Really Smart People at MIT Actually Study Advertising. Weird, Huh?

CAMBRIDGE—Saturday morning’s opening panel at Futures of Entertainment 2 is wholly academic. Sam Ford, the moderator of this panel and one of the organizers of the conference says he found it interesting how one half of the participants here today come from the academy and the other half from industry. He also says many of the academics had trouble getting the necessary funding to attend, and that MIT has been criticized by other scholars for dabbling so loosely in the muddy pools of commerce.
ad seen outside the conference today
Jason Mittell from Middlebury College in Vermont puts the heretofore unspoken tension more directly, “Academics are afraid to come to a conference like this for fear of selling out.” As a counterpoint to this line of thought, Miami of Ohio Sociology professor C. Lee Harrington says, “We must write research that is readable.”

It has been argued that other smaller schools such as the Central Methodist University have adequate programs in certain fields.

The next panel is also lopsided, this time in favor of the ad biz. The panel consists of two heavyweights, Baba Shetty director of media at Hill Holliday and Faris Yakob, digital ninja at Naked. Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group and a student at Wharton, is also here, as is Bill Fox from Fidelity’s in-house marketing department and Mike Rubinstein, an art director at The Barbarian Group. Yakob is the first to say something smart. “I try to get my clients to abandon control.” His former Oxford dons have reason to be proud.
Yakob also picks up on Johnny Vuclan’s idea of “branded utility,” where brands must deliver value about who they are. He cites Charmin as an example. The toilet paper maker recently installed bathrooms in Times Square, thereby delivering something powerful and something of value that wasn’t there before.

The discussion turns to user generated content—one of the central themes of the event. Shetty says, “UGC is a joke. It isn’t democratic, nor useful,” and the so-called users are mostly people trying to break into advertising.* Yakob says most UGC concepts are lame, lazy and misguided. Wells says marketers must listen more. She says they’re doing 98% marketing and 2% listening. Her point is half-measures won’t get the job done.
Shetty and Yakob talk about talent and new ways of working. Shetty says “hyper-partnering,” which borrows from the Hollywood production model (where the project is king) is now becoming more common in agency culture. Continuing the talent theme, Yakob tells a story about meeting a Saatchi Interactive CD in South Africa recently. He says the guy has 20 years of coding experience and that “technologists will be the future creatives.” Given the setting, there’s something poetic about that.
Over a nice lunch of Greek food in the upstairs atrium, Daniel from Providence tells me he’s disappointed that there’s so much corporate/ad wanker b.s. at this conference. Then he happily engages in a long conversation about advertising, saying Wieden sure does a nice job with Nike and asking why aren’t more ads done at that level.
Love ads or hate them, commercial messages of every sort imaginable are one of the main ingredients in popular culture. I personally struggle to find the good in what I do as an ad man, yet I always come back around to the fact that there’s always a client for every creative project (except poetry). So, there’s no escaping the market realities. The thing to do is to keep pushing for quality in communications. Keep honoring the audience. The audience deserves better work and we as ad people are obligtaed to bring it to them.
[UPDATE] *Baba Shetty wants to clarify the point he made about UGC.

What Faris and I were referring to at that point were some of the early industry attempts to incorporate UGC just as a submission form for television scripts (that might run on the Superbowl, or the Oscars). That approach trivializes the power of the audience to get into a conversation with a brand. It just paves the same path we’ve always taken.
The really powerful UGC ideas will listen carefully to the audience, and give them tools to talk amongst themselves in new forms (not just TV ads).

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. It’s really interesting to find a post about Futures of Entertainment II, as I spoke on a panel at FoEIII in November.
    I would agree that academics need to write readable papers, but that it might make marketers/advertisers apply them too easily.
    I’m exactly on the edge of academia and advertising, so I can read both sides — but I feel that the idea of putting two separate fields in contact with each other is what the industry really needs — both industries. Advertising can fund the academians, and the academians can apply their research. Or at least learn how to market themselves in order to make their writing capable of being understood.
    My thesis, which was on mobile telephony and how it modifies the perception of time and space, has a lot of implications and patterns applicable to the world of advertising and marketing.
    The problem is that a lot of academians who feel that their work is “pure” and not being used in industry are blatantly incorrect. Steve Mann, who developed image recognition technology at MIT found his material being used for military purposes. The same with the woman who invented the Roomba. Top advertisers use postmodern theory and a lot of traditional liberal arts education to develop their campaigns. Successful campaigns are not divorced from academic thinking.
    Although my research told me how and when traditional media would shift, I had to spend a lot of time actually applying theory to events. Once I did that, I had to make that analysis digestible to the industry. In this way, I had control over where I was able to go, and what I was able to work on. I did no longer have to rely on grades but interactions and work.
    Academicians need to be educated about how their research is being used, as well as the industry at large, in order to charge for their work, and not have it stolen or co-opted because they refuse to consider that anything occurs or seeps out of the protective white walls of their high-ceiling hallways. I’ve heard some stories of classes whose students worked on industry problems. The professor was paid for the work, and the students got nothing. Such is the nature of academia.
    That’s why I really enjoyed participating in Futures of Entertainment. It provided an eye-opener for both industries. To function more properly, industry has to become more academic. Else, they will get tired and trite. In the same way, academics need to learn how to extend their capabilities and apply their knowledge.
    The controversy that surrounded the conference is understandable, but ironic. Dissenters must realize that their own positions, and academic institutions as a whole, are funded by companies and individuals whose companies allow them to support colleges.
    The least a college can do is connect ideas to people, so that academicians can at least get paid for their efforts instead of have them used without their knowledge.
    That’s my two cents anyways.

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