Inside the Master’s Program Dedicated to Brand Purpose

University of Oregon's first cohort graduates this spring

The University of Oregon's first brand responsibility master's cohort at 72andSunny. University of Oregon / Brandon Bullas
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The conversation and examples of brand purpose continue to accelerate rapidly. Though at times the term can still be considered a buzzword, brands are not only seeing but understanding the value purpose can bring to the bottom line in the form of enthusiastic consumers. On the conference circuit, more panels and discussions revolve around brand purpose, and the accumulated wisdom circulates throughout the marketing ecosystem. In essence, a living playbook is emerging at agencies and brands.

But what about the next generation of marketers—especially those who have yet to gain valuable work experience and insight into brand purpose? In the academic world, several colleges and universities have outstanding brand leadership programs, yet only one school, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications (SOJC), has a dedicated master’s program, the first of its kind, in advertising and brand responsibility.

Last month, at 72andSunny in Los Angeles, the first cohort of the SOJC’s program spent a day at the agency to learn, first-hand, about how brands, and especially agencies, are approaching purpose in their output for clients. A mix of agency leaders from 72andSunny, TBWA\Media Arts Lab and others gave 10-minute talks covering a range of issues including innovation, technology, talent and more. Additionally, Sebastian Buck, co-founder of Los Angeles agency Enso, gave an insightful keynote that charted his own journey and shared how purpose and creativity can lead to impact, giving examples of purpose-led client work from the likes of Khan Academy and Google.

The day-long event, which featured many University of Oregon alumni, was the culmination of a journey that began five years ago. At a faculty retreat in 2014, Kim Sheehan, the director of the program, and Deb Morrison, the SOCJ’s Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising, sensed an opportunity to move the relatively nascent brand purpose conversation forward.

“We had found in our classes that whenever we talked about brands that were doing good things in the world, students perked up more,” recalled Sheehan. “They were much more interested in brands that had cool ads, but that also did something good for society.”

The origins of the program began with one class in green brand strategy, which focused on how brands connected with the environment. As more students gravitated to that class, Sheehan and Morrison found that they were interested in learning more about brands and their impact on the world. From there, they determined that the best way forward was a master’s in brand responsibility.

“We knew we wanted to be different than every other master’s programs,” said Sheehan.

One of the catalysts to get the program off the ground in the first place was Steve O’Leary, vice chairman of The Shipyard agency in Newport Beach, Calif. He saw a trend and evolution of responsibility and purpose bubbling up and helped consult on the program and push it through.

“Kim and Deb found a topic that they’re excited about,” he said. “When you find something that talented professors are really passionate about, then it will become a reality. The academic world moves slowly, so I helped get this agenda through at the university level as well through the dean’s position.”

Once the master’s program was established, Sheehan, who spent several years in agency leadership before she arrived to teach in Eugene, Oreg., in 1998, sent out an announcement about it on an academic listserv to test the waters. She received dozens of emails applauding the move. Interestingly, Sheehan estimates that around a third of those who will be part of the program’s second cohort called out the fact that they wanted to work for a certified B-Corp.

“It’s amazing that undergrads know what a certified B-Corp is and that it is their career goal,” noted Sheehan. “So it’s clear that they will come here and learn the skills needed to be able to reach those goals.”

“We’re seeing an increasing appetite among the next generation coming into the workforce and industry for this type of social good and impact work,” said Natalie Kim, a presenter in Los Angeles and founder of talent platform We Are Next. “They already know in their head that they’re able to make a difference and having programs like this allows us to take these larger concepts and make it more tangible.”

Noting a call she received from an undergraduate alum who was tasked with creating Cadillac’s brand responsibility program, Morrison is optimistic that the SOJC provided valuable tools, yet the school’s new role in the academic world opens up another pipeline of opportunity and a renewed sense of responsibility.

“This is where [marketing and advertising] is going,” she said. “And if we’re not preparing students, first, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and secondly, we’re not doing our jobs well.”

University of Oregon's Deb Morrison speaks to master's cohort.
University of Oregon / Brandon Bullas

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.