Advertising Is Alive and Well in Chicago -- and at U of Illinois

A Lively Discussion in the Windy City About the Challenges Facing Our Industry

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The University of Illinois advertising department celebrated its 50th anniversary last month by hosting a daylong symposium on both the challenges and opportunities facing ad students at the school.

The Illinois ad department, started by Charles Sandage in 1959, is the oldest in the country, and it's about to become the only named department of advertising in the nation. The university's chancellor, Richard Herman, is proposing it be renamed the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising.

"Now, everyone here knows that advertising gets its share of criticism, that it's only contribution to the nation is by promoting Vegematics and Ginsu knives, Garden Weasels and the Pocket Fisherman. Order now, get the second one free!" Mr. Herman told guests and students at a reception.

But, he said, the University of Illinois ad program studies the ethical response to audiences and markets. "In other words, it does not focus solely on commerce but instead tries to understand how commerce works within a larger framework of the American consumer society."

In the early 2000s the ad department lost its way and its future was in doubt after a provost committee concluded that the program had become "less about advertising and more about persuasion, the culture of consumption, and a critical analysis of materialism in society."

The difference now, according to new ad-department head Jan Slater, is that the program has regained its original mission and commitment to the "Sandage way." Leadership stability has also helped: Prior to Jan's arrival in 2007 from Ohio University, there had been nine department heads in seven years; Jan is the 10th.

The ad program is certainly reenergized, and the symposium took up issues that could have come right from our pages.

For instance, many of the graduates end up working in Chicago, so a hot topic was whether the city was in its death throes as an ad market. Ron Bess, CEO of Euro RSCG, Chicago; and Nancy Leibig, managing director-business development of DDB, said Chicago was still shouldering its share of business.

Both said Chicago ad agencies were doing a better job of breaking down the silos that bedeviled agency-holding companies in New York. Mr. Bess said "collaboration is going to be king, and that's another strong point of Chicago." Ms. Leibig added, "Everybody's tinkering with models. It's time to be experimental and try to figure it out."

At two other sessions, one on behavioral targeting, the other on consumer-generated content, students had differing views from the professionals. Wally Snyder, president emeritus of the American Advertising Federation and distinguished visiting professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, took the position that consumers wanted to receive information on products they were interested in based on their prior buying patterns, provided that their personal privacy would never be violated. But Nora Riton, professor at Michigan State University, said consumers don't understand what marketers are doing because "it's so complex." The Federal Trade Commission's job to explain the rules "is never going to be good enough."

Amy Gajda, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, contended that young people don't care about their privacy unless something happens to make them recognize its value.

In a discussion about consumer-generated ads, one member of the audience complained that such ads "nibble away at our professional stature." But students told the ad pros to, in effect, lighten up. One student said the ads are made by "some goofball having fun. We never think everybody can do it."

On the other hand, one student told me that the reason consumer-generated ads are successful is because "the public doesn't feel like some professional is trying to get in their head or manipulate their decisions." She said agencies can create their own made-to-look-like consumer-generated ads appealing to younger demographics that "don't respond well to 'the man' or being told what to do."

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