Real-Life Learning Rewards

The Interactive Media Center replicates a professional workplace scenario ideal for Orange Umbrella students.
By Michael R. Malone

The Interactive Media Center replicates a professional workplace scenario ideal for Orange Umbrella students.

Real-Life Learning Rewards

By Michael R. Malone
Students in University of Miami’s School of Communication’s Orange Umbrella Student Consultancy garner real-life experience collaborating with clients.

“Six minutes, six minutes ‘til status report,” Gregory Mintz shouts, sending a verbal volley to rally the Orange Umbrella Student Consultancy team scattered in the Koenigsberg and Nadal Interactive Media Center (IMC).

Around the School of Communication’s (SoC) state-of-the-art space, students—some lounging in the multi-green-toned cubicles, some on low-rider sofas against the floor-to-ceiling windows, other seated at the circular or rectangular work desks, others arriving from the IMC War Room—all tap, tap, tapping last-minute notes onto laptops and begin to shift their attention to the super-sized media screen on the big front wall. Someone turns down the music mix and Rihanna’s “Umbrella (Orange Version)” fades out. 

Melissa Janes “M.J.” Barnes, SoC lecturer and managing director for Orange Umbrella, strides to the status board with “Captain,” her Maltese poodle mix, in her arms. “Ok, let’s hear how things are going,” she says and, one by one, the students spout out their client reports.

Urban Debate League? “Great, on schedule. We’re posting up the website.”

Caring Canines? “Progress, we’re moving along.”

Oliver Hazard Perry?  “These are restored train cars from back in the day. They’re branding everything and anything. Their website needs big help, but they’re super legit.”

Growers 2 Home? “Good progress, developing a new sales design for their flowers placed in CVS stores.”

Cane Talk? “Not done. For our January anniversary, we’re going to do lots of production—full footage on Facebook, Instagram captions, edit videos—we want to use the site for recruitment for clients and students, for donations. Anyone available for work over the break?  We’re our best client.”

Orange Umbrella is indeed their own best client. The consultancy launched as a fledgling in January 2017 with two students and a managing director, a month after the inauguration of the IMC. The interactive space is key to their existence and development as it offers a “real world” simulation of a professional agency workspace. This fall 2017 semester 46 students are now managing contracts for some 13 firms, agencies and organizations, including OU’s own branding and product development.

Diverse representation from across the School of Communication is intentional as is the inclusion of students from other schools, currently including four students from the School of Business Administration, for sales, operations, and human resource advisement.  

The consultancy is offered as a class through the U. Students can sign up for 1-3 credits and gain real-world experience—deadlines and urgency are free of charge—in the field. Though the consultancy clearly expands the concept of “class.” 

“Orange Umbrella is very purposefully a consultancy, not an agency,” explains School of Communication Dean Gregory Shepherd. The school offered an agency before Shepherd arrived in 2011 and other universities offer agencies as well. “Yet unlike a traditional agency, we offer the full range of communication services. We’re able to do that because we’re one of a handful of the broadest schools of communication in the country.”

OU offers the same broad-brush of products and services as in the professional world—website design, video production, copywriting, event management, on and on, he says. He emphasizes this breadth and cross-representation from all across the school as “distinguishing features” and the new IMC space as critical.

“From the get-go, we imagined building out this space, an exciting window on the world that showcased interactivity…and having this consultancy live in a space that looks state of the art,” Shepherd says.  

barnes_students480X320
“M.J.” is the consensus “captain’ of the consultancy. Originally from Houston, Texas, Barnes ventured to Miami 10 years ago to take a job at Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B). Her six plus years of experience with the renowned global advertising agency proved invaluable. She joined SoC as a lecturer over two years ago, and last fall the dean asked her to help brainstorm and develop the framework for the project.

After a soft launch, the consultancy expanded in the spring to include 18 students. “With growth and referrals, we evolved very organically,” she says. “It was amazing. The spring was nebulous, energetic, and chaotic.”

During the summer, things “heated up,” Barnes says. Twelve students signed on in internship capacity to work 40 hours a week. They developed the name—“orange” for the U and the umbrellas that sprinkle the campus, and “umbrella” denoting this overarching entity that connects the fields of study within the school—and shaped branding and other key concepts.

Terry Balagia, a veteran of the LA advertising world who joined the U as a lecturer in 2016, helped develop creative strategy. Balagia taught previously at the University of Texas (UT) and lessons learned there—the student agency buckled because funding depended on expensive client projects—helped Orange Umbrella avoid similar mistakes.

“Mostly, I helped M.J. see what not do to,” Balagia says. “The UT internship charged [clients] big money, and the clients came in with big expectations. The students couldn’t do it, they couldn’t keep up.

“This is a learning experience first—and we don’t want students to have an ugly experience. I want to protect the way they feel about advertising,” Balagia says.

In his extensive experience, he was often amazed at how much fun professionals had in the field. “We get paid for being creative, for writing commercials and shooting with great directors? What? How can that not be anything but fun? School should be like that.”

The consultancy has enjoyed a number of successes with clients in the early going, such as a Kick-Starter program for Growers 2 Home that raised $13,000 in a month.

Roberto Reyes, who handles business development for Growers, reached out to the University through his sister, a UM grad, when the company was looking to vitalize its marketing campaign.

“It’s definitely been a win-win. Our partnership complements their coursework, and for us it’s a way to accomplish something important for our business,” Reyes says. He credits Barnes with being “a good leader,” guiding the students and coordinating the collaboration.

The Doral-based company imports flowers from Colombia and ships to several U.S. states to sell at CVS stores. Students helped redesign a pricing scheme and developed a whole new communication strategy that’s proven very successful, Reyes says. Members of Growers meet occasionally with a group of 4-5 students to strategize.

students_working480X320Christian Felipe, a senior, joined the consultancy in the spring after a friend mentioned the class to him. Felipe was one of four students who recently shared a ‘Cane Talk on Orange Umbrella.

“I’ve gained a lot more experience as a leader,” Felipe says. “I’m doing assignments that I’ll be doing in real work.” In addition to client interaction with Growers 2 Home, he’s overseeing an expansive donor report on the IMC. 

Gregory Mintz, a senior who helps rally the team for the status reports, learned about the course during a “2 a.m. conversation” with a friend.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and thought this is a good place to get your feet in the water,” he says. He enjoys putting his creative writing skills to work, writing taglines and slogans. In addition to working with clients, Mintz writes a blog for OU, “filler pieces” that help develop his writing skills for a future he envisions in copywriting.

Ariella St. Rose, also senior, knew she needed some learning experience and thought the consultancy would be a “cool thing to do.”  

“I have excellent teachers and they try their best, but this is learning that you couldn’t possibly get in class. You don’t know until you go out [into the world]—things are so much different in real life than what you imagine,” St. Rose says.

She researched, wrote and designed parts for a client’s user interview aimed at increasing engagement. Now she’s writing QR code and doing print for another. “It was all new for me,” she says, “I had no idea how to do it.”

While a bit stressful, she appreciates dealing with clients and having deadlines that are real. “When you meet the deadlines, it feels like a reward,” St. Rose says.

Dean Shepherd says the consultancy has far exceeded expectations.

“The quality of clients, the quality of work they’re providing, the student dedication to the consultation is remarkable,” he says. “I do worry, and I’ve talked to the students about this, that it’s going to be tempting for them to spend too much time in the consultancy. They love it. It’s where they want to be, yet they still have classes to take and other obligations—they have to keep their priorities straight.”

He credits the students with nurturing the quality reputation the consultancy has forged in its early going.

“We don’t want to get a lot bigger right now. Quality control is extremely important; it takes a lot of effort to build a brand, and a reputation can be undermined. The students have been terrific in interviewing, not admitting students that were not quite ready or didn’t have the skillset set or the personalities,” Dean Shepherd says. “They’ve been exhibiting their own quality control, and that needs to continue. I’d rather be small and excellent, than large and mediocre.”