Student-led advertising agencies have become an integral part of the advertising curriculum at universities across the country. The real-world, tangible experience competes with the accustomed internship in a variety of ways that have students jumping at the opportunity to join. Student-led agencies give students an ability to learn in a setting amongst their peers, relieving some of the pressure that may come with quickly integrating into a company that seats unfamiliar faces during an internship, and giving them a chance to apply everything they’ve just learned in the classroom in a tangible way for real clients and paying real money.

A new staple in the advertising curriculum

By 1989, the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois featured two out of the only eight student-led advertising agencies in the country. A number that would soon rapidly grow to see a plethora of student advertising and public relations agencies on college campuses around the country.

From the moment an advertising student hears about the opportunity of working for the university’s student agency, excitement for the opportunity sparks. Awareness of the competitive job market is a looming thought in an undergraduate’s mind, motivating them to find experience outside of coursework to demonstrate their professional abilities.

While an application and interview process for student agencies is conducted, the advertising professor in charge of running the agency often has an idea of who they’d like to see on its staff, giving the students chosen a substantial boost in confidence that the work they’re producing in their classes and overall attitude amongst their peers is catching the eye of faculty around them.

Once selected for an agency position, the toughest part is often gaining footing for the responsibilities tied to their new job role. This leads to the emergence of peer-to-peer mentoring, as students help each other problem-solve and finish tasks to produce work that not only satisfies the director of their agency, but their client as well. Having this ability to apply in-class learnings to real-world situations provides students with a better understanding of what to expect once hired at an agency.

Students-led agencies give students the ability to learn in a comfortable environment, unafraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Account people master the importance of deadlines by managing not only their time, but their team members’ time as well, keeping the ball rolling on projects and effectively communicating with their client to ensure that all needs are being met. Creatives learn how to produce work against quick-and-hard deadlines while managing the pressures of having a new set of eyes critique their work. Everyone is new together and learning together about what it takes to be an advertising professional, bringing an appreciation to the experience at hand.

Getting a foot in the revolving door

New grads in the industry often struggle with the daunting task that is building a resumé and portfolio to best represent themselves and their abilities in the interview process. Oftentimes, projects produced in class may be the only portfolio work available to the student if prior internship experience is not obtained.

In an interview with PR Daily, TCU and student-led Roxo Agency alumnus Mackenzi Abbott comments, “Classwork doesn’t always feel up to par with what creative agencies might be expecting,” highlighting the struggle that new grads often have when tasked to fill a portfolio or resume for a job interview. Student agencies give new grads an opportunity to fill their books with viable work, bestowing a new layer of legitimacy toward their capabilities.

Abbott also touches on the high value of student agencies allowing for everyone to discover the intricacies of the other roles within an agency. This allows students to feel comfortable with the role that they are assuming, while also providing the opportunity to make any changes to the possible direction of their future career. This in turn brings confidence and passion to the interview process that is assuredly felt by the interviewer.

The addition of student categories at advertising award shows has allowed for student agencies to flourish and promote not only the excellent client work being produced, but the brains behind the campaigns as well. These award shows comprise top talent in the industry, providing students with the opportunities to market themselves to potential employers.

Showcasing award-winning work in a portfolio as a new grad is a golden opportunity to stand out amongst the competition on the job market, providing a higher quality book, with more substantial content and experience that may have already caught the eye of the agency during award show season.

The unsung hero of student agencies

Being the supervisor of a student-led agency is often a thankless job as the instructor running it not only has to supervise all work being produced by the agency but also has to maintain the workload demanded of them as a professor. Billing clients, proofing copy and providing an endless stream of guidance for the advertising pupils that renew every semester would keep any one person busy. Now add this to lesson plan formation, paper grading, teaching and student mentoring, resulting in the customary responsibilities for college professors running their university’s student ad agency.

With a teaching career that started as early as the 1970s coupled with working in the ad industry for 30 years, Professor Bill Ford knew how to juggle running an agency and teaching before co-founding SWOOP Agency over a decade ago. SWOOP Agency is UNT’s student-led advertising agency with clients from Dallas Pets Alive! to Kessler Shaving Co. to Oak Knoll Ranch, providing its students with tangible experience to create a variety of campaigns from start to finish.

When asked about some of the similarities between student-led agencies and agencies in the real world, Ford highlights time reporting, client communication and deadline management amongst the similar practices found between the two agencies. Ford also notes the delicate balance he’s seen from his “SWOOPers” — managing time for their agency’s client work, university coursework, and oftentimes an outside job to support themselves — a balancing act that teaches time management skills essential for success in agency life.

On speaking of the challenges of running the agency, Ford notes, “I used to spend more time with SWOOP than I did with all of my other classes combined.” Approving everything sent to the client, pursuing new clients, billing current clients and restarting the entire agency process every semester, which only covers a portion of his job responsibilities with the agency. After leading SWOOP Agency for 11 years, Ford has been able to watch his “SWOOPers” blossom in the industry around the country, a high reward for all the sleepless nights, semesters and years encountered on the job.

Leading a student ad agency requires a driven professor whose passion for teaching and creativity inspires the students fortunate enough to get the opportunity to learn and work from them. These professors have the responsibility of noticing imperfections in student work and guiding them to create better habits to garner success in the industry. Often a thankless job, but a job that impacts students and their careers forever.

The impact of student-led agencies

The rise of student ad agencies across college campuses is a positive addition to a long-standing advertising curriculum. The lessons learned, experiences made and connections built provide students with a new age form of agency trial and error. Outside of the wisdom gained from participating in a student-led agency, portfolio enhancement provides students with a unique new advantage on the job market.

These qualities make the ever-growing presence of student agencies, not only on campuses but in award show winnings, a welcome and necessary addition to the advertising student experience. Student-led agencies allow students the opportunity to understand each agency role on a deeper level, giving them confidence in their abilities to work through problems and problem-solve with their team to get projects done at the highest level. The level of teamwork acquired is substantially important in growing respect for each member of the team and how everyone must have an equal hand to produce great work.

Although finding the right supervisor for the agency and possible budgeting issues may be a deterrent to some universities looking to add a student agency to their offerings, the benefits that it provides its students should take precedence. In the long run, the increasing amount of student advertising content created and showcased at award shows will lead to a steady stream of clientele wishing for exceptional work at a lower cost. As student ad campaigns continue to stir up chatter amongst top agencies, the establishment of student-led agencies will continue to rise.

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Ashley Morales is an Account Coordinator at Spire Agency.