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Use Real-World Work to Improve Student Expertise

A collegiate competition is giving this Washington College professor the chance to immerse his marketing students in real-world agency life.


Ryan Eanes, PhD

Assistant Professor of Business Management and Director of Minor in Marketing, Washington College

PhD and MA in Media Studies, BA in Communication; PRC (Professional Researcher Certification), Insights Association

To find out if you can swim, at some point you must jump into the deep end of the pool.

While Ryan Eanes, PhD, is no expert in aquatics, his marketing students face a similar challenge—metaphorically speaking. By the time they enroll in his practicum course, these marketing minors have done more than dip their toe in the water: They have completed a range of courses in marketing, economics, and consumer behavior, providing them with a cache of valuable theoretical knowledge. However, his students have not had the chance to dive in and apply that knowledge to settings outside the hallowed halls of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

As a professional marketing researcher, Eanes knows that nothing can substitute for the planning, pressure, and excitement—one might say buoyancy—that comes from working with an actual client with real-life needs. Fortunately, through another of his roles—faculty advisor for the Washington College chapter of the American Marketing Association (AMA)—Eanes discovered an approach that would address his concerns more thoroughly than any case study or group project ever could.

As it turns out, he discovered, the perfect solution was just a marketing competition away.

Innovation #1: Competing for the attention of a corporate giant

To jump-start the communications skills and creative power of his students, Eanes decided to turn his Fall 2018 marketing practicum course into a contender in the American Marketing Association’s annual Collegiate Case Competition. This gives marketing students at colleges across the country the chance to research, develop, and pitch concepts to whichever major corporate client is sponsoring that year’s event. To prepare for it, students must engage in a variety of tasks that duplicate the work of a real-world advertising or marketing agency.

The focus of this competition work is called integrated marketing communications (IMC)—an array of brand-building, positioning, and promotion strategies that are designed to help clients reach their intended audiences.

“The focus of integrated marketing communications is to raise awareness and to get a brand into people’s heads,” says Eanes, “whereas advertising, by definition, is intended to persuade and by its nature provides more information than IMC.”

The sponsor for the 2018 AMA competition is The Wall Street Journal. The firm is considering pitches and campaign ideas that will help it appeal to Millennials and college-age consumers, who have long been a fickle and elusive audience.

“What the students are doing is focusing on this awareness piece,” adds Eanes. “It’s a little easier because they don’t have to be responsible for the details of an ad campaign, but they will have to be very creative in grabbing [judges’] attention.”

Innovation #2: Cross-training students for a marketing competition

During competition prep, Eanes does not limit students’ roles to a specific area: In fact, he is dedicated to cross-training the students in a variety of skills.

To that end, Eanes formatted the work in a way that helps students see themselves as members of an actual marketing agency, while exposing them to a multitude of roles, including research, planning, and creative execution.

“I’m dividing up the tasks in such a way so, at the very least, they come away with a working understanding and vocabulary for each of these various areas,” says Eanes. “So if they decide to go into marketing, or even if they want to be a data analyst or something, they can still talk to, understand, and communicate with the folks who do, say, graphics and video.

“That’s my main goal,” says Eanes. “To at least get the students exposed to all of these different areas and think about ‘OK, where do I fit in? What do I like the most?’ I want all the students to be able to experience, or at least be exposed to, a number of different parts of this process.”

In summary, the AMA annual competition offers just the sort of all-hands-on-deck campaign strategizing that can test the abilities of college students while also providing useful information and approaches to a real client.


“Students are expected to develop the research, analyze it, and then come up with an integrated marketing plan for a media firm proposing a solution to the problem of reaching college students. It’s a professional-grade experience akin to what a student might have if they were working on a marketing campaign for an actual client in an agency setting.”

— Ryan Eanes, PhD

Course: BUS 394-11 Marketing Case Study Competition

Frequency: Two 75-minute meetings per week

Class size: 10

Course description: Earn academic credit for developing a strategic marketing plan for a major global brand as part of the American Marketing Association’s annual Case Study Competition.

See Ryan Eanes's teaching resources for BUS 394-11 Marketing Case Study Competition

See Materials

Lesson: Preparing for the AMA competition

The AMA competition began just as a real-world marketing project would: The media firm at the center of this year’s event provided a detailed brief that includes the core objective of the project—in this case, The Wall Street Journal was aiming to find new ways to appeal to Millennials, college-age consumers, and recent college graduates—as well as background materials about how the firm views its strengths and weaknesses and how it wishes to be perceived by its target consumers.

“Once the students figure out who we’re trying to talk to, then the real fun starts,” says Eanes. “The students ask, ‘What are we actually going to do? How are we going to reach these people? What would be really interesting and unique? How do we go about solving this problem?’”

The AMA contest has allowed Eanes to immerse his students in the detailed workings of how a marketing campaign is developed. After providing the client brief as a guide, Eanes gives his students full control over how they run their own project, offering these guiding strategies along the way:

Play to their strengths

To kick off the semester-long project, Eanes and Georgina Bliss, a member of the college’s career counseling office, first helped students identify their individual strengths, such as writing or graphic design. Though they will not be limited to these during the competition project, this can help them see the roles where they may need more experience—or where they may be of best use to the team.

Set realistic expectations

Eanes is quick to remind his class that their job is not to try to reach—and convert—every college student they can find.

“There are now about 20 million students in four-year public and private colleges in the U.S.,” says Eanes. “Even the biggest brands know that it’s unrealistic to expect all of those students to become new customers. So it’s going to be a matter of figuring out what the student looks like who is going to say, ‘Sure, that looks like something that might be useful for me.’”

Raise the stakes

“One of the most important elements for a project like this is enthusiasm,” says Eanes. “If there’s no energy, if they’re not excited about the project, if they’re not into it, then you might as well hang up your hat and go home. Because it’s going to be like pulling teeth.”

For those who are less excited about the concept of competing, Eanes believes that offering course credit can be beneficial at building the students’ sense of buy-in.

He also reminds them that their work could potentially impact their future career. “It’s not unusual for students who succeed at these types of projects to find themselves with plenty of job opportunities,” he reminds them.

Get them in brainstorming mode

Early in the semester, Eanes asked his students to generate a series of questions they might ask other college students that would generate the information they need to help solve this client’s problem.

“They want to tap into the minds of these college students to find out ‘How do we go about solving this problem?’” says Eanes.

To facilitate this, Eanes handed out old-fashioned index cards. “I told the students to take 10 minutes to write down anything and everything you think might possibly help—anything that you might want to ask other college students, whether they’re on our campus or somewhere else,” he says.

Offer multiple tools for gathering insights and data

Gathering raw data and grist for the communications plan was divided into three major areas:

  • Submit questionnaires. The students designed online surveys to poll college students across the country about their perceptions of the client. “Thanks to a very generous gift from the Rebecca Corbin Loree Center for Career Development here on our campus, the students were able to get their survey into the hands of just under 400 students from all over the country,” Eanes says.
  • Conduct focus groups. Students organized 11 focus groups comprised of one to five students each, and sessions were held both in person and online. The students also interviewed professors about whether they use the publication in their classrooms.
  • Build personas. The students developed several personas that will directly inform brainstorming the creative component of the campaign. “A persona, in marketing speak, is essentially a caricature of your customer—another word is ‘avatar,’” says Eanes. “It’s a stand-in representative of your target segment. Then you can say, ‘How can I communicate to this person? What is she going to read? What is she going to listen to? Where is she getting her information?’”
Use the data to fuel creative decisions

Once the research from surveys, focus groups, and personas has been gathered and deliberated, the students hone the messages and strategies they intend to present.

“The students are going to have to figure out how to put this all down into language that is suitable for business and fulfills the requirements of the competition’s rules,” says Eanes.

To that end, they spend the next few months using collaborative tools (such as Google Documents) to write the paper together, with different students volunteering to serve as editors for different sections. They also create graphics and design elements and organize the workflow throughout the semester. Each person takes a role and runs with it.

Eanes is quick to note that the competition judges and sponsor do not expect students to submit perfectly polished, ad agency–caliber presentations. The goal of the competition is less about giving big-time corporations free marketing advice than it is about helping college students develop the “soft skills” used in many areas of communications campaigns.

Remind them you are there for them

While the entire project is designed to be run by the students on their own, Eanes intends to make himself as available as possible to the team, in keeping with Washington College’s faculty motto: “We value unhurried conversation.”

“We encourage students to approach us, and we try to give them as much time as they need,” he says. “These students have been steeped in that ethos for several years now. They know we’re not going to throw them off the deep end, but at the same time, they know we expect a great deal from them.”

As any good swim coach knows, whether they win the competition or not, their bravery, persistence, and professional-level skills will serve them well, whether they are one day a big fish in a little marketing agency pond or a little fish in a big one.


Each of the colleges participating in the competition was required to submit a 40-page campaign proposal to the AMA by December 5, 2018. Eanes notes that the students are not allowed to identify their school in the final documents, so the judging is “blind.” The judges narrow the field to 10 or fewer finalists in January, and those finalists will travel to the annual AMA collegiate conference in New Orleans in April 2019, where they will pitch their ideas to representatives from the media firm at the heart of the competition.

Eanes is hopeful that his team makes it to New Orleans, which will be a huge opportunity for his students even if they do not win the competition.