What I Learned From Teaching ‘Ad Principles’

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ADOTAS – I entered Duane 351 at Fordham University on that first day of “Advertising Principles” excited to share everything I know about advertising to a room full of eager young minds. I left that room five weeks later wondering if I, in fact, had learned more than they had.

Teaching summer school is unique. First of all, an entire semester is condensed into fifteen three-hour sessions, three times a week for five weeks. The classes come one right after the other with barely time to take a breath. The students come from all different backgrounds – finance, accounting, marketing… juniors, seniors (one had even already graduated). Most kids are there for the three credits and advertising seems like a fairly easy subject for summer study.

So it gave me a chance to have some fun with the class. Bringing in guest speakers from companies such as Apple, Google and Gas Station TV gives the students the chance to hear firsthand how these cutting edge companies are changing the media landscape. And since five weeks is not long enough for students to be able to develop an entire campaign, they get to short-cut a little and have fun coming up with a single campaign idea and a few creative ways to get the message out.

Most of the guest speakers and I found ourselves droning on and on about what the industry used to be like:

  • “There used to be only three networks.”
  • “We used to have the ‘seven sisters.'”
  • “You used to have to wait to watch your favorite shows.”

The students don’t care and it doesn’t matter! We keep talking about “new media” – stop! The reason we struggle so much as an industry is that we keep trying to figure out what to do with new technologies and new behavior when the consumers we are trying to reach are light years ahead of us.

When the printing press came out, no one wondered, “Goodness, how am I ever going to sell my soap in this strange thing called a newspaper?” When radio became all the rage, P&G didn’t study how people were listening to the radio —  they just spoke to them in the way they wanted to be spoken to.

I am teaching kids who came into a world of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network ON DEMAND! They had cell phones by their early teens. They all sit there wondering what on earth the past has to do with the present – and I think they’re right.

The biggest challenge with the rise of “new media” is not about understanding the media themselves or comparing them to yesterday’s choices — it’s understanding your consumers. What is their relationship with your brand? When do you have permission to talk about your brand? Once you truly understand the who, the “where” will be obvious.

Two fundamental truths that have driven our industry since the beginning are, 1) people like to consume and 2) people like to communicate. That behavior doesn’t change, only the tools we use to consume and communicate change.

As marketers, we keep chasing the new, shiny object rather than focusing on understanding the shifts and consistencies in consumer behavior: “Everybody is talking about Facebook — we need a Facebook page!”; or “People can read their news on an iPad — we need an iPad ad!”

Instead, we need to be curious and ask our consumers, “How and why?”

Finally, I came to realize that I was facing the first group of kids who had started college before the “Great Recession.”  They entered with high hopes and loads of opportunities. They are now facing declining prospects and maybe a decade of struggle.

These kids are at the tail-end of the millennial generation; the generation that has been labeled a civic or hero generation (Neil Howe and William Strauss “Millenials Rising: the Next Great Generation”). As such, they are noted for qualities such as teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct.

But the generational characteristics that shaped such qualities are being threatened as they face poor job prospects and wondering how they are going to make it on their own when they graduate. Despite their desire to help others, they are hoping to be able to help themselves.

Yes, these kids taught me that we need to stop looking back and to start looking to the future. Despite the challenges they will face when they leave college, they are looking forward to the future and appear to have the confidence to meet it head-on. They are bright, curious and not only like to ask questions, but like to be asked.

As marketers we need to start asking more questions than we try to answer. Look forward, not backwards — that’s how my students will approach their journey. We’d be smart to hitch a ride with them.

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