Advertising Strategy and Online Education

Marketing strategy agency Bigeye’s podcast features strategist and educator Darius Lana discussing advertising, education, and the next generation of marketers.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Marketing strategy agency Bigeye’s podcast features Darius Lana. Concurrently, a student, teacher, and advertising practitioner, Darius discusses how the pandemic has impacted education, and ways in which online courses can be designed to maximize student engagement. Darius explains his personal career journey, the challenges minority groups face when considering advertising as a career, and the contribution of the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program. 

In Clear Focus: Advertising Strategy and Online Education

In Clear Focus this week: Marketing strategy agency Bigeye’s podcast features Darius Lana. Concurrently, a student, teacher, and advertising practitioner, Darius discusses how the pandemic has impacted education, and ways in which online courses can be designed to maximize student engagement.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: From pre-K through higher education, more than 300 million students worldwide have had their learning disrupted by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Schools and universities haven’t faced this level of disruption in generations, but most today can continue offering education online. As teachers have made mid-semester transitions from in-person to online classes, new words have entered our language such as Zoombombing – and the video conferencing platform Zoom has become a verb. But these makeshift arrangements are very different from established online academic programs which were pioneered in the mid-1990s. MIT began offering its lectures and course materials online in 2002. Of course, today millions of students have had to switch from print to digital versions of educational materials, attending a mix of live lectures and online classrooms and asynchronous discussion forums as a replacement for on-campus learning. To talk about the creation of educational courses, the marketing and management of online education, and continuing education for marketing and advertising professionals, we’re joined today by Darius Lana. Darius is a consultant and strategist with almost a decade of experience specializing in brand integrated marketing and consumer insights on both the agency and client sides of the business. He currently works in the online higher education industry for US and international markets with Pearson, based in Orlando. In addition, Darius teaches part-time at the University of Central Florida on the topics of advertising, social media, and brand strategy. In this role, over the past four years, Darius has helped students that have gone on to work as account executives, brand strategists, and social media specialists with agencies including Universal McCann, Leo Burnett, MullenLowe, and Havas. Recognized as a UCF “30 Under 30” in an awards program that honors outstanding young alumni who have continued to reach for the stars in their professional and personal lives since graduating, Darius also has a personal passion for projects that increase access to education for disadvantaged groups in both domestic and international markets. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Darius!

Darius Lana: Thank you, Adrian for having me. I appreciate it.

Adrian Tennant: Darius, you’re currently Associate Director of Marketing and Strategic Initiatives at Pearson. What does your role entail?

Darius Lana: Pearson is an educational company out of the UK. They’re like 175 years old, focusing on different levels of education. So I know in your opening you mentioned K through 12, they’re focused on K through 12 higher education and continuing education as well. So, what my role really entails, it kind of focuses on that higher education piece. What we do in my division is we really look to bring specific programs online. So we partner with universities, such as the University of Central Florida or other universities like Howard University, things like that, mostly not-for-profit, and we look to take programs that could have high demand in the marketplace online. So, you’ll see a lot of MBAs online. We’ll put nursing degrees online. So my role really is to assess the demand from potential learners, potential students, and then to try to create a message that could resonate with those potential students so that they pick the program that’s right for them, typically with our partners.

Adrian Tennant: Darius, I’m curious – to what extent do you leverage primary or secondary research to inform your strategy?

Darius Lana: Yeah, so everything we do is centered in research. And that’s kind of been my background. Anything that I wanted to implement on my own, I’ve looked to have a research been to it. I look at big data. We look at some of our social media partnerships like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. And so we have access to some of the data that they aggregate from their users. We work with them as well to have curated messages, but then also we do things such as surveys, and we conduct focus groups. Everything that you can imagine could go into a consideration point for the learner to make a decision around education and the next two-four years of their life, especially if it’s revolving around school. We look at the same thing with media research as well, we look at a lot of what people are clicking on, what they’re choosing to spend their money on, and what they find valuable.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. So you mentioned quantitative studies, qualitative focus groups, and user experience research, some media intelligence. For the business, which do you think are the most valuable sources of data?

Darius Lana: I definitely think understanding what current students and maybe prospective students are really interested in is what is most useful. I think that is because understanding if a program meets the user’s needs is what’s most important. So, if they’re not getting what they need out of a program, they may be less motivated to complete it, or if they don’t see the value, I like to call it “return on degree investment.” If they don’t see the value of their degree, they’re less likely to complete it. So we really focus on understanding the student and what they need and understanding their motivations for going to school.

Adrian Tennant: The current situation has certainly put online learning in the spotlight with many teachers rapidly finding ways to conduct classes online, using tools like Zoom. Have you seen increased interest from colleges and universities in your platform or elevated usage rates?

Darius Lana: In my role at Pearson, we custom build the programs to online learners. Those learners are typically adult learners that have a job or a family or maybe two jobs, and then are trying to make a better pathway for their family. So, you know, increasing in a career or maybe career shifts. So we build what we call asynchronous courses. So they have the potential to be done at any time. They all have an instructor and you can engage and interact with that instructor at any time, but it doesn’t call for what we’re seeing here in the temporary type of platforms that a lot of universities and colleges are interacting with, which is that synchronous platform, which is where the Zoom comes in. So when you compare asynchronous to synchronous, the asynchronous seems to be fine. Students are continuing to go finish their assignments and turn in their work. We’re continuing to see those invested students stay invested. As a student myself, having been on the Zoom calls – because my program is downtown UCF campus – it is a little taxing. So it was definitely a little different watching some of your more tenured instructors working on Zoom platform when they are so used to the classroom.

Adrian Tennant: Now, if social distancing rules remain in place on college campuses through the end of this year and possibly into next, as some health experts seem to be suggesting, do you think some students who are headed to elite schools may think again and select other institutions because classes are going to be taken primarily or exclusively online?

Darius Lana: You know, personally, I hope so. I mean, you know, just me candidly speaking, the allure of an elite school or an Ivy league school was a lot of the history that’s involved. Getting a degree online from Harvard to me, again, personally, does not resonate or does not feel the same as going on campus. You know, and maybe it does, I think that price point is really what would be hard to stomach. Paying a hundred thousand dollars for a degree, for maybe an MBA when you’re getting it solely online, you may not feel as motivated to do so. I think that students that have been accepted to those schools may consider it, or they may continue to go and just hope that it gets better in time.

Adrian Tennant: Darius, you’re also an adjunct professor, of course, at the University of Central Florida, instructing senior level elective courses for the advertising and public relations major, focused on strategic development and brand planning. What led you to teach?

Darius Lana: Yeah, so when I graduated from the University of Central Florida from the Ad PR program, Nicholson School Communication and Media, I felt like you only had a couple of pathways. You could do account service, or be creative, which means you had to sit in front of a computer and understand Photoshop and understand the Adobe suite or you’re going to be a copywriter. So again, a lot of hours in front of the computer understanding how to write both long form and short form. I felt like coming away I had three paths and I didn’t feel like any one of the three really fit me correctly. I did some copywriting, I gave it a go at Photoshop and things like that and I was fine. I fell on the account service at first, but I really felt like there was more that could be done. I started my Master’s program while I was working at an agency called Decanter, which is now closed. But one of the things I felt like there was research that could be involved. So when we’re doing these briefs, it could be an entire position dedicated to understanding the consumer, what motivates a consumer, understanding how to evoke emotion more accurately and readily. That was my motivation behind starting to teach. I brought that to my advisor, Joan McCain, who’s wonderful, and I pitched her the brand strategy course, which is called Power Branding. I told her, “I think there’s something else that we can offer students. I think the account planning, account strategy, brand strategy – more than just account servicing – is something that I think will really resonate with the program.” Here we are, nearly five years later, still doing it.

Adrian Tennant: Under “normal” circumstances, you teach both traditional in classroom and online courses. Which do you prefer and why?

Darius Lana: So I do like them both. I do prefer in-person and a little bit of that might be just the nature of the courses. So I teach social media online and I teach intro to advertising online, and I love it. They’re larger lecture courses, so less interaction with the students than I would personally like. My Power Branding course is in-person and it’s capped at 20 people versus my social media and my advertising courses, which are around anywhere between 50 and 75. It really gives me an opportunity in-person to connect with the students and kind of see where they’re trying to go and real-time, so that delay is not quite there. Also the cap just really allows me to have more, be able to give the groups more attention. Most of my in person classes rely on group work, so seeing and resolving issues that could come up in the group is something that I enjoy.

Adrian Tennant: Can you talk a little bit about the process of developing course materials designed for online learning, in comparison to traditional in-classroom learning?

Darius Lana: Yeah, that’s a great question. For the Power Branding course that I mentioned earlier, that process was establishing a net new course into the AD PR program. So that one actually had quite a haul, including creating a syllabus, finding a textbook that fit, making sure that no other programs at the university were using the textbook so you’re not getting into any duplication issues. Then really developing a curriculum around what is the student going to take away? And that’s really how I look at all my classes. What is that return on degree investment, like I said, what is something that the student can take away? So in my Power Branding course is a brand audit that shows that they have the capability to research and use consumer research tools, to understand their consumer, and then apply that to a strategy and then build out an ad campaign and a brand campaign from that. So online it’s a little different. You want to make sure that organization is your main focus. Students that typically pick online courses are looking for clear, concise objectives and they still want to be challenged – but they want to be challenged in the material, not in trying to locate where files are. So, it’s the same process in terms of creating a syllabus and establishing a book, but it’s a little different in the motivation of the online student versus the motivation of maybe one that’s on-ground.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Darius Lana about advertising strategy and diversity in the workplace. Darius, because you’re not busy enough already, you’re going back to school to pursue a doctoral degree. Can you tell us more about that and what motivated you to commit to that goal?

Darius Lana: So I am pursuing a doctorate degree in strategic communication. The University of Central Florida Nicholson School of Communication and Media actually just established this PhD program. So I actually waited a little bit for it. I knew it was coming around two years ago. So I knew that I wanted to go back to school. Education has always been extremely important to me and my family. We know that the more that you can educate yourself, you can help educate those around you. My grandmother really felt like education was going to be the separator from some of the things that I would have to experience as a black man and things that go along with that, some of the way that you’re looked at because of your color. So, education was seen as an insulator and meant as a protection piece from that. I really took that to heart and wanted to go to school, not only for that reason, but that was a main piece of that as well.

Adrian Tennant: Now, back in January, IN CLEAR FOCUS featured Reema Elghossain, who’s VP of Talent, Equity, and Inclusion at the 4A’s Foundation, as a guest. In that episode, Reema shared her observations about how generational differences in attitudes towards gender and identity are changing how agencies engage with their staff. Now as you know, Reema leads the 4A’s multicultural advertising internship program, better known as MAIP. Darius, you’re a MAIP alumnus. How did you first learn about the program?

Darius Lana: Yeah, so that’s really great that you had her on in January. I learned about MAIP from my advisor, Joan, which is very interesting. They had 300 openings for MAIP-ers and I got the one public relations gig out of that and I was already kind of heading in an advertising direction at the time. It was looking like advertising, copywriting, and art direction were kind of the sections here. And they put me in the public relations piece at Golan Harris in Chicago. It’s now just Golan. I was on the British Petroleum, the BP account during the 2010 oil spill. So when I came on, I came to learn quickly about crisis communication and crisis PR. But I think that opportunity really kind of kept me engaged in advertising public relations, and then also helped me to understand how different the opportunities are for those that are maybe people of color versus you know, whites in general. So some of the things that I learned when I was in the program that less than 10 percent of those in the industry are people of color. And I love MAIP because it’s one of the few programs that are focusing on changing that to match the diversity of the audiences. So as we start to see more people of different colors and different backgrounds, more prominent throughout different industries in different areas, we need to understand how to better appeal to them because they spend money as well. So I’m glad to see that we’re really starting to make some progress there.

Adrian Tennant: That’s great, and in other episodes of IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’ve also talked quite a bit about the Hispanic community. There’s two aspects though: what barriers do you think multicultural communities commonly face when looking at advertising and marketing as a potential profession?

Darius Lana: Yeah, so, you know, that’s a really great question. Some of the things that I’ve even dealt with early on in my career were I think that people, some of the things that have been barriers, besides being passed over for promotions or, maybe seeing their viewpoints being dismissed. I think there’s also the assumption that you represent your race when you are in a brainstorm. And that happened to me pretty early on where one of our clients was a Visitor Bureau and they wanted to appeal more to blacks. And I think I had to be like 23 or 24 at the time. And basically the premise was, “Hey, we’re not resonating with blacks. They don’t come to our area and we really want to change that.” Of thirty people in the room, I’m the only black one. And they look at me and they go, “Darius, what do you think about how to get more black people to this place?” And so I think there’s tremendous pressure to represent your race. And it’s one of the most frustrating things I think a person of color could deal with. You see it in all different avenues and facets of life. But in the ad industry, I think that’s one of the biggest barriers is people making assumptions that because you look a certain way, you should resonate with that particular audience. Sometimes it does work out, but sometimes it doesn’t. You’re going to have people that are black and are Caribbean or black and African or black and African American. I think every experience is very different. So those are some of the things I’d like to see more industries, all industries to get better at, but especially as those that have the opportunity to create messages that speak to people of color to understand that.

Adrian Tennant: So on the flip side of that, how do you think agencies should attract more people with multicultural backgrounds to consider careers in the profession?

Darius Lana: I think that one of the ways that they can do that is making sure that they are present at functions that the 4A’s or the MAIP team hosts. I think that’s really important. Also I think that there is this false notion that, “Hey, all of our seats are filled, all our C-suites or VP or SVP seats are filled. And as soon as something opens up, we’ll have that for a minority or a person of color or a woman,” or what have you. And I think that that is a false assumption. I think that you should look to create space right away and you should do it at every level. I think that we do this thing in industry that is okay, we have somebody that is a person of color in this role at this level and that’s good enough. But then when you go and you look at the About Us and you scroll through and you’ll look at all the SVPs of the VPs or the C suite or the people that they say, “Hey, these are the people, the figureheads,” you’re not seeing that representation. So I think it goes back to even if you go back to education, people want to see people that look like them doing it. You know, I can think back, and this is kind off on a tangent, but I can think back throughout my college, throughout my high school and middle school and elementary school, I think I’ve had one African American male teacher and one female African American teacher, my entire K through 12 primary, secondary education. So people want to see before they decide to join what would be 40 hours of their life a week for 40-plus weeks. So I think that’s where we get started is putting people in place that look like the people you want to attract at the highest level, not just at the levels like diversity and inclusion VP or something like that. Put them in account service roles, put them in sales roles you know, cause they’re definitely qualified and they’re definitely out there.

Adrian Tennant: Looking back, how do you think MAIP helped you prepare for and navigate your professional career to date?

Darius Lana: So MAIP was my first internship, which is generally not how MAIP goes. MAIP is typically for people who are about to graduate or on their second or third internship and so MAIP was great in a lot of ways. It was my first introduction to a big city. I was in downtown Chicago during the summer, which was great. It’s amazing weather but I had to make a lot of grown up decisions very quickly. I graduated early, so I was even younger, I was 19 when I was in Chicago. But also, I think that there’s a lot of things that you think coming out of a program into quote unquote real life or real scenarios that I learned the hard way. There were a lot of things that I took away that maybe that I wouldn’t have had if I had gone to a different setup. So, I mean, just interning in general helps with that understanding real issues with real clients early, helps with how you can take that away and apply that to one day real job or full time job. But MAIP in general just had me thinking about how I can establish opportunities beyond myself for people that look like me in the industry. How can I make it known that what we’re doing is not good enough that we need to do more.

Adrian Tennant: Darius, since graduating from the program, have you stayed in contact with MAIP alumni?

Darius Lana: Yeah, I have. It’s a pretty nice knit group and so those of the 2010, I’m pretty good friends with a couple people. Some of them live out of the country now. I actually, a friend of mine, his name is Alex. I was just talking to him a couple of days ago. So, you know, now this is a relationship that is 10 years old. It’s true when you are involved in MAIP, it gives you an opportunity to make lifelong friendships and it’s cool to kind of see where people have gone. I have another friend who was a pretty high up at Amazon before she left to take her gig overseas, to the UK. I have another friend who is working for Google. So a lot of people have the opportunity to use MAIP as a jumping point for their careers and that specific initiative probably helped them get there, whereas maybe the opportunity wouldn’t be available if not. MAIP is pretty cool.

Adrian Tennant: Now you’ve mentioned diversity and inclusion. Traditional gender labels, the binary choice of male or female are being replaced with the more fluid concept of gender identity. I noticed in your LinkedIn profile that you include your preferred gender pronouns. Why did you decide to do that?

Darius Lana: Yeah, so it’s actually something that I have picked up rather recently, maybe in the last six months to a year. I’ve had it on my work email for a while and I have it on some personal emails and signatures and I just remembered to put it on some of my social media. But, you know, we make this assumption that typically isn’t always correct. And I think that these assumptions, just based upon how you look, like I said, representing a person of color, there are different identities. I think that that assumption can be harmful. I have a lot of friends in the LGBTQ community and I think that something I can do that maybe pushes past a little bit of the ally status and kind of taking action from that is to make it more of a comfortable space for them. So by putting my pronouns maybe it will spark a conversation on why – like we’re having now – but then also, those that identify as LGBTQ will be more comfortable putting their pronouns so that we can speak with them as they prefer to be spoken with. So something that I think that more people should do and hopefully I’m starting to see it. So hopefully more people pick that up and maybe do a little research. 

Adrian Tennant: Now thinking differently about gender identity can impact the work an agency does for its clients. Have you seen any examples of work that break the mold or challenge the viewer to consider gender identity in a new way?

Darius Lana: I think you’re starting to see it. I think you’re starting to see it and I’m trying to think of a specific example, but I definitely think you’re starting to see in show content. I think that comes from a lot of the content being streamed. So, you know, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. I think that shows are being more inclusive of how you see identities, versus how you traditionally see them, maybe on network television. I think network television is also trying. I think in advertising, I do think there are attempts to be more inclusive. I think of the Zola campaign which is around weddings if I’m pronouncing it right, but it’s around weddings and wedding registration. So you start to see the different couples, same-sex couples start to be included there. I can think back to when it was interracial relationships that were being included to be considered more mainstream. And I remember a Cheerios commercial that had a black woman and a white man together and a mixed child. And that had to be like 10 years ago at this point. So you’re starting to see some progress there.

Adrian Tennant: So Darius, if you weren’t a student, a teacher, and a practitioner of marketing and advertising, what other fields could you see yourself being engaged with?

Darius Lana: You know, I always wanted to be a radio show host. I don’t know if I’m very good at it and I guess we’ll find out when you play this back. But, I’ve always wanted to do radio. I had a little radio show when I was in college with one of my really good friends, Nester, and I enjoyed that. I also think I don’t know if I’d be able to get away from education in some way, form, or fashion. I think that the way that we use education is extremely important. And I think I would want to be in the mix there somehow. So yeah, I think maybe that – definitely not a politician though – would not want to do that. 

Adrian Tennant: Darius, thank you very much for being our guest and bringing education IN CLEAR FOCUS. It was great to have you.

Darius Lana: Thank you for having me.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guests this week, Darius Lana. You can find our show notes with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, stay safe. Goodbye.

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