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Former journalism student finds passion for advertising, PR

December 9, 2016 1 comment

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.

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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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In advertising, Charlie Stephan says: ‘What matters is what works’

By Quinlan Gaillard
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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Charlie Stephan, associate creative director at Swanson-Russell

Charlie Stephan is an associate creative director at Swanson-Russell. He started his post-graduate life at Swanson-Russell and has grown into multiple roles in the past 10 years. However, he didn’t always know he wanted to work in advertising. 

Stephan began college at Texas Christian University as a news journalism major, but quickly realized he could not see himself chasing down interviews and working the crazy hours it required. His next major was secondary education with a focus in social studies, but the classes didn’t feel worth the major. Third time’s the charm though, and Stephan graduated with a degree in advertising. He still was able to write and be creative but also have the low-key lifestyle he had wanted. 

In college, Stephan was involved in a fraternity and with new student enrollment. Although TCU’s advertising program didn’t push students to connect with outside resources at the time, Stephan had an internship with a public relations agency in Dallas for a short period. He also worked a few smaller jobs like sports promotion for a local basketball team among other things.

After graduation, Stephan moved back home to Nebraska and found a short term position at Swanson-Russell. He worked as an associate writer-producer under Brian Boesche, now the chief creative officer and one of the owners of Swanson-Russell, who was moving into a management role at the time and need someone to write his day- to-day copy. That’s what Stephan did at the start of his 6-month contract. Throughout those months, Stephan began acquiring more roles. He took over for a writer who left and earned a few accounts. Now he’s an associate creative director who oversees writers and artists. In June, he’ll mark 10 years at Swanson-Russell.

Stephan’s average day involves working with designers, art directors and artists. “When we work on something here it’s not an assembly line,” Stephan said. “It’s not like I write the copy, hand off, the designer designs it, hand off, the client reads it. Everything has a ton of back and forth.”

Everyone’s work affects everyone else, so employees often work together. “So, a lot of it is those quick, 5-minute conversations.” Stephan said. He does spend time sitting at his desk in his office writing but prefers to see how the copy will fit into what he’s working on during the writing process instead of spending his time analyzing every word choice.

For instance, Stephan said, “I’ll write a radio script and read it out loud in here to myself.” That way, he can fix anything awkward sounding through trial and error.

Another part of Stephan’s role at Swanson-Russell is as a broadcast producer. So he not only writes the scripts for broadcast but also finds the right talent, film crews, production companies, and the like to shoot or record what he needs. Overall he spends around 30 percent of his time with production and the other 70 percent writing.

An unexpected part of Stephan’s job is explaining everything he does to his clients. “Everything we do is really subjective. I can’t tell Runza that ‘aw snack’ is a line that tests really well.” Stephan said, “It’s like, here’s our goal. Here’s why we think it accomplishes that goal.”

For Stephan, editing is more stylistic than substantive. He has to meet time or space requirements to meet a designer’s and client’s needs. Also, he has to make sure he’s using that space or time to focus in on what the client wants to be talking about. Editing means balancing the fun fluff with the message that needs delivering. This could be in a television script, a tweet, or anything in between.

“Most of the editing comes in just to get in everything that the client wants to talk about, but trying to do it in a way that design and layout doesn’t hurt,” Stephan said.

Something Stephan really enjoys about his role as an associate creative director is having to think through why he is doing what he’s doing.

“That’s a big part of the appeal for me is I’m not just what people think. That the creative part of an ad agency just sits around coming up with fun stuff all day,” Stephan said “It’s kind of true; we do some of that stuff. But a lot of it is a company comes to an ad agency because they have a problem.”

The first part of solving a client’s problem is defining it and the second part is figuring out how to fix it, which is where Stephan’s role comes in. Writing something cool or funny loses its luster, but getting to explain to a client why and how he’s going to solve their problem is what he likes most.

One of the harder parts of working in the creative part of an advertising agency is people being attached to their work. Clients can veto an idea with the sole reason of not liking it. Or creatives may not like something even though it’s right for the client.

“You have to divorce yourself from what you think is cool or interesting or funny. What matters is what works. What matters is what your target audience is going to respond to.” Stephan said. This can also happen with a client. If they have a product launch they’ve been working on for years, but it’s not going to solve their problem, it doesn’t matter how much work has gone into it. What matters is the best way to reach their goal or solve their problem.

Stephan’s advice for students is to get into the building you want to work in. Do whatever it takes – whether it’s an internship or delivering mail.

When he was in college, he worked summers at his dad’s law office. This gave Stephan information about how the office and industry work — valuable information if Stephan wanted to be a lawyer. Even if your job doesn’t involve what you want to do, it’s useful. “It’s not like you’re going to be practicing your craft, but you need to learn how the place works in order to be able to figure out how to contribute to it,” Stephan said.

It will also give you an idea of the type of people in the area you’re interested in. You can find out you wouldn’t get along with people in that area before you spend years working toward getting a job in that field.

“You’ve got to get in there and it’s like learning a foreign language,” he said. “You can go to Spanish class or you can go to Spain. If you go to Spain for a semester you’ll learn the language and if you go to Spanish class for four years you’ll kind of have an idea.”

Copywriter starts advertising career as 35-year-old unpaid intern

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

By Brook O’Neill
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Don Aguirre saw no milestone too large for him to achieve his goals.  He knew what he wanted and did whatever it took to make something of himself in the advertising industry.

Don Aguirre

Don Aguirre

“I started out metaphorically cleaning the floors,” Aguirre said.

The Phoenix native received his undergraduate degree in English literature in 2002. He wasn’t ready to get a real job, so he applied and was accepted into Creighton Law School.  After realizing how much private school tuition cost, Aguirre decided law school wasn’t for him.

“The only reason why I went to law school was because I didn’t want to get a real job,” Aguirre said.  “I could have cared less about the legal profession; I just wanted to extend my college career.”

However, he did like politics, and wasn’t willing to let his passion for writing go.

He volunteered for the Nebraska Republican Party during Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s campaign writing press releases for three weeks before Fortenberry and his campaign manager offered him a job.  He became communications director with no knowledge of what the job really entailed.

But after working in politics for about three years, he soured on the profession.

“It was a horrible existence for me,” Aguirre said.  “It’s a brutal cutthroat world in politics.”

After doing some direct mail pieces for Fortenberry, the owner of the direct mail company commended Aguirre’s work and asked if he had ever thought about advertising copy; he wasn’ t really sure what that job was either.

But after doing his research, everything clicked.  Aguirre quit his job and applied for the master’s in advertising program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

‘It was an interesting conversation with my newlywed wife telling her I was going to quit the job that paid our bills to go back to school,” he said.

While enveloped in his new passion for advertising, he noticed the creative work of an agency called Archrival and immediately said, “That’s what I want to do; that’s where I want to work.”

He found out the agency’s owner taught a class called Creative Concepting.  He was determined to take the class and distinguish himself.  He di , receiving one of the few A’s ever given out by Clint Runge, a co-founder of Archrival.

“Taking Clint’s class elevated my game,” Aguirre said.

At the end of the course, Runge emailed Aguirre asking about his career goals and he immediately responded, “I want to work for you!”  That’s when his life as a 35-year-old intern began.

Although Aguirre jokes about being the janitor at Archrival, he gained respect through starting out at the bottom.  People saw him do whatever it took to get what he wanted, eventually getting to express more of his creative abilities while learning his passion for youth marketing and social media.

All of Archrival’s brands enabled Aguirre to research youth culture, learning how they think and why they think what they do.

“I still see myself as 12 years old; I still love toys, cereal, cartoons, reading comic books and with that said, I’ve always found youth culture fascinating because essentially if you do something cool you can affect popular culture and I’ve always found that challenge fascinating.”

Aguirre describes his time at Archrival as being in a “sorority or fraternity for grownups” and it being “a dream job for anyone.”  But he yearned to write and wanted to do more of it.

Aguirre joined the Swanson Russell team last August to be a full-time copywriter.

“At my job all I do is write, that’s it, write,” Aguirre said.

He stressed the importance of voice in advertising. Every project requires a different voice based on the client and the brand.

“The thing with copywriters is that you have to immerse yourself into a client’s brand.  They have a specific voice so you can’t just write one specific way for everything.  You have to have an ear for writing.”

He credits his ability to pick up different voices and styles in his writing from being forced to read so many different writers’ works while studying literature as an undergraduate.

“That challenge is exactly what sustains me as a creative.  Being able to use what I think is a God-given ability of writing and being able to use that on the behalf of someone else.

“Advertising is hard,” Aguirre said. “It is not easy even if you are a good writer because you have to create something unique every single time, and when it works it’s like frickin’ music.  It’s awesome.”

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