Students make pitch for real-life advertising experience

Marie Renckens stood before her client, walking through a proposed advertising campaign for a first-of-its-kind pediatric health care tool the client, Marshfield Clinic, is developing.

Renckens, manager of the account, was flanked by key leaders from her advertising agency, called Top Shelf. In their 30-minute presentation, Top Shelf explained the research supporting the campaign, its ideas for television and billboard ads, and the proposed media plan for reaching their targeted audience.

After wrapping up their presentation, Top Shelf listened as a team from the Marshfield Clinic, a health care organization with more than 50 locations across northern, central and western Wisconsin, questioned some elements of the proposal yet largely praised them for “hitting the nail on the head.”

The pitch by Top Shelf would be followed by one from a rival ad agency — Impact Innovation.

But the pitches weren’t happening on Madison Avenue. Instead, two “agencies,” each made up of 14 University of Wisconsin-Madison students, were competing to win Marshfield Clinic’s business in the basement of Lowell Hall. They were part of Journalism 475, a capstone course in advertising offered by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“This is the closest thing you’re going to get to real-life agency experience” in college, Renkens says after Top Shelf’s presentation.

The two agencies were playing by the same rules. They’d had 16 weeks to develop their campaigns. On one of the last days of class, they each had 30 minutes to present their proposals to the client, which included the Marshfield Clinic, as well as the senior management team from its Madison-based advertising agency. The client had seen a 40-page casebook from each agency developed by the students prior to the live pitch and had time to ask questions after the presentations.

The teams were rated on the strength of their research and the conclusions they drew from it, as well as their creative offerings and media plans. The students’ proposals were multiplatform and reflected the students’ savvy knowledge of the technology and the Web.

In the end, the teams scored within a point of each other, says Debra Pierce, the faculty associate from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication who teaches the class.

“The client was really happy with the ideas and the quality of thinking behind them,” Pierce says.

Glowac + Harris advertising agency in Madison will develop the real-life campaign for Marshfield Clinic. However, Marshfield Clinic marketing director Al Chaney says he expects some of the student agencies’ ideas to be part of the eventual campaign for the pediatric care offering.

“You never know where an idea is going to come from,” Chaney says. “The students are giving us ideas on where to go, how to do it and helping us pause to make sure what we’re doing is right.”

The partnership filled a void for both the client and their agencies. Marshfield Clinic had worked with students at the University of Florida in recent years because there wasn’t such a program in Wisconsin that would allow the health care organization to receive pitches from students. And UW-Madison students looking for a capstone experience got one with real-time interaction and feedback from clients — an improvement over advertising competition formats the school has tried in the past.

“Hearing back from a client after a semester of work — it paid off,” says Laura Wallack, account planner for Top Shelf and a graduating senior from Brooklyn Park, Minn. She’ll return to the Twin Cities for a summer internship at an ad agency and plans to draw on her experience in class. “Being able to interact (with Marshfield Clinic) has been beneficial and we definitely learned more.”

Wayne Glowac, chief executive officer of Glowac + Harris, says his agency is dedicated to providing mentorship opportunities, and he was impressed with the students’ work.

“They did their research, they linked the strategy to creative and they really thought through it,” he says.

The course is open to all seniors seeking a capstone experience, and Pierce says that in future years she hopes more students majoring in graphic design, film and communication arts will join those studying marketing and journalism.

“That just adds to a greater agency feel with students from a more diverse set of backgrounds,” Pierce says.

Renckens, a senior from Wayzata, Minn., who is headed to Chicago after graduation to work for an agency that does nonprofit marketing, credits the course with landing her first job.

“When they asked questions about managing people, keeping deadlines and paying really close attention to detail, I could talk about this class,” she says. “The majority of the time, it was us in a classroom, by ourselves, guiding everything.”

by Stacy Forster, University Communications