Fundamental campaign courses prepare MJ-school students for National Student Advertising Competition

Students transition from thoughtful reflection to frantically typed notes while Associate Professor Joe Bob Hester bounces on his toes. There is a refreshing amount of energy in the room for a Monday. Hester lectures — albeit in an informal, collaborative way — about an advertisement's triggers, its message and the importance of packaging. No hands reach skyward; instead, students call out their thoughts and views on the matter, engaging each other in a synergistic and open way.

With no more than 20 students sitting around the conference table, personal touches seep into the lecture, allowing for more approachable, relatable discussion. Both Hester and his students offer up their own purchasing habits and consumer thought processes to assess and interpret the lessons they are learning in real time. 

Opportunities on the advertising side of the UNC School of Media and Journalism are frequently offered by Hester, who teaches "MEJO 371: Advertising Creative" and "MEJO 372: Advertising Media." Other advertising-focused faculty include Director of Advertising and Public Relations John Sweeney, Professor of the Practice Dana McMahan, Assistant Professor Lisa Villamil and Teaching Assistant Professor Gary Kayye, among others.

Hester understands the importance of persuasive communication in any field. Though he keeps an eye out for students from his advertising classes, he seeks out talent and passion from any MJ-school student wishing to be placed on his "MEJO 690: Special Topics in Advertising" team. This team will compete in a national collegiate advertising competition, boasting a line-up of top universities from around the country. To build the proper knowledge base and experience for the American Advertising Federation competition, students start by learning basic principles.

Beginning with the basics

Some voices are small, some are steady, but all are confident as they approach Hester's questions head on. How do the numbers and trends help to identify key advertising points? How can they aid the creative ad process? With every thought comes a rebuttal that makes students delve deeper: "How" isn't enough; Hester asks "why?"

The courses allow students to hone basic skills, such as the abilities to think creatively and strategically concurrently. They begin to ask why a certain piece of creative advertising might, for example, resonate with a certain demographic over another.

A student calls out her thoughts on car buying, the current theoretical situation proposed to the class. She relays emotions brought on by past advertisements. 

"'That's when it gets personal,'" repeated Hester, contemplating the student's response. "I'm going to use that from now on."

Advertising is personal, when done well. It tugs at heartstrings and leaves stomachs aching. And understanding how to cater to a large, diverse audience as an advertising practitioner is just one of many lessons taught in the Advertising Creative course.

While copywriting and advertising strategy development sit at the forefront of the MEJO 371 course objectives, Hester ensures that his students will learn general skills applicable to careers ranging from account management and media buying to media sales representation. After taking the prerequisite course — "MEJO 137: Principles of Advertising and Public Relations" — students develop the bandwidth necessary for strategy creation, an essential skill to have for many niche areas within the media field.

“The principles of putting together a persuasive message are still pretty much the same, you just have these different formats," said Hester. "Getting that message in front of the right people ... that process has changed dramatically.”

According to Hester, the average high school junior or senior wanting to study advertising in college has, up to that point, only been exposed to the field as a consumer. When they open Facebook and an ad pops up, or they watch a YouTube video and a six-second pre-roll plays, they're seeing the message, but they don't understand who that ad might be targeting. Not every ad consumers come across are designed for them to see, Hester explained.

Understanding the mechanics behind various marketing situations — such as finding qualitative insight into the social media habits of Generation Z or researching which demographic is more likely to read billboards — can help bridge this gap between seeing an ad and understanding why it might be targeting you ... or not. Finding an audience's key insights is just one of many steps taught in "MEJO 371: Advertising Creative." 

"I knew that [MEJO 371] would be challenging, and that it'd take up a fair amount of my time over the course of the semester, but I didn't know that it would push me to read between the lines of countless types of research," said senior and Morehead-Cain Scholar Thoko Zimba '19.

Other tactics the "MEJO 372: Advertising Media" course covers include creatively solving client challenges and building applicable strategies to bolster a brand's image and reach. Creativity, combined with strategy, is crucial to advertising campaigns and the advertising industry as a whole. These skills help students to mentally prepare for the job market and — for those who apply to "MEJO 690: Special Topics in Advertising" — a nationally recognized advertising competition.

Creating campaigns from start to finish

While "MEJO 137: Principles of Advertising and Public Relations" and "MEJO 379: Advertising and Public Relations Research" are required of MJ-school students, the ability to pick and choose higher level courses allows for each individual to specialize the path of their education. Under the new curriculum structure, MJ-school students are required to complete a capstone course, and according to Hester, taking a campaigns course such as MEJO 690 is a great option for students interested in hands-on experience.

Students who apply and are accepted to join Hester's "Advanced Advertising Campaign Planning" section of "MEJO 690: Special Topics in Advertising" are given a career-enhancing opportunity to compete in the annual National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC). This capstone course is one of the many client-based experiential learning opportunities the MJ-school provides students pursuing advertising, but is unique in that it offers the potential to receive national acclaim and hang a championship banner in Carroll Hall.

Hester teaches the course in a hands-off manner, allowing the students to step into an environment mirroring a real advertising agency.

"It's been really cool to see my fellow students step up in their leadership roles," said junior Lily Gavazov '20. "We wouldn't really be learning how to come up with our own campaign if he micromanaged everything."

While Hester allows for free flow of information and discussion in the classroom, he guides his students with positive reinforcement. He acts as a mentor and provides constructive feedback, Gavazov said, similar to the tailored information he gives his MEJO 371 and MEJO 372 students.

The atmosphere in the room mirrors that of his Ad Creative course, as students chat freely before the class begins. Austin Thomas '19 stands at the front of the class, drawing his peers' attention to the projector screen. The itinerary for the next hour and fifteen minutes revolves around group presentations. Teams take turns sharing their different approaches to building their client's new advertising campaign.

Junior Ariel Lee '20 kicks off her group’s presentation with jazz hands. Her energy is infectious as she describes the angle her group took in creating the message and motto of the campaign. Each group shares how they would rebrand their client, staying attentive and encouraging toward one another. Ideas pinball from one table to the next, and after the presentations conclude, Thomas asks the class what they preferred. What worked? What didn't hit the mark? MEJO 690 calls for this level of self-awareness and acuity, which for many students was first cultivated in the foundational advertising courses.

"[MEJO 371] taught me the importance of feedback and how the purpose of advertising is to sell your client's product and not boast about your talent," said Zimba. "It began preparing me for the fact that our NSAC work would have to put our client at the forefront every step of the way and would ultimately have to be tailored directly to their target audience."

With the skills gained from these courses, students are both technically and mentally prepared to place the client's needs first, strategically reaching audiences in a creative, resourceful way. Every class period is another step closer to competing for a national title.

Kicking off the competition

This year, the NSAC client — Wienerschnitzel, the "World's Largest Hot Dog Chain" — challenged each of the 145 collegiate teams across 16 districts to solve a current marketing issue through a creative and strategic advertising campaign.

"NSAC is a non-stop creative challenge that'll make even the least competitive person in the world competitive," said Zimba.

MJ-school students are striving to win at each of the three levels of the competition: districts, semi-finals and nationals.

The team will run against eight other top schools in District 3, competing against teams that have spent two semesters building their campaign instead of one. That fact, however, doesn't faze Hester, who believes in his team's talent and drive. He acknowledges the importance the competition holds for his students and their future career opportunities.

"Many of my former NSAC students note that this experience is the closest thing to actually working in the business, often even more 'real' than an internship," said Hester. “If you go over to McKinney and interview in Durham, or if you go to BBDO in New York — or almost any really good agency — and they find out you competed in NSAC, that’s going to become part of the interview process because most places understand what that is.”

Hester will continue to prepare Gavazov, Zimba and the rest of the team for districts, held on Friday, April 12, in Cary, North Carolina. Nationals will be held during ADMERICA — the AAF's annual national conference — from June 6-7 in Hollywood, Florida.