Virtual advertising ‘summer camp’ offers hands-on experiences and professional connections

Camp ADventure logo [View Image] With summer internship opportunities a casualty of the coronavirus economic downturn, VCU advertising students created their own program for a global group of peers. (Illustration by Rick Gutierrez, University Marketing)

Virtual summer camp has its pluses and minuses. On the negative side, campers don’t get to roast marshmallows over an outdoor fire pit. On the plus side, they don’t have to fend off mosquitoes or worry about poison ivy.  

Another plus for students participating in Camp ADventure — a new program created by students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Ad Club — is that they get to create concepts and campaign materials for a well-known international nonprofit. And they get to do it during a pandemic when many of them have had to forfeit their original summer plans for internships and summer jobs. 

Camp ADventure is intended to help hundreds of students from across the world get hands-on advertising experience, garner new skills and network with professionals in the field, all through a lighthearted, virtual eight-week program.

The program was orchestrated by recent graduates of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and former Ad Club officers Courtney Foster, who now works at The Martin Agency, and Kevin Nguyen, who is interning with MullenLowe and about to enter the VCU Brandcenter’s graduate program.

“Personally, I wanted to be able to make an impact on students and recent grads,” Foster said. “When I had this idea, I felt like I was helpless. I felt like there was this community of individuals that were being impacted and no one was talking about them or doing anything for them. So I hope I'm able to instill hope in these participants and the campers in general and be able to create a wave of connection between the campers and the companies involved.”  The organizers behind Camp ADventure, clockwise from top left: Kevin Nguyen, Courtney Foster, Allison Farrell and Jessica Collins. [View Image]
The organizers behind Camp ADventure, clockwise from top left: Kevin Nguyen, Courtney Foster, Allison Farrell and Jessica Collins. (Courtesy photos)

Described as a career development and networking program, Camp ADventure is a free virtual “summer camp” that offers students and recent graduates practice in the field of advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since June 1, 200 “campers” from 60 colleges and universities have been working in “bunks” as strategists, designers, account managers, writers, and in other agency roles, collaborating remotely to solve a creative brief and develop a campaign for the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Campers can also opt to work on a passion project, grouped with those who have similar interests. Some support a cause — developing messaging for the LGBTQ community, for example. Some are personal interests, such as creating a beginner's guide to growing plants. Others are more industry focused — increasing awareness for advertising and public relations among high school students. 

Over 100 advertising industry professionals — including from Google, Disney, Edelman, Leo Burnett and Twitter — are participating in the camp as presenters, mentors and counselors. The program concludes July 31 with all teams submitting their work to be judged by a panel. 

“At the end of the camp, the campers are expected to submit a case study video that summarizes their creative executions and explains the strategic approach that they took to get there,” Nguyen said. “Our client [ICMEC]  is really receptive to new ideas and work, so the winning teams have a chance to possibly [have] their ideas used by [ICMEC] in the future. They also leave the camp with a bigger network and hopefully mentors that they can utilize for the rest of their careers.” 

I would have never had this opportunity to connect with people at Google and Disney and these places that I would dream to work at, so that's definitely what I'm hoping to gain as well as real client work and building my portfolio.

‘Constantly problem solving’ 


Camp ADventure came together quickly, with Foster and Nguyen developing it with Jessica Collins, an assistant professor of advertising at the Robertson School.

“We're used to constantly problem solving,” Collins said. “That's our mission and everything we do for a brand, for a campaign, is to problem solve. We are constantly like, if roadblocks are put up, we go left or go right. And so I think that the students in this industry, specifically in VCU, are very adaptable and big thinkers.” 

The Brandcenter created a similar summer program for students to gain professional experience because of the lack of internship opportunities. A survey of prospective Camp ADventure participants found that more than half of the nearly 200 surveyed didn't get an internship offer this past spring. And half of those who did obtain an internship saw the offers rescinded as companies’ business declined.

Nguyen was one of those students. He got a fellowship, but then lost it because of precautions put into place because of COVID-19. He said he has survivor’s guilt as he participates in a training program at an advertising firm. 

“The goal [for Camp ADventure] was to give people a chance to really grow and expand their network,” Nguyen said. “If I could gain anything, it would just be that sense of pride and seeing how much work and progress that's made in someone else's career.”  Camp ADventure schedule [View Image]
The 8-week camp schedule is packed with meetings and skill workshops, and features a weekly "campfire speaker series" with industry professionals. (Graphic courtesy of Camp ADventure)

Bringing positivity at a difficult time 


Ad Club President Allison Farrell, a rising senior, said her prospects for a summer internship fizzled with the economic downturn so she helped organize Camp ADventure and is a participant.

“This is just as big of an opportunity for the participants, as well as ourselves, because we're getting the opportunity that we lost,” said Farrell, who designed all of the branding and graphics for the camp. “We wanted it to be camp because we want to bring that childhood fun and passion out in such a hard time. Taking that situation and bringing positivity to it was definitely a goal of ours.”

Jeff Swingle, executive fundraising consultant for the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, said the organization decided to participate in Camp ADventure to hear fresh takes on their image and messaging for an awareness-raising event. 

“The actual request for proposal challenges the students to rethink our brands, to create an approach to fundraising through campaigning, and to take a creative approach to help us design a campaign for International Missing Children's Day, May 25 next year,” Swingle said. “We have very exciting partnerships with soccer associations and soccer clubs. So we have asked the students to imagine what the elements of that campaign will look like. That includes how to get the word out, and what the creative elements there might be.”

Just as in a relationship with an advertising agency, Swingle responds to questions about the organization as the students research the issues the center champions.

Tavia Gatanas, a rising senior in the Robertson School set to graduate in December, is participating from her home in Woodbridge, Virginia, as a copywriter on her team.

“It’s a chance to help others, and have their voice heard,” Gatanas said. “We’re all hungry and we want to dig in. I’m grateful to the people who organized this.”


Six F’s of networking


Tips for students from Krystle Dorsey, assistant director of education and human service at VCU Career Services:

- Family: Find ways to talk to family about your professional goals and interests. They or their friends may have connections.

- Friends: Have constructive conversations with friends about your goals.

- Faculty and advisers: Don’t just go to class. Talk to professionals working in fields you are interested in and learn more about their work and how you can get involved and advance.

- Fellow classmates and alumni who are working in your field of interest are a resource to connect with professionally.

- Foundations and associations are professional organizations that provide an edge, offering resources, programming and connections.

- Former supervisors in work that is related to the field can be connections to other opportunities.

Emphasis on networking 


Collins, Foster and Nguyen said the weekly schedule consists of Zoom sessions with Collins on Monday to discuss strategic brief development, creative concepts, creative execution and final presentation development, while Wednesday workshops and Friday “Campfire Speakers” bring in advertising professionals to discuss various topics.

Corey Lane, a senior account manager at Elevation advertising, talked about building your personal brand and resume/interview tips. Brenda Magnetti, associate director of strategy at 9Rooftops, and Nick Hassebrock, senior account planner with 9Rooftops, spoke from the Chicago area on strategic planning research tips. Employees from ABC Studios and Sparks & Honey conducted skill development workshops. 

“When we were putting out our interest survey just to see if this even had any legs to get off the ground, the biggest thing that people were interested in was networking,” said Khalied Bashri, vice president of the Ad Club at VCU. “So it was a big focus for us going into it. We want everyone to look at this as a big network that they can feel free to reach out to anyone, even for a 30-minute virtual coffee.”

Bashri and other organizers want Camp ADventure to be a talking point in the professional future of the participants. 

“I would have never had this opportunity to connect with people at Google and Disney and these places that I would dream to work at, so that's definitely what I'm hoping to gain as well as real client work and building my portfolio,” Farrell said. 

She said she finds the international and remote aspects of the program helpful. 

“In the real world, you're going to end up working with people from all over the country or all over the world. So this is a perfect opportunity to home in on that,” Farrell said.

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