Numerical literacy crucial for today’s advertising grads

Gone are the days when advertisers could reach virtually the entire American population with just a few TV commercials. Narrowcasting — aiming media messages to a specific segment of the public defined by certain attributes — is becoming the new norm in advertising.

And narrowly focused advertisements depend on data-driven decisions, making numerical literacy more important than ever for ad professionals. In the digital age where math and media meet, entry-level candidates need an updated set of skills to survive in the industry.

Greenlee Associate Professor Jay Newell set out to define that skill set.

Newell spent the fall 2017 semester as the Temerlin Research Fellow at Southern Methodist University’s Temerlin Advertising Institute for Education and Research.

As part of his project titled “Advertising and Public Relations as STEM-Related Fields,” he toured advertising agencies in Dallas, Texas, interviewing professionals about the math skills currently used and desired in new hires. The research focused mainly on coding, data handling and Excel proficiency.

He presented the research to advertising, engineering and computer science faculty at SMU in November and is now working to share his findings with Greenlee students and faculty.

Merging advertising with STEM, Newell looked at how computer science functions in the media industry. Newell said it’s important to meet students where they are by incorporating essential math and data skills into courses outside of the engineering and computer science departments.

“Public relations, advertising, journalism — we have 800 students here (at Greenlee) who are interested in these areas,” Newell said. “Why don’t we bring the math and science to them?”

Through a series of interviews and surveys, Newell’s research highlighted the necessity for job seekers to demonstrate, not just list, their skills.

“Over and over, I was hearing, ‘If you have something on your resume, you should have something in your portfolio that proves it,’” he said.

Entry-level candidates who list “Excel proficient” on their resumes, for example, should also have examples of data handling in their portfolios, Newell said. This exemplifies the ability to use information and data to make an informed decision, a highly sought-after skill in advertising.

Regarding more specialized skills, such as coding, Newell found that a basic understanding of the process was generally sufficient for new hires. Due to the steep learning curve, ad agencies typically hire computer science specialists to handle coding. Consequently, the ability to “talk the talk” about coding is usually enough for entry-level candidates, Newell said.

Newell’s research also illuminated a phenomenon in the hiring process known as the “mini-me effect.” He observed that supervisors are often more likely to hire someone with the exact same set of skills they have — but nothing more.

“For instance, if someone didn’t know coding, they couldn’t care less if their new hires knew coding,” Newell said. “If they knew coding, they certainly wanted their new hires to be there.”

As technological innovation continues to transform the industry, the “mini-me effect” could negatively impact media companies in the future.

“It makes you wonder how organizations can really move forward if all they know to ask for is what they already have,” Newell said.

To apply his findings in the classroom, Newell plans to incorporate more data-driven assignments into his media planning and advertising classes. He also hopes other Greenlee faculty will continue to update classes by integrating new technical skills into coursework.

Newell plans to present his research at the Greenlee School this spring.

By Jessica Bennett