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WVU Students Marketing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

By: By Pam Kasey 
The State Journal

A little-known West Virginia advertising firm has accepted an invitation to help promote the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Morgantown concert series to West Virginia University students.

The firm: the Martin-Hall Agency. Haven’t heard of it? No surprise. It’s a new, student-run agency at WVU.

The idea came to WVU Professor James Ebel when students asked him in August to revive the languishing advertising club

“I said, ‘Why don’t we get you ahead of the curve?’” recalled Ebel, who teaches integrated marketing communications. As an entrepreneur — he also founded and serves as president of CenterBrain Partners positioning consultancy — he suggested forming the Martin-Hall Agency, an advertising firm that sounds like two partners but actually is named for the building that houses WVU’s School of Journalism.

“The thing has just taken off,” Ebel said.

Where student-run ad agencies exist, he said, they’re often little more than websites. But this agency, by chance, almost immediately had a client: the PSO’s 2011-12 Canady Symphony Series at WVU.

“A gift from a donor subsidizes student tickets so they pay only a nominal amount,” explained WVU College of Creative Arts Dean Paul Kreider, who serves on the board of the PSO-WVU partnership. Students pay $24 for the three-concert series, compared with a minimum $60 for the general public.

“We want to get more students to attend these events,” Kreider said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s contact somebody down in the J- school that could do some marketing.’”

A Martin-Hall team of five students approached the project as a firm would any new client, Ebel said. They researched the market, developed an advertising positioning and designed a campaign that included everything from press releases to earned media.

“One of our ideas was a tagline to build a campaign around, ‘World-class concerts at cover-charge prices,’” said team member and sophomore Stephen Martinez of Fairmont, as an example of the group’s work. “We had some posters made up for that.”

When the Martin-Hall team presented its campaign to the PSO-WVU partnership’s board, Ebel was pleasantly surprised.

“As an owner, even when you vet people and get their backgrounds before you hire them, you’re always sweating it before a presentation,” he said. “And students have a reputation for being unaccountable, missing deadlines — but that didn’t happen. They pulled together what I thought was a strategically sound and creatively effective campaign.”

Their ideas were met enthusiastically by the board, according to Kreider.

“For the first time out of the chute, the students did a great job in some of the ideas they’re cultivating and the way they presented them,” he said.

Rather than press the Martin-Hall team’s campaign into action for the Oct. 12 “Ballroom with a Twist” performance that was just days away, the PSO took it to another level, inviting them to work with its own marketing team to promote the series’ two spring shows: Emanuel Ax Performs Mozart on March 3 and The Magic of Paris on April 30.

“Some time this month, we will be going up to work with their agency,” Martinez said. “We’ll take the ideas we’ve already gotten started with, but at the end of the day it’s their brand image that they want to keep the integrity of.”

Kreider likes the synergy.

“It’s an example of two nonprofits working together to create a great opportunity for students,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing we should be doing more of.”

In a separate project, a Martin-Hall Agency competition team is beginning to create an ad campaign for Nissan for the American Advertising Federation’s 2011-12 National Student Advertising Competition.

“This is the first year in recent years that WVU has competed in the AAF competition,” said Elkton, Md., freshman Lauren Nickle, who leads the team. “We’re in the planning stages now, and we know what direction we want to head in. We think we have a real shot at taking District 5,” which includes colleges and universities in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Experiences like these, Ebel said, teach students work-world basics they won’t get in the classroom: to use business cards, to dress appropriately, to sit up straight.

Martinez appreciates the opportunity.

“Things we learn in the classroom a lot of times are very generic,” said Martinez, who plans to graduate in December 2012 and to work in public affairs in the U.S. Navy. “Working in the Martin-Hall Agency, I’ve learned that the ad world is very fast-paced. You can’t put it off like you can an assignment, or you let a lot of people down. There’s pressure, but it’s been a great experience.”

Nickle agrees.

“I’m getting to see juniors and seniors apply what they learn in class on a working campaign,” she said. “I’m seeing where I can take my education. It has definitely broadened my horizons.”