New Advertising Curriculum Breaks the Mold

Will Sims, assistant professor of advertising, teaching a Style class in the undergraduate advertising curriculum.
Will Sims, assistant professor of advertising, teaching a Style class in the undergraduate advertising curriculum.

Curiousness. Awareness. Truth & Honor. Completeness. Ubiquity. Acumen. Story. Empathy. Perspicuousness.

These do not sound like the names of college classes. In fact, the course names in the new undergraduate advertising curriculum in the VCU School of Mass Communications no doubt have inspired some skepticism and confusion since their introduction this past fall.

However, what the names represent – a bold step in redesigning how advertising is taught to undergraduates – ensures that the classes will be taken seriously.

“The funky names are the most visible part of the new curriculum, but the concepts behind the revisions are what really is important,” said Will Sims, assistant professor of advertising, and one of the faculty members who helped develop the curriculum. 

Scott Sherman, assistant professor of advertising, teaching a Completeness class.
Photos by Rinny Wilson, Communications and Public Relations
Scott Sherman, assistant professor of advertising, teaching a Completeness class. Photos by Rinny Wilson, Communications and Public Relations

Sims said the VCU professors who devised the new curriculum did more than react to changes in the advertising industry. They forecast where the industry was headed and tailored an education to equip students for that murky future.

“We want to prepare them not just for their first job out of college but for all of the jobs after that,” Sims said. “We’re training students for jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Today's advertising industry is involved in developing a brand's total communication, according to Scott Sherman, assistant professor of advertising, influencing everything from strategic plans and message content to the creation of advertising, the retail environment, packaging, Web sites and word-of-mouth messaging.

It is this evolution in marketing communications that has driven both the VCU undergraduate program and the VCU Brandcenter, the university’s graduate advertising program, to put brand building front and center in everything that they do. Advertising education at VCU goes beyond making ads and extends to exploring the infinite ways of connecting consumers to brands, and students are being taught to consider the whole brand and not just a slice of it.
Although the new undergraduate curriculum has brought changes, students continue to receive intensive training in traditional advertising practices. There is no longer an art direction or copywriting class, for instance, but students still learn those skills. However, they are learning them in a different context, and new media has assumed a more prominent position in the classroom to reflect its ever-expanding role in the public culture.

Sherman said the new curriculum evades the traditional “silos” of advertising agencies, reflecting the industry trend toward integration of departments and skill sets. Mark Fenske, a professor at the VCU Brandcenter and one of the architects of the new curriculum, said the class names, and their emphasis on qualities rather than jobs, keeps the students from being boxed in.

“We want to develop in students the same attributes found in superlative practitioners in the advertising field,” Fenske said. “By focusing the curriculum toward the development of attributes instead of specific pieces or types of work, students themselves – with direction – will create work not only taught in the traditional formats long taught in the school, but they will also naturally work in the newer media formats they are familiar with and interested in.”

As an example of how the focus has altered in the new curriculum, consider Completeness, a new course that descends from the Campaigns class previously offered. In Campaigns, creative students and strategy students worked together to create ad campaigns. In Completeness, creative students and strategy students still work together, but now they step beyond traditional ad campaigns to broader strategic projects that often include non-traditional media elements.

Another example is that previously, students learned to lay out an ad in the Art Direction class, which Sherman says likely has been taught since advertising first entered the classroom. In its place at VCU, however, students now take Imagination, in which students learn about the aesthetics, visualization and communication that combine to engage consumers.

James Brown, who graduated in December in the strategy track of advertising, said he loves the new curriculum, especially the increased collaborative opportunities across the creative and strategy tracks and the strong embrace of new media. Brown believes even the course names themselves will help push students in new directions.

“Calling a course ‘Imagination’ is going to make students want to produce more and think bigger,” Brown said. “The names are important, and I think they are exactly what they should be for what the curriculum is trying to do.”

Although the curriculum changes appear dramatic, Sims said they were made from a place of strength. VCU, he said, could have continued to offer a sterling undergraduate advertising education without a single alteration.

“I don’t think the changes were necessary or inevitable,” said Sims, who is the coordinator of the advertising sequence. “We had a great, award-winning program and we just figured out how to make it better.”