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Former journalism student finds passion for advertising, PR

By Maddie Stuart
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

When she went to college, all Katie Sands knew was that she loved to write.

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University offered programs in newspaper, broadcast and magazine journalism. Sands said newspaper sounded boring and she had no experience in broadcast. She knew she liked reading Vanity Fair, so magazine seemed like the right choice at the time.


Katie Sands is a vice president and account director at Swanson Russell, a full-service advertising agency in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Because of her financial situation, Sands was unable to accept unpaid internships during college. Although this prevented her from pursuing many internships in her field of study, paid summer positions she found introduced her to the world of marketing.

She spent one summer writing for a house of trade publications. She said the process of reporting there turned her off from that industry. Rather than interviewing people and reporting original stories, the employees did online research and simply paraphrased the information they found.

Sands found a more favorable reporting opportunity writing for New Home Chicago right before the housing bubble burst. It prepared her for another internship at a public relations firm that focused primarily on real estate.

That internship came during Sands’ last months in college, during which she sent out countless resumes to newspapers, magazines and PR firms. Although she said she hoped for a writing job, only a PR firm invited her for an interview, so she said she had no choice but to take a chance on the position.

“I felt like I was going over to the dark side,” Sands said. “When you’re in journalism, everyone tells you PR people are the bad people. Of course, I soon learned that wasn’t the case, but I felt strange making the transition.”

After a few years working in PR, Sands found herself in yet another job with which she was unfamiliar. She applied for a PR position at Swanson Russell when she moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, but her interviewers there convinced her to try working in account services.

She began as an account manager and eventually worked her way up to being a vice president and account director at the company.

“I used to think nobody pays attention to ads, so I just wrote the whole thing off,” Sands said. “Once I finally realized how aware people are of ads and how it affects consumer habits, I understood how much thought has to go into producing good ads.”

Sands now serves as the liaison between the creative and the client. She identifies clients’ needs, understands budgets, makes the large-scale plan for the year and serves as the quality control for completed projects.

Although every day on the job is different, Sands spends much of her time meeting with clients, developing creative briefs and editing the content her team creates.

A crucial aspect of her job, Sands said, is explaining the edits she makes to her team’s work. Rather than simply changing tag lines and rewriting copy, she takes time to explain exactly why she made every change—unless she only fixed a spelling or grammar error.

Because much of her job revolves around proofing other people’s work, Sands said she works hard to bring positivity to the workplace. People can be easily discouraged when it seems their work is constantly being torn apart. A good editor should point out the errors that need fixing, but do so without bringing down the morale of her team.

Clients also play a role in the editing process because they must approve graphics and copy before the content is sent to print or web. Rather than waiting to show the finished product at the end, Swanson Russell keeps clients involved through various stages of campaign development to make sure everyone stays on the same page. This process also adds another few sets of eyes to check for mistakes.

Still, mistakes happen. When a problem goes unnoticed until after a new campaign is live, Sands said she addresses the issue, apologizes and immediately starts working to fix the error.

“Because the clients are part of many stages of the editing process, there’s shared responsibility for catching mistakes,” Sands said. “If something is wrong on web, that’s easy to fix, but if we have to reprint something, it’s harder to make a deal to change things.”

In addition to the never-ending editing process, the agency often runs on tight deadlines. Sands said it’s easy for people to lose their motivation when under a lot of stress. Clients sometimes only give a few days notice before a sale or big event they need to publicize.

From there, Sands must develop a creative brief while her team works on new web pages, social media content and emails to the business’s mailing list. The process can be overwhelming at times, Sands said, but she also said she loves how excited everyone gets once everything comes together.

Sands’ current clients include Bad Boy, Cushman and E-Z Go, along with a few others.

As a journalism student, Sands said she never expected to end up where she is today. She pictured herself living in New York, writing for a popular magazine. Still, she has learned everything she needs to know about marketing and advertising on the job, and she said said she now loves the career she once saw as “the dark side.”

From an aspiring Vanity Fair reporter to a real estate journalist, a PR professional to an account director at an advertising agency, Katie Sands has done a lot. Although she didn’t end up where she expected to be, her passion for writing has stuck with her throughout her career, through editing copy, creating tag lines and simply writing emails.

“You need to be true to your skills,” Sands said. “Own what you are good at, and be prepared to learn new things. Everything you write contributes to your personal brand, and that sticks with you.”


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  1. December 9, 2016 at 4:26 pm

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