The team tasked with reimagining the SlimFast brand impressed the judges. "They built a story through research,” said Alice Eldridge, research director at Good Run Research & Recreation. (Courtesy photo)

Workshop provides fast-paced, professional lessons in strategic advertising

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Wheaties is a washed-up cereal that has built its brand on other people’s success. Claire’s accessory stores lost their position as a girl’s best friend. Things Remembered has become an un-memorable gift store. Jell-O has lost its fun, quirky identity. Chef Boyardee is viewed as a boring staple that’s not very palatable. And Victoria’s Secret only caters to unattainable body types.

Those were some of the brand problems bluntly identified in student presentations at The One Club for Creativity Strategic Workshop at the Virginia Commonwealth University Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. The students’ goal was to deliver new life into a failing brand by creating a basis of a new brand campaign. Held at the VCU Brandcenter on Nov. 8-9, panelists from 10 advertising firms across Richmond listened to and graded the students, who only had 24 hours to create their presentations.

“There's this huge process that happens that's behind the scenes from the public that our students need to be known for,” said Jessica Collins, an assistant professor of advertising in the Robertson School in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the workshop faculty organizer. “The intention is that the students will know strategy even if they end up being creatives.”

The strategizing is the research done up front on brands that is presented as a creative brief — a document used by creative agencies to develop visual design, copy, advertisements and websites — to assist creative campaign producers.

“Without the strategy, any creative or any pretty work can’t be done,” said Kevin Nguyen, workshop student organizer who is studying mass communications with concentrations in strategic advertising and creative advertising. “It's also a great networking opportunity for people to meet people and build those connections as well. And to ask, did you see why you like strategizing, why you're drawn to it?”

Nguyen said he is drawn to advertising research and strategic planning because he loves meeting and talking to people and learning what makes them tick.

Nguyen, fellow advertising student Courtney Foster and Collins approached The One Club for Creativity to partner in producing the workshop because the New York-based group is known for organizing advertising boot camps. In a few months of planning, Nguyen, Foster and Collins produced the event bringing The One Club to VCU for the first time. 

Created as an opportunity for 60 students to flex their creative muscle and showcase their work in front of advertising industry leaders, the 48-hour event divided students into 10 teams. Topics focused on how to write an inspiring and smart creative brief and how to present it in practice.

Each session set out to create a piece of a creative brief. In a session on insight writing and development, Whitney Asher, director of strategy at Fable, explained various ways to gather ethnographic research on what people are saying about brands and how in that analysis to list hunches, questions to prove or disprove, and connect directly with people who can talk about the brand.

“Insights make a story super relevant,” Corey Lane, senior account manager at Elevation, told the students. “There are brand stories that people can relate to — rags to riches, the hero’s journey, and David and Goliath.”

Insights make a story super relevant. There are brand stories that people can relate to — rags to riches, the hero’s journey, and David and Goliath.

The industry experts said every great story offers hope.

“We’re not into the va-va-voom,” said Justin Bajan, co-founder and creative director of Familiar Creatures, when asked for advice on what to do if the brief lacked a dazzling element. Instead, Bajan urged the students to hone in on asking, what was the single most important idea the brand must accept?

The experts stressed that practice is how strategists develop thick skin to client criticism and all great advertising campaigns can be traced back to an impressive creative brief. After the full day of presentations, student groups huddled and worked late into the night and in multiple sessions the following day. 

In rapid-fire presentations, the groups braved jitters to convince a panel of volunteers from the The Martin Agency, Arts & Letters Creative Co., Capital One, Elevation, Familiar Creatures and Tilt to crown them winners of the workshop.

The students assigned to investigate Wheaties honed in on the idea of everyday champions.

“The modern champion is someone who has had a disability and has perseverance. It's a single parent who is raising their own kids; it’s the unsung heroes who you don't really see every day. But without them, your life would be completely different. It's the survivors and it's also the people that defend what they love. All in all, the champion is anyone that takes their own story and their own struggle, they turn into success,” they said.

The Campbell’s soup team identified a crowded field for consumers to navigate. 

“We did research in the soup aisle and we found people somewhat overwhelmed,” said Ciara Reed, during her group’s presentation. “Choice is the enemy.” 

“When everyone goes right, Diet Pepsi drinkers go left,” said senior Taylor Herndon during her team’s presentation. “They’re OK with that.”

“Jell-O is the fun reward you can have after a monotonous day,” Sean Flanagan, a senior, said during his team’s presentation. “Jell-O’s weird, we need to own our weirdness. Let’s be as fluid and as flexible as Jell-O.” 

Meanwhile, the Victoria’s Secret team suggested the lingerie and underwear company rethink its image as a line for runway models: “Exclusivity is out. Inclusivity is in.”

The judges named the SlimFast team the winners (“It’s not a diet drink, it’s a life hack”) with second place going to team Jell-O and third place to the Campbell’s soup group.

Alice Eldridge, research director at Good Run Research & Recreation, said the intense sessions had impact on the participants: “I saw research on 90 percent of the presentations. My favorite was the SlimFast presentation because what they came up with showed what it is not and that will inspire the creatives to make work in a meaningful way, and in a psychographic and demographic way. They built a story through research.”

“The Strategic Workshop really helped me hone my skills,” said Dinma Onyekwere, a first-year graduate student at the Brandcenter and member of the winning SlimFast team. “I am shocked [we won] because we were finding our synergy and had to pull together because we all had ideas and had to match them up." 

Nguyen said the workshop exceeded his expectations.

“The One Club took a risk coming to an area we don’t usually come to, and it’s been an amazing experience,” said NiRey Reynolds, education manager with The One Club for Creativity.

The One Club for Creativity Strategic Workshop was sponsored by: Arts & Letters Creative Co., Barber Martin Agency, Brand Federation, Capital One, Elevation, Familiar Creatures, Fable, Good Run Research, Rocket Pop, Tilt Creative + Production, The Martin Agency, and Work.