Iowa State students combine data and creativity to engage audience with advertising

See the technology in action. Ben Lochard, with Clear Channel Outdoor, displays ads created by Iowa State students on the company's digital billboard in downtown Des Moines. Video by Dave Olson

AMES, Iowa – Technology is dramatically changing the way a company develops its brand and connects with its customers through social media or mobile phone apps. To keep up with the changes, advertising agencies are developing ad campaigns using data and computer code.

Adding code to traditional advertising requires a new approach to the creative process, said Jay Newell, an associate professor of advertising in Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism. But the result – as ISU students in a new advertising course are learning – is an interactive experience focused on engaging the consumer just as much as selling a product.

“We’re so used to advertising that is targeted and brutal,” Newell said. “There’s a joy when you see an ad and realize it’s changing because of something that’s about you or in your life – there’s a playfulness that’s new to advertising.”

Creativity on display

There are a growing number of applications, but one of Newell’s favorites is Doggelganger, a program that uses facial recognition technology to match people with pets. Developed by Colenso BBDO for the Pedigree Adoption Drive in New Zealand, people upload photos that are scanned and paired with a dog waiting to be adopted at a local shelter.

It’s just one example that Newell, Sherry Berghefer, a lecturer in journalism, and Wallapak (Pak) Tavanapong, an associate professor of computer science – who all co-teach the class – use as inspiration for students. The course was developed around Google’s Art, Copy & Code platform, which has led the push for using code in advertising, Newell said.

Coding is still relatively new to the field, but advertising agencies are starting to add coders to creative teams. The class reflects that change and students work in teams that operate like an agency. Prior to the class, most students, such as Katlego Mogongwa, a senior in advertising, had little coding experience and those who did have learned there are multiple coding languages. The goal is for students to show they can think digitally and work in a demanding team environment.

“I see this class as a small agency. It's crazy how similar this class is to the real world,” Mogongwa said. “We get projects in and out quickly, we run into problems all the time, we have to do our research, you have to know how to present in front of clients, and you must know your material well.” 

One of the most important lessons students had to quickly learn is that computer science students think, work and communicate differently than their peers in journalism and advertising and vice versa. To be successful as a team required patience and respect for what each discipline brings to the creative process.

Real clients, real challenges

Ryan Bliven, a junior in advertising, says the class is unlike any other he’s taken at Iowa State. It’s designed to give students complete creative freedom to develop and execute concepts for three client projects.

“They give us an idea and let us run with it, which is awesome,” Bliven said. “I’ve always preferred projects where there aren’t a lot of guidelines, because we can all do something completely different.”

One of the clients, ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, asked for new ideas to introduce students to majors and career opportunities in LAS. Each agency – which consists of a journalism, advertising and computer science student – must develop and execute the concept.

Bliven and his teammates, Rachel Vipond and Alex Keating, created a 45-second video, using whiteboard animation, to show students the unlimited possibilities of an LAS degree. Keating, a junior in computer science, created the code to make the video an interactive experience.

Here’s how it works – the video plays on tablet computers displayed in campus buildings. Each tablet is set to front-facing camera mode, so when a student approaches it looks reflective like a mirror. The tablet then prompts the student to take a selfie that launches the video, Bliven explained. At the end of the video, their photo appears framed with the LAS banner that they can tweet with a personal message.     

Check out the video that Bliven, Vipond and Keating created for their LAS tablet project. Video courtesy of Bliven

The class presented LAS with a variety of proposals, pushing the limits of their coding abilities while at the same time preparing them for the next project of designing digital billboard ads for Clear Channel Outdoor. The ads, for the car service Uber, had to include data from different sources so that billboard changed based on weather conditions, pricing or time. Tavanapong says it challenged students because their concept had to fit specific requirements for Clear Channel’s software.  

“The teams have so many creative ideas; some are workable, some are not,” Tavanapong said. “Students have done very well incorporating the design and technology, and they’ve overcome a lot of challenges. Each discipline works differently and they’re thrown into a different way of thinking, but they eventually come together to make it work, and that’s the beauty of it.”

For the final project, students created apps for USAID Center for International Disaster Information to encourage financial donations following natural disasters.

Experimental class design

To have three instructors teaching one course is unusual, but in this class it’s necessary to give students experience with all three disciplines of art, copy and code. The teaching trio, much like their student advertising teams, has learned from their differences and built on each other’s strengths. Berghefer says they’re not always going to take the same approach and that’s a good thing.

“Students not only benefit from the different topics, but the different viewpoints. We can all look at the same thing and come up with a different interpretation. I may focus on the visuals and the functionality, Jay is focused on the message and Pak is focused on how it all works together,” Berghefer said.

Students have responded positively to the class structure. From Day One, they knew it would be intense and the students have not backed down from the challenge, Berghefer said. Newell and Tavanapong agree. They’re all impressed by the students’ willingness to experiment, make mistakes and find a way to make their ideas work – preparation for what they’ll face in their future careers.