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

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

Since this is the first master’s program of its kind, it is, as O’Leary put it in his remarks, “the tip of the spear” and a foundation.

Marketing activist and author Thomas Kolster, known as Mr. Goodvertising, believes that there is a sense of urgency to develop more programs like the University of Oregon’s as the practice of brand purpose has mainly fallen to public affairs departments at brands, as opposed to as a marketing function or part of an agency’s offering.

“I do more and more keynotes and workshops at agencies … maybe two or three a month [on the topic], so there’s definitely an interest,” he said.

External stories are great, but there is more work to be done internally

In Buck’s mind, however, it’s crucial to move away from the usual suspects and unearth more stories of brand purpose.

“[Though it’s great], I’m sick of everybody looking at Patagonia,” he said. “I wish [outgoing Unilever CEO] Paul Polman’s story was more famous. I wish we were looking at a thousand other Ben & Jerry’s. I think one of the fundamental things we need is to undo several decades of business school education that educated people about shareholder primacy and absolutism.”

And though the external stories of brand purpose help accelerate and change mindsets, Kim also noted the importance of the lesser-known, internal moves that can help inform more purpose-led work.

“I loved that there were speakers that talked about internal diversity and inclusion,” she said. “There are very important ways that manifest within these companies that have an effect on the experiences we have as talent and, by extension, the work that we create and put into the world.”

We Are Next founder Natalie Kim
University of Oregon / Brandon Bullas

Buck concurred that, as the world of purpose changes, brands will have to determine how their perceptions and roles fit with a new generation of talent. Noting employee protests over Google’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations, he said that it was a “very visible manifestation of a desire from very talented people to work at a place that reflects their values. And I hope that those kinds of examples are energizing employees and other companies. I think now leaders are so aware of the war for talent, are so aware of the best talent requiring not just a paycheck, but also a real sense of fulfillment in their life.”

This idea is particularly relevant for agencies, especially as bigger tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, and in-house agencies poach talent. Part of the issue is economic, in the form of larger paychecks, but the notion that their abilities, honed in an agency, could be better served on a larger stage is also at play.

Enso co-founder Sebastian Buck
University of Oregon / Brandon Bullas

“I think this is happening to agencies because, first off, the shiny ball of programmatic advertising,” said Buck. “But I think some of it is self-inflicted. I think advertising agencies got too attached to the business model of selling big advertising productions. All of that is under question because of cheaper production, and they didn’t have a great answer as to what value they were creating outside of the production of ads. If they were perceived as valuable stewards of brands, long term, I think the agency world would be a very healthy state.”

The future of brand purpose education

To Kolster, he believes that this type of education and curriculum should avoid “purpose-washing,” and dive deeply into a real understanding of the topic, impact (and associated metrics), sustainability, a diverse view on what purpose actually means and how it results in marketing and advertising output.

Noting that he had never heard of a program like the University of Oregon’s, he does believe that brand purpose and responsibility will become “a more stable module in most universities and communications schools.”

For his part, O’Leary is clearly looking ahead and sees this master’s as not just another academic track, but something more transformative.

72andSunny's Glenn Cole (left) and The Shipyard's Steve O'Leary
University of Oregon / Brandon Bullas

“We don’t need another good communications master’s … we don’t need a master’s in journalism. Everybody has that,” he said. “So let’s dream of something big, something unique that’s really on the edge of where people are looking for learning. And that’s why it’s been so successful. And you know, frankly, it’s going to turn into a major part of what the school is all about.”

But for the time being, as the program evolves, it’s clear there is a great deal of enthusiasm for the future of the program.

“There wasn’t a single class where we finished on time because we got so into the importance of the topics we were discussing,” recalled Sheehan. “At that point, my role as a professor changes from the delivery of information to the instigator of conversations and giving the space for everyone to explore what those concepts mean to them. When Deb and I hit upon this idea of brand responsibility, we both recognize that this is why we’re here. This is our purpose for being academics. If it’s not part of your soul, it’s just going to be lip service.”

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