Observations of the advertising industry from a Project intern

It is impossible to go a day without being immersed in some form advertising. Even with DVR capabilities and ad-blocking software, ads find a way. I’ll scroll through my Snapchat to see what my friends are doing, and before I even realize the sponsored tag in the corner, I am actively taking in branded content, delivered in a way that feels like I’m just watching my friends’ stories.

Branded content. That’s a phrase I wouldn’t normally use colloquially, much less be able to define. While I’ve been exposed to ads, the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding the industry lingo before this summer was during Mad Men. My understanding of advertising was limited. My only idea of the industry was knowing that there is a product that people want to sell, and those people hire advertisers to write up some pithy slogan to go with an eye-catching image, and voila, consumers buy the product.

I was a bit off the mark. Maybe more than a bit.

In advertising, just as with most things in our society, values have shifted. The stereotypes that people hold of the Don Draper type reflect an industry that does not exist anymore. Or at least, those stereotypes don’t reflect the industry that I was part of this summer. I worked on the marketing team for Project, a holding company comprised of 13 agencies. What I took away from my time there is that advertising is about creating experiences in order to bring brands to life.

The conversations I’ve heard and the campaigns I’ve seen all point toward this idea, that advertising has a bigger role to play than just selling a product. Max Lenderman, CEO of a Project agency named School, wrote about this idea last year— experience is what drives engagement, and moving toward creating experiences and content that takes on a life of its own is what will keep advertising relevant. It makes sense to me. I love a funny commercial as much as the next guy, but when I’m watching an engrossing TV show, I fast forward through all the ads, funny or not.

Advertisers and marketers need to create engaging campaigns that encourage audiences to share and connect. For brands to get through to me, content has to be packaged differently, whether that means a sponsored post on Medium or Buzzfeed, or organizing an outdoor movie in the community. That’s the stuff that I’ll share and that will stick with me.

The way that those ideas get created is simple: start with the people that create them. That was my favorite observation of the ad industry this summer. The strategists, content directors, designers, and everyone else in between all bring something interesting to the table. They brainstorm ideas for a digital campaign with the person sitting next to them, whether that person is a creative or not. They have side hobbies like stand-up comedy, binge-watching Game of Thrones, writing for their own cooking blog, table tennis and more. In order to connect with audiences, you have to level with them. The best way to do that, from what I’ve observed, is to step away from your desk when you don’t need to be there, and grow your own personal interests.

Advertising, when it comes down to it, is about telling a story that resonates with audiences. What I learned this summer is that the way advertisers and marketers tell that story is constantly evolving. They need to stay relevant and adapt to the changing social atmosphere so that audiences stay engaged and connected to the brands they steward.

Creative displays of branded content are the best way to reach an audience. So even if I do skip over that ad, I’ll be exposed to, and finally understand the story behind that brand.

This post was written by Thomas Cronin. He is currently a junior at Bucknell University, Class of 2018, with a double major in Economics and Spanish.