Digital in Residence: A Week Teaching at Miami Ad School

Why I'm Hopeful for the Future

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Mat Zucker
Mat Zucker
AMC cinemas pioneered stadium-style seating and cup holders at your seat. Trojan condoms are electronically tested for reliability. A Slinky can climb up stairs. I know all this because I learned all this from students this past week at Miami Ad School.

Bryan Fuhr, director of strategy at AKQA in New York, and I were teachers-in-residence -- part of the school's continued push to infuse digital thinking into its program. We taught together to help students experience the relationship between creative and planning and to create brand-differentiated ideas, which aren't necessarily traditional-messaging campaigns.

Schools, after all, are going through what agencies are going through -- exploring how to beef up digital and integrate it into the work.

Despite the school's humble approach and outreach to plenty of top digital professionals, the program and students are actually ahead of many of the agencies to which they're headed. It's an impressive pastiche of the best of old and new -- using web cams to create long hallways among all their locations, while decorating with remnants of Chiat/Day's virtual office.

First we taught listening. Then we did.

On Monday, Bryan and I gave a joint lecture to the school about the unsung power of "Listening for Better Communicating" to create better work. It's an issue important to us and, judging from the comments we received, seemed to resonate with the crowd during and after. We punctuated the presentation we shared with stories from a creative, strategic or client point of view.

Class assignment: How brands can thrive now
Tuesday and Thursday we worked with two classes of first-year art-director-and-copywriter teams on a timely assignment we sent down a few weeks in advance: How Brands Can Thrive. Our challenge was to pick a brand and find a creative strategy to engage customers (a young married couple in Phoenix) during a recession. We hoped it would spur work for their portfolio that had a sustained brand engagement, rather than the hit-and-run messaging campaigns we all see way too much. Broader work would open them up to more jobs across marketing and help them move beyond the narrow (and shrinking) field of advertising. Plus, it might be timely work to have in their book as they shop for internships this summer.

What we saw: Digital ideas naturally at work
Their knowledge and use of digital platforms was intuitive and strong, which should encourage us all. Social marketing, dynamic ad units, mobile apps, podcasts, video -- modern tactics were all there, appropriately serving the idea. The type of ideas went beyond traditional campaigns to sustained programs or richer brand experiences, which were both friendly to the times and to the challenge of the brief. If only today's creative directors in agencies could make choices like they did so naturally.

What teams chose to market was a sign of the times -- and their generation. A few were typical portfolio choices, such as Trojan or Land Rover, but we saw more new-media brands chosen (Craigslist, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook) than we had expected. YouTube's "YouLearn" was a series of funny how-to videos co-created with advertisers to give brands a way to use YouTube beyond posting their commercials. And for the Facebook team, we suggested its idea for a small business network for incremental income (which we loved) might be better sponsored by Target, but experienced on Facebook.

For Swatch, the creatives brought forward an insight of history repeating itself, and on an interactive site full of movie clips that sputter, you get to help fix history and continue it. The team that tackled Trojan proposed a bold creative strategy called "Maybe later," recognizing the couple's desire for children but suggesting pregnancy for, well, post-recessionary times. In the meantime, they could virtually create a child together and even see what he doesn't look like. The Hasbro team developed a program rooted in children's development called "Bigger play, brighter futures," which used mostly dramatic out-of-home installations, which was great since our brief wasn't about digital or traditional but about ideas and engagement.

Optimism. And jealousy.
Similar to how I felt after last May's visit to VCU Brandcenter, I am optimistic about where programs are headed and, frankly, jealous of what the students get to spend two years learning, doing and creating.

For example, one early assignment that the school demands of students caught my eye: Create your digital portrait. Using a camera and no sound, you capture what you're all about with video, and these looping clips are on digital signage in the lobby of the school. I'm going to ask my department -- or perhaps my entire agency -- to play catch-up to the students and show what they're made of.

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Mat Zucker is VP-executive creative director at Agency.com.

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