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LABS at BDW Gives Students Real Creative Experience

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Boulder Digital Works, the digital graduate course at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is launching LABS, which pairs marketers with a team of students to create an R&D atmosphere that lets brands test creative ideas before launching them into reality.

The program, which has been in beta development for the past year, has already tested partnerships with Microsoft, Toyota and a non-profit project with Fearless Cottage.

The program has been in the works ever since BDW opened its doors in 2009, said David Slayden, executive director. It is meant to tackle two adland problems: attraction and retention of talent. By giving students the chance to work with real clients on creative briefs, it will increase their understanding of what it is like to work in advertising, as well as match them up with future clients looking for talent.

Sponsor-Funded
The projects at BDW's LABS will be funded by sponsors. "The problem with companies is that their R&D budgets are getting smaller, but because we're a real university it comes as a gift, which has certain tax advantages."

At the same time, Slayden said the fact that the lab does not live inside the company means they can ask questions that internal employees may not want to.

A cross-disciplinary team of students--digital creative, technologist, UX designers and integrated producers--will be picked by BDW for six projects that will run through January, for now, with more projects planned for after January. Some of the projects will be short, three-week affairs, while some will be larger scale. Over the last year, the faculty and students at BDW have been homing in on the types of projects they want to do and when they should be placed. "Is the project worth doing? Do we want to tell people we did it, and Is there good opportunity for success?" are the kinds of questions that will be asked, said Slayden.

It Started with Zombies
Last year, BDW students had worked on a project with Microsoft Tags to create "Zombies vs. Hippies," a campus scavenger hunt that saw students assigned to teams on the website, where they could download a Tag Reader and then complete missions and win battles, marked throughout campus on posters with Microsoft Tags.

"So when LABS was going on, we thought we could work with them again," said Karen Howe, senior director at Microsoft. Students interviewed staff from Conde Nast and Time Inc. to test creative ideas and then present final thoughts to publishing executives, who were interested in using those concepts in their publications. All concepts used Tag technology. Students also worked on a brief that asked them use tags where creatives could make use of them. Solutions included placing tags in unexpected places, like abandoned galleries, or sending tags to creative departments so they could unlock rewards. The ideas they got are things that could be really fun for an agency to work on, said Howe.

Once presented, the projects are the property of the clients. "It's too complex for us to own them," said Slayden. "We don't want to maintain them." The only the thing the students gets out of it is resume padding and hopefully, recognition that this initially came out of BDW.

A more recent project was Occupationalist.org, a website that provided a real-time, "unbiased" view of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fearless Cottage and Alex Bogusky, who is also on the faculty at BDW, commissioned the project.

One of the best parts about working with students is that they were flexible enough to change things, said Howe. "They didn't have this sense of deep ownership which made them reluctant to change their ideas and they don't come with unnecessary baggage."

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