Ad/PR students drive campaigns for real-world clients

By Beth Hatcher

UNC Hussman students don’t just hit the books, they engage professionally with real-world issues and clients through a host of immersive learning experiences that equip them for success in 21st-century careers.

Campaigns involving real-world clients in the school’s advertising and public relations courses exemplify UNC Hussman’s focus on immersive learning, creating win-win partnerships that brighten students’ portfolios while providing companies with fresh ideas and assets.

UNC Hussman professors Nori Comello, Livis Freeman and Gary Kayye were just three of many faculty members who created such experiences for their students during the spring 2021 semester, even as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic kept much of the campus operating virtually.

This article's featured image is a still from a General Motors advertising campaign created by the Electrify PR team in Freeman's "MEJO 634: PR Campaigns" course. Pictured at right, left to right, are Freeman, Kayye and Comello.


There’s no “I” in a PR team

 In Comello’s “MEJO 634: PR Campaigns” course, a capstone class for public relations majors, students worked in groups to form mini public relations agencies for three clients.

Comello’s students worked on campaigns for The Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Carolina for Kibera and the On Stage School of Dance.  

Much of the work centered around COVID-19 communications that educated consumers on changing business protocols during the height of the pandemic — and new opportunities as restrictions lifted.

“There are so many moving parts to developing a campaign,” Comello said. “Working with real-world clients is the kind of experience that prepares students for working in the real world.”

She said students also learned how to work with each other, sharpening another important public relations skill — teamwork.

The six teams of students didn’t create competing campaigns for the clients, but complementary ones. For each client, two teams of students worked on a different communications need.

For The Chamber, students delivered pandemic-related messaging and affordable housing communications. Carolina for Kibera received messaging strategies for the organization’s 20th anniversary and fundraising efforts, as well as ways to better communicate with alumni and stakeholders. On Stage School of Dance got insights on informing their clients about pandemic safety measures and increasing enrollment, as well as expanding interest in the school’s musical theater class.

“I am always open to ideas and suggestions to make our program stronger, and having them come from a young person’s perspective is always beneficial,” said Lori Fields, owner of On Stage School of Dance, who appreciated student ideas such as promoting the school’s musical theater class with dance competition challenges on TikTok.

Below is an image from the website design ideas Comello’s students presented On Stage School of Dance.


Game time

“Success in advertising is about hitting the right audience, understanding the audience,” said Kayye, whose “MEJO 371: Advertising Creative” students created a pitch for an interactive game that keeps retail customers’ kids entertained as their parents shop. “You need to prove to the company that’s going to hire you that you can activate something.” 

Kayye’s students activated their chops by building off technology created by LUMOplay, a Canadian-based company that designs motion- and touch-controlled interactive displays for educational and retail settings, to create the game pitch for national department store Nordstrom. 

After extensive market research, Kayye’s students pitched an interactive kids game for Nordstrom’s shoe department that could be used at locations throughout the country. 

The fast-paced game would center on the store’s history — Nordstrom originated as a shoe store — and project on the floor in the shoe section. The game would build the store’s business by allowing parents more time to shop, creating brand equity in their children and pulling a pandemic-weary public back into retail spaces.

“The students’ pitch was fantastic. They were so engaged and ambitious with their ideas,” said Meghan Athavale, a LUMOplay co-founder and longtime friend of Kayye, who noted that the students’ research and marketing ideas were much needed for her small, five-person company. 

The students got more than resume bullet points, they got important career path insights. “When you’re immersed in a project like this, you’re forced to learn something that you don’t know about,” Kayye said.

Athavale said LUMOplay will eventually pitch the game idea to Nordstrom.

The image below is from the students' Nordstrom game pitch.


OK, Gen Z

Students used their age as an asset when tasked with increasing Gen Z engagement for clients in Freeman’s “MEJO 634” course.

“Immersive experiences are important for students because most communications-related fields require both theoretical and practical methods of learning,” Freeman said. “There are certain things you can only learn by working directly with a real client and using their feedback for your development.”

His students worked with both Chick-fil-A and General Motors in spring 2021.   

Students working with Chick-fil-A were charged with creating internal campaigns to help the company better understand how to motivate, connect with and engage Gen Z workers, as well as promote a sense of community and purpose for hourly workers.

Students working with G.M. were tasked with creating competing campaigns that helped them build off the momentum from the company’s new “Everybody’s In” campaign to build brand relevance among millennials and Gen Zers. 

G.M. chose two student teams as campaign pitch winners: Accelerate Communications (Cecilia Fang ’21, Grace Kim ’21, Kristina Perjar ’21, Excellence Perry ’21, Katharine Kurz ’21 and Blair Poirier ’21) and Electrify PR (Kaylee Butler ’21, Samantha Hopkins ’21, Matt Sheridan ’21, Anna Darrow ’21, Grace Labue ’21 and Rachel Ruth ’22).

Watch the two groups’  winning G.M. campaign pitch presentations below.


The winning group for the Chick-fil-A class was student team Early Bird PR ( Emma James ’21, Ally Dunavant ’21, Matthew Gannon ’22, Claire Revere ’22, Tori Horton ’21 and Logan Harrell ’21).

Chick-fil-A plans to implement concepts from the team’s winning pitch, Freeman said.

Early Bird's Harrell said the Chick-fil-A project continues to pay dividends in her current role as a brand intern at  the global communications firm Edelman.

“This experience was invaluable,” Harrell said. “My team and I were able to develop our research, client relations, creative, design and copy writing skills in order to create an extensive campaign for Chick-fil-A and I put these skills to use just in my first few days at Edelman.”

Harrells’ comments sum up the importance of immersive learning at UNC Hussman and the benefits of real-world experiences on a student’s future success.

As Kayye puts it: “At UNC Hussman we’re creating creators — creators who can do anything.”