Agency gets Pittsburgh-area students thinking about the advertising industry

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Victor J. Scassera’s business management class wasn’t designed to participate in ad agency Mullen’s new program to get middle and high school students thinking about the advertising industry.

“This basically got pawned off on me,” said an energetic Mr. Scassera last week, as he moved around the Penn Hills High School room where he teaches students the basic concepts of business. Signs neatly posted all around the room say things like: “No charging cell phones,” “Books are located under your chair,” “No Slacking Any Time” and “Excuse Limit 0.”

His stu­dents were get­ting ready to pitch taglines they had de­vel­oped to help sell two dif­fer­ent prod­ucts — Skit­tles candy and Beats by Dr. Dre head­phones — as as­signed by team mem­bers from Mul­len’s Strip Dis­trict of­fice who had been com­ing to class weekly since Feb­ru­ary. Brian Bro­naugh, pres­i­dent of the agency’s lo­cal of­fice, and Joseph Lewis, in busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, have been reg­u­lars, bring­ing along other agency staff at times.

Mr. Scassera has been impressed. The first couple of weeks were a little dry, as the experts taught the basic concepts of advertising, but the delivery always has been accessible.

“Now I’m excited,” he said, adding he’d recommend other schools participate in what Mullen has named “AD U,” a 10-week program the agency launched in February at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. Other participating schools include Propel Charter School and Urban Pathways Charter School.

There’s no coincidence that all of those schools are among the more diverse in the Pittsburgh region. This is meant to be a seed-planting exercise, trying to get students at the middle and high school level thinking about the potential for careers in advertising and marketing.

“I was lamenting the lack of diversity in our industry,” said Mr. Bronaugh, tracing the origins of the project to a conversation with another local advertising executive, Russell Bynum, several years ago. Mr. Bynam told him that college was too late to get the attention of young people who might go into the field; it was important to start earlier.

Diversity has long been a concern in the marketing industry, especially in that mecca of advertising — New York City. That city’s human rights commission several years ago pushed agencies to do a better job of recruiting and hiring minority staffers. And that was decades after a 1978 report by the commission found overall ad employment at the seven largest agencies based in New York had risen 2.9 percent from 1975 to 1977, but employment of minorities fell 4.7 percent.

Pittsburgh’s ad industry isn’t especially diverse either, something that a comedian pointed out at the recent Pittsburgh American Advertising Awards event at the Carnegie Science Center in late February.

But the consuming public is diverse, and shifting trends in the American populace as tracked by census counts have grabbed the industry’s attention. Efforts to reflect the changing face of the country could be seen in ads like the controversial Coke commercial shown during the Super Bowl in which “America the Beautiful” was sung in several different languages and showed people of different ethnicities.

“Unfortunately, it’s still guys like me doing most of the creative work,” said Mr. Bronaugh, as he stood in the Penn Hills High classroom waiting for students to arrive. “When I say guys, I do mean male and I mean white.”

For his part, Mr. Scassera hadn’t really thought about the program that way. A Penn Hills graduate and full-time teacher since 2007, he is hoping his kids — some who work hard and some who need a little more pushing — will see the networking opportunities in working with a local agency and some of its top people.

The students, meanwhile, were focusing on the appealing qualities of candy and headphones — two things that they knew a lot about.

They’d formed three different agencies. Members of the Iris agency — as in the rainbow goddess in Greek mythology — told Mr. Bronaugh in a work session in the classroom that they had found it challenging to look at a picture and think of a headline that would go with it. But they narrowed it to a couple of options, including “Let the Beat change you,” and had developed a digital presentation.

Two other agencies met in the hallway, each crowded around a table to talk with a Mullen staff member.

When Mr. Lewis asked his group — the Silent Assassins — to explain why they’d come up with a certain headline, there was silence initially. “You’ve got to convince me, right?” he said. “If I’m the client.” 

FALA — which stands for Fu­ture Ad­ver­tis­ing Lead­ers of Amer­ica — gath­ered at an­other ta­ble with Diane Wal­ter, vice pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of dig­i­tal op­er­a­tions at Mul­len’s lo­cal of­fice, to de­bate the mer­its of sev­eral con­cepts, in­clud­ing one that merged the two prod­ucts. The tagline: “Mu­sic is food to the soul. Beats are the heart beat,” was pop­u­lar, and one girl noted that, as an ath­lete, she uses mu­sic when she prac­tices. “You need that hard bass,” she said.

The Silent Assassins — who explained their name was chosen because, “We’ll win this competition and take you all down before you know it” — came up with a number of ideas including, “And they say laughter is the best medicine” and one that turned BEATS into an acronym standing for “Be Entertained At This Second.”

After a quick discussion about how things went, the bell rang and the students grabbed their things to head out.

Mr. Bronaugh was satisfied. “Some of them, I think, are starting to see there is a path that could be had in this business.”

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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