Each year, the American Advertising Federation (AAF) hosts the National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC), an opportunity for university and college students to show off their skills by creating a comprehensive campaign for a featured sponsor. Last week, I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma to judge submissions from eight schools in AAF’s 10th District (comprised of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana). The work itself was interesting, but the interactions were priceless.

This year’s NSAC sponsor and case study was Glidden. The paint company has offered its Brilliance line at Walmart for a few years now, but results have not matched expectations. Research shows a lack of awareness that Walmart sells paint at all, let alone Glidden. Further, consumers are reluctant to buy paint from the retailer citing concerns over Walmart associates’ paint knowledge compared to home improvement outlets. Students were tasked with allocating $10 million to overcome these challenges.

Student groups (ranging from 10-40 members) conduct primary and secondary research, establish campaign strategy, develop a creative concept, build the media plan, create community promotions and assign the budget. All this information is provided as a 20-page plans book for judges to review and score in advance. Students then select their five-person team to deliver a 20-minute live presentation to the judges – and a standing room only crowd of peers and professionals.

Some of what I saw is what you would expect from students…research samples comprised primarily of people their own age, creative concepts that don’t delve deep enough into the psychology of motivation and budget/impression numbers that are hopeful at best. In several cases, however, there were really insightful takeaways, smart strategies and little gems of inspiration. Teams that performed the best focused on a single, critical idea from beginning to end.

Seeing as the competition is ongoing, with 10th District winners advancing to face other winners from across the country, I’m limited in how much actual strategy I can divulge, but for me, the experience was less about the ideas each group put on paper as it was about the potential I saw in individual students. This was most evident during the question and answer portion that followed the student presentations. While the presentations themselves are very much scripted and choreographed, with slides to fall back on if someone loses his or her place, Q&A is a free for all.

I judged alongside Jocelyn Lee of Grey Media and Lauren Neuman of DDB. Simultaneously judging another tract of the 10th District competition were Catherine Wahl of Glidden, AJ Buse of Brand New Day and Richard Roche of Leo Burnett. And none of us pulled any punches during the Q&A.

It was interesting watching as some students wilted under the pressure of pointed questions from industry professionals and other rose to the occasion. Often, those who starred during the dog and pony show had no answers, while the quiet girl running A/V fielded tough questions without batting an eye. For my money/company, I’d rather have the person who delivers under the gun.

After two tough days of judging, it was time for the awards ceremony. Finally, young people who have invested the better part of six months on these campaigns would find out if their work outshined their peers’ and earned them a trip to the national competition. The tension in the room was palpable as AAF 10th District governor, Brian Wall, announced third and second place. The remaining schools now knew they had either won the whole thing or nothing at all.

The outpouring of emotion was truly moving as West Texas A&M University was announced the winner of the tract I judged. Their 25-person contingent erupted with screams and cheers as they stood, hugged and celebrated as a team. A relatively small school from Canyon, Texas, they were runners up the year before. This year, they would not be denied.

As the other judges and I ate dinner together later that night, one said, “gee, don’t you wish we would still get that excited over winning a new client? Instead, we worry about how we’re going to re-prioritize resources and how many late nights we’ll face getting the work done. To be genuinely exuberant, there is so much value in that.” I could not agree more, and I thank all of the students who participated for allowing me the opportunity to be reminded.

Photo Credit: eye_capture via Compfight cc

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Damion Wasylow is a senior marketing strategist at 352.