UNC Hussman Innovation Stories: Ad Council’s Catherine Chao '07 on campaigns in the digital age

A spotlight on the ways UNC Hussman courses, students, faculty and staff are innovating to connect our community online and continue education remotely.

Ad Council’s Catherine Chao '07 virtually visits UNC Hussman class to talk communications and advertising in the digital age

As many Americans practice social distancing, consumed with electronic devices and social media platforms, advertisers have to fight even more for their fractured attention. But if you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of #AloneTogether, the hashtag encouraging safe social distancing practices, recently made viral by everyone from celebrities, to government agencies, to regular social media users.

The Ad Council, the nonprofit source of some of the most iconic ad campaigns of the past 75 years, was behind #AloneTogether, developed by ViacomCBS and promoted by media companies, brands and government agencies. It’s just one of the campaigns the Ad Council is building to aid in the fight against COVID-19.

Last week, UNC Hussman students in one advertising class got to hear how the Ad Council operates in our new remote-work world from one seasoned industry insider — Ad Council Director of Strategy and Evaluation Catherine Chao ’07.

Chao virtually joined faculty member Lou Killeffer’s “Advertising in the Age of Alexa” class, an intensive, seminar-like course exploring advertising, brand theory and brands’ rapidly evolving best practices in response to decades of continuous digital disruption.

As Chao and the students discussed, that digital disruption is more evident now than ever before. With the COVID-19 crisis, Chao outlined, advertising campaigns have to come together at an accelerated rate, while public health messaging is more important than ever. Despite the dizzying pace of the new environment, Chao highlighted the importance of strategy and research. When it comes to coronavirus, “There is not a one-size-fits-all message,” Chao said. “We have to think through who the people are that aren't hearing about the protective behaviors… what are those mindsets and how do we tackle getting them to take the right actions.”

The chance that UNC Hussman gives students to hear those real-world insights from professionals even while this pandemic unfolds is invaluable. “Having accomplished professionals join us brings additional context to the marketing and brand building best practices we’re addressing,” Killeffer said. “The Ad Council’s work on COVID-19 couldn’t be more timely.”

“I love what the Ad Council is doing,” said Trent Allen Marshall ’20, who is studying advertising and entrepreneurship. “It was extremely relevant and opened my eyes to opportunities that I might one day pursue.”

Chao gave the students a behind-the-scenes, detailed presentation about the unique process of the Ad Council, where she says the work is “not about selling products, it’s about selling behaviors.” She answered insightful student questions about the industry’s digital challenges, outlining her thoughts about online consumption and the industry’s need to produce constant fresh content for social media platforms.

“Catherine had a lot to talk about that was relevant to our class,” Sarah Batchelder '21 said. "And she explained what ambition looks like in a career. What helped her was strategizing her small goals, aligning them to reach her ultimate goal of working at the Ad Council.“

Chao had dreamed of working at the Ad Council since studying one of its campaigns in an advertising course at UNC Hussman. AAfter graduating as a double major in communications and journalism, Chao initially dove into the world of consumer public relations. But she came to realize that she was more drawn to cause-driven campaigns, particularly those centered around health. So she returned to Chapel Hill to get her master’s degree from the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Armed with her dual knowledge of communications and health from UNC, she saw a path to that undergraduate dream. She carved out her own career path centered on social causes and pursued research work at the Ad Council. She said her current professional goal is to “think of the best ways we can help people adopt healthy behaviors.”

Chao encouraged students to be open-minded about pursuing their interests. When she first started out, she’d been more focused on the work than the work environment. But now she realizes the importance of both. “As you’re moving into this next phase of your life,” Chao said, “thinking about what you want out of an employer and your fellow employees is critical.”

Killeffer was glad to see his class absorb that message. “As smart and creative as my students are, they need constant encouragement to stretch their imaginations. The pursuit of a career, much less where to begin, can be daunting,” he said. “Catherine’s career to date proves a host of points about life after graduation.”

Lauren Rasco ’20 appreciated the human connection and interest from an industry professional as she navigates this time remotely. “You could tell from Catherine’s explanations and eagerness to answer questions that she truly enjoys her work,” Rasco said. “I hope to help others in my work one day — so seeing her mesh her interest in advertising with her interest in creating social awareness campaigns was great.”

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