” Settipane says. “But if you lack access to the device and don’t have anyone to teach you, you’re starting to be excluded from entire areas of society.”
He cites disparities in such basic areas as food delivery. “You call but no one answers the phone because the restaurants are understaffed,” he says. “So you have to use your app to set up delivery, and you have to have a fast internet connection. Well, that costs money.” Another example he gives is people with disabilities who might not be able to read the screen or have other difficulties interfacing with technology.
“This ongoing pandemic forced us all to move into the digital world quickly,” Nager says. “We saw how our institutions were not prepared for it. No one factored in that a lot of public schoolchildren did not have access to high speed internet and did not have good computers at home. That’s part of digital media management, too.”
“This program addresses a lot of those key areas,” Settipane notes. “Not only does it put these issues in their business context but it also places them through the prism of different people’s experiences with technology. Having this degree program is important to creating smarter executives who understand the other intricacies of the technologies — including issues relating to privacy, inequities and the power that these technologies have on all of us in society.”
“This is an age of instant access, with fewer gatekeepers than at any point in human history,” says Itaya. “We must be innovative and bold, without ever losing sight of ethics or integrity.”
Focus on Application
The MSDMM emphasizes applied strategies and philosophies. Nager says many people working in the arena focus solely on tactics, such as how to size photos for the web or how often to post content. “We have 13-year-olds who are TikTok stars. They know how to use the platforms,” he notes. “What I’m excited about teaching is how to use these platforms to achieve a goal.”
While the focus is on digital media, the program will also prepare students to identify whatever media is appropriate for the audience they’re trying to reach.
Akira gives the example of a client wanting a social media presence without considering whether it’s appropriate for their situation. “You’re an insurance company. Who follows their insurance company on Facebook and Instagram?” he asks. Instead, “what they should be asking is who needs this product or service and how can we connect with those people? If your audience is skewing older, and you don’t have evidence that there’s an older audience on TikTok that’s going to be susceptible to your messaging, then you’re wasting your time, energy and probably the corporation’s money by focusing on TikTok.”
The MSDMM curriculum was designed by USC Annenberg faculty experts with input from industry executives on USC Annenberg’s Board of Councilors and Alumni Advisory Board. It emphasizes collaboration and networking with digital media professionals across sectors, and integrates diversity, inclusion, equity and access principles throughout the coursework. The program can be completed in three consecutive semesters or over two academic years.
“Classroom readings, videos, discussions and assignments have all been created to provide real-world experience in digital media,” Leach says. “Students can adapt their classwork to the areas of greatest interest to them in the digital space. In this way, their academic work can be focused for real-time application to an organizational setting or as portfolio pieces that can help position them competitively in a job search.”
The program also delves into real-world examples, such as the recent Anthony Bourdain documentary that used vocal cloning technology to put words into his mouth. The filmmakers were “able to copy his voice so precisely that the human ear couldn’t tell that it wasn’t him,” Settipane says. “This whole technology of bringing dead celebrities back to life, and being able to recreate these realities, or using deep fake technologies — what kind of impact does that have in terms of how we consume content?”
Adapting for Success
What does it take to be successful in the constantly evolving digital media landscape today?
According to Akira, it’s the ability to adapt.
Building from a broad foundation of digital media knowledge, the MSDMM’s approach to teaching the effective and ethical use of digital media, rather than its specific forms, is vital because technology changes so rapidly.
“Even if we wanted to make this program purely about the technology, by the time we wrote the syllabus, a lot of it would be out of date,” Settipane says. “What’s important is being able to manage the client and the resources when that technology changes, because it will.”
“We want to instill skills that will be applicable no matter where technology takes us,” Nager adds.
Learn more about the online MS in Digital Media Management at USC Annenberg and how it can help you advance your future in this dynamic and in-demand field.