Learning to “run with it”

The only complaint Furman art department chair Ross McClain has with his excellent students is that they’re such excellent students.

“They’ve been taking tests and they’ve been jumping those hurdles, and they finally get here and art’s been beaten out of them for so long,” he said recently from his office in the Roe Art Building. “They’re really kind of boring. They haven’t had the opportunity to fail and have it be OK to fail and say, ‘hey, what did we learn from that?’ I tell them, you’re all going to fail in my class, but we’re going to teach you to rapidly innovate and fail and learn from it and then do it again.”

Enter CreateAthon. No money, no grades, no credits—and only 24 hours for student volunteers to develop, design and implement a marketing campaign for a local non-profit. Plenty of chances to fail—and plenty to learn.

CreateAthon got its start in 1998 when Cathy Monetti and Teresa Coles of Riggs Partners in Columbia, S.C., came up with the idea to offer pro bono marketing services to nonprofits in the area during a 24-hour “creative marathon.” CreateAthon executive director Peyton Rowe, who is also an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth, expanded the program into academic circles, and when McClain heard about it he quickly realized it would be a perfect way to take Furman students away from tests and put them in a real-world pressure situation.

A campus-wide e-mail resulted in more than 30 volunteers, and in Russell Smith, McClain’s friend and former president/CEO of Make A Wish South Carolina, they had a client.

“He wanted a kind of preventative approach to domestic abuse and domestic violence, child abuse,” Anna Riethman, a junior studio art major with a graphic design focus, said. “Their old branding was ‘Kids, You Can’t Beat ’Em,’ and he was a little bit attached to that at first, but he also said ‘I trust you guys to do what you want. Surprise me.’”

That they did. The students emerged on the morning of Feb. 28 with a Web site, a logo and a marketing campaign – including press release kits, newsletters, advertising and PR strategies—wrapped around the slogan “Fight the Bull.”

“The idea is each person has their own bull that can be an insecurity that’s personal, it can be an outer conflict. It can definitely include domestic violence and abuse, but it’s not limited to that,” Riethman, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., said. “It’s really just any negativity or disrespect to other human beings.”

Among the promotional materials is a T-shirt featuring a bull’s head made up of a colorful word for bull excrement written in multiple languages. The idea, Riethman says, was to “beat high school kids to the punch” while getting them on board with the message. “That shirt was my baby. I worked on that shirt for four hours nonstop.”

Smith couldn’t have been more pleased.

“I was a little bit shocked, but not in a bad way. It was a little bit edgy, and I think that’s what it’s going to take to get everybody’s attention,” he said. “But it doesn’t have a shock factor. It doesn’t have a picture of a lady with a black eye or something. I wasn’t going to do that, and I’m really pleased that they didn’t.”

Riethman and her classmates weren’t totally thrown to the wolves, however. McClain enlisted Kelly Davis of Riggs, Geno Church of Brains On Fire in Greenville, and Katie Blaker ’09, art director from Moses Inc. in Phoenix, as mentors, and Church and Blaker were there for all 24 hours.

Well, almost.

“I’ll admit I took about a nap between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m.,” Church said. “We were good cop, bad cop in a way. She in a good way demanded a little more accountability, and because she did I didn’t have to do that as much.

Church stressed the presentation to the client was as—if not more—important than the product, and he was amazed at the result.

“After they did that I went out to San Diego to do a similar thing for a really large brand that works with engineering students to come up with product content,” he said. “The presentation skills of the Furman students were two to three levels above. I was really proud of the students and how they commanded the room. They made sense, they were professional, they were powerful.”

Riethman counts McClain as her “favorite professor ever,” and the CreateAthon experience is merely another reason why.

“About 4 a.m., 5 a.m., we did kind of hit a little wall . . . but it was a lot of fun energy. It kept you going, it kept you excited the whole time. And afterwards I wasn’t tired at all because we were so excited the client loved it,” she said. “Around midnight we had basically had our whole concrete idea figured out, and we got a little nervous. We wondered if we should call him and ask if this is OK before we go any further, or should we just run with it and take a huge risk. We decided to just run with it and take the huge risk.”

Which was precisely the lesson.

“Furman kids are excellent at ideation, coming up with ideas and making connections in a broad way. Where it gets tough is beginning to refine it,” McClain said. “They slam-dunked it. I was blown-away by what they could do. We put the hotrods in the track, and all it took was just a little bit of mentoring to get them to see how to put it all together.

“What’s been really neat is the kids were so empowered by it. That’s what got me so excited.

You could see how they just lit up when they were in the presentation.”

But what about the campaign itself? Will it ever see the light of day? Smith says there’s no doubt.

“We’ll definitely be using this,” he says. “This will be the lead campaign.”

Check out photos from CreateAthon and more on the Furman Art Department blog at http://artfu.tumblr.com/