Checklists make work better and learning richer

Self-assessment is when students evaluate their own work. Self-assessment helps students learn and do better work (advice from “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips”). The trick is to get students to be critical at the appropriate level. One problem with many self-assessment exercises is that many students say that their work is better than it is.

One of the benefits of checklists is that they create gaps in students' knowledge, and that makes teaching easier.

To facilitate self-assessment, I’m trying to create checklists for all assignments. For example, one assignment in Judgment (a portfolio course for senior-level ad strategy students) is to make a strong resume. The specifics of the assignment include the checklist. Students use the checklist to make sure they thought of everything to make their work as strong as it can be. The checklist must be turned in along with their resume. And I use the same checklist to evaluate their resume and to determine their grade.

The checklist helps students realize what’s important on an assignment. And if a student doesn’t know how to address one of the elements on the checklist, he/she usually contacts me at that point instead of skipping over that element of the assignment. Some students turn in work with items not checked off of the checklist (often with a note or a question mark next to the check box). I like this because we can have a conversation about something that they already realize is a problem with their work. They are eager to learn what they know they don’t know. In “Made To Stick,” Chip and Dan Heath say that when there are “gaps in people’s knowledge” they are eager to know more. The checklist makes students curious (and interested), and that makes teaching easier. The self-assessment is working.

I have not figured out how to make a detailed and objective checklist for all projects, but I’m getting better at it. The key is to be specific and add guidance to the student how to improve their work on the specific criteria. Try to make each check item objective, measurable and quantitative (rather than subjective).

I have always included a rubric with each assignment… a list of 4 – 8 criteria on which the work would be evaluated. By turning the rubric into a checklist with 20 – 30 specific items (along with specific guidance), it becomes a tool that students use to create better work and engage deeper in the learning. Give it a try.

Here’s the checklist for making a good resume: ResumeChecklist

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A job at The Martin Agency

Marty Thompkins is a recruiter from The Martin Agency who recently spoke at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She shared some great insights about getting a job and answered a lot of questions from VCU ad students.

She said many things that connected with me. I really liked Marty’s list of the six things that they look for when hiring a new employee at Martin:

1) Excellent communication skills. That means no typos and all of that obvious stuff. But the important point was that Marty wants job candidates to tell their story so that their personality shows. This means no cookie-cutter cover letters and no just-the-facts resumes. This means to write more than just listings of stuff like day-to-day tasks.

Barely There Billboard

Everyone knows The Martin Agency's work with GEICO and Walmart. Here's an example their lesser-known (but still award-winning) work.

A good story has characters that the reader can relate to. The job candidate should be the hero of their story. A good story is a sequence of events. A good story includes a conflict or a problem that the lead character will face. And, there should be a resolution to the conflict or problem. A good story needs to be interesting… give the reader a gift for spending time with the story.

Under excellent communication skills, Marty talked about the need to be articulate in person and on the phone. Practice what you will say on the phone when you call an agency. Practice what you will say if the agency calls you.

An important aspect of advertising is to take a ton of information and to be able to cut it down into a succinct, digestible message for the audience. Resumes need to show that the candidate has this ability. A one-page resume is a good example of this skill.

Excellent communication skills cannot ignore the power of visual communications. Marty said that all resumes should have a “design element.” Granted that media planners don’t need a resume that shows the graphic finesse of an art director, but media folks better show that they are aware of visual communications.

2) Passion. This one was simple. Marty said that job candidates must show their passions. It is not important how the passions are presented. And, it is not important what things people are passionate about. Just have passion and show it.

I recently watched a nice, short TED talk about the eight keys to success. Richard St. John says that passion was one of the eight “secrets of success.” In fact, he says that passion is the first key to success. Watch the video here.

3) Opinions about advertising. Have a point of view about the ad business or an aspect of it. Be able to tell someone what your favorite ad campaign is. Be able to comment on current ads that are getting attention in the marketplace.

4) Be tenacious about getting a job. Other people are working hard to get the good jobs. Anyone who wants a good job will need to work for it. Good jobs don’t just fall out of the sky.

This means to scrutinize your resume, cover letter, and portfolio. Customize everything for each job applied for. This means to follow up on applications… BUT do not become a stalker!  The Martin Agency gets back with every application they receive. Allow two weeks for the recruiter to get back with you before following up.

5) Show that you’re willing to work. The Martin Agency expects people to pay their dues to secure a good job. Entry-level job candidates should not dismiss starting at the bottom because Martin hires from within.

6) Fit into the agency’s culture. The best employees are the ones that fit into the culture of the company (the people, the process, the mission, and the personality). No company has the culture that would be perfect for all employees. Likewise, no job candidates have the personality that would be perfect for all companies.

The Martin Agency looks for people who 1) collaborate well, 2) have integrity, 3) have a sense of humor, and 4) are down to earth. Marty forgot to mention that The Martin Agency also looks for people who know a lot about advertising (or at least a lot about a part of advertising).

At the top of The Martin Agency’s website, there are four links next to the company logo. The first link is “Culture.” It’s important.

Marty Thompkins is a fantastic ambassador for The Martin Agency. She shared her time and her expertise willingly. She was personable. She showed passion for her work and for the ad business. And she was down to earth. The Martin Agency receives around 300 resumes every week — tough odds for any job candidate. Focus on these six elements and the odds will get better.

Remarkable work is easier than average work

Fringe benefits come from creating exceptional work. I was reminded of that idea recently at a presentation by two of the founders of Posh Tots.

Posh Tots is an interesting company that sells extremely high-end home furnishings for kids’ rooms. We’re talking about beds for kids that cost over $20,000 each (but they are pretty cool). Andrea Edmunds and Pam O’Hallaron, founders of Posh Tots, shared thoughts about their company at a recent Friday Forum (presented by the VCU Brandcenter).

A few of the important things I took away from the presentation were:

The things that these two kids stand for can help students learn to advertise smarter. The kids can also teach students how to get a job.

1. Being remarkable generates buzz automatically. To make a splash when they were just starting out, Posh Tots created a few remarkable things like a Cinderella carriage bed ($47,000) and a pirate ship bed ($4,000). They pushed those remarkable things out via nice photography to select magazine editors, and let their remarkable work create the buzz.
Looking at this same concept on the other side, it will say something like this: “Being average takes a lot of extra work to be noticed.”

2. Find solutions not excuses. The company began in 2000. Within two years of launching this new luxury brand, the US economy was in the tank deep. It was a terrible time to start a company. It was a super-terrible time to try to sell high-end luxury children’s furnishings. They had plenty of excuses to fold or to accept poor results, but they didn’t.

3. Appeal to a few passionate people. Posh Tots markets to the super wealthy with young children. That’s a puny market by anyone’s standards. They didn’t want to appeal to lots of consumers because that’s not what they are about. Focusing on the niche means that there was little or no competition, and that’s always good. With a narrow focus, Posh Tots is able to become experts at what they do… and that reduces the likelihood of legitimate competition. These passionate clients told their friends, and the buzz spread (see point #1 above).

4. When someone becomes an expert at a particular thing, other people will think that he/she is an expert at other things. Posh Tots began in the business of remarkable furnishings for kids. And that’s still their core focus. However, clients are coming to them to create furnisings for grownups, for interior design, and for many other things outside of their core focus. Can you imagine going to the person who sells living-room recliners at Sears and asking that person to design an office? No, because most recliner sales people are not creating remarkable things.

Posh tots does exceptional, remarkable work; they don’t accept failure, and they focus on their specialty niche.

Let’s relate the concepts from Posh Tots to teaching advertising. When presenting an ad assignment, discuss how students can create good work easier:
1) Find a focus; don’t try to appeal to everyone. Everyone will NOT buy your client’s stuff. Everyone will NOT love your ads. Branding is ALWAYS easier when trying to appeal to a narrow, well-defined target audience (rather than a broad, blurry audience).
2) Don’t give up. Branding that works is really hard, but it’s not rocket science. Everyone can make pretty good branding by keeping focused on the objective, keep trying, and thinking deep.
3) Make people talk. Create work that is going to generate attention on its own. Students often have difficulty evaluating the creative merits of their own work. I have found that students can easily answer this question: “Will that ad make people call to their friend in the other room and say, ‘Come look at this!’?”

When students create a portfolio, a resume, a cover letter, etc., they often want to try to be a jack of all trades. They don’t want to position themselves too narrowly for the fear that they might be typecast and excluded for many jobs. As Posh Tots shows, job seekers should focus on becoming exceptional in one area, and other people will assume that they are exceptional in other areas, too.

If students take the Posh Tots advice, in a few years they can afford a Chuckwagon Toddler Bed ($14, 918). Sweet dreams.

Question about getting a job in advertising

Q:  I don’t have any relevant work experience. On my resume could I list some of the courses I took at VCU if they are relevant to the job?

A:  Relevant work experience is a valuable thing to have.  However, think about it deeper.  Think about the people you know who do their job well.  Did your best teachers have the most teaching experience? Do the best mothers and fathers have several kids before they become good parents?  Are the best 7-11 cashiers the ones that have been cashiers for many years?  In my experience, the people who do their job well have the passion to be good, the creativity to solve problems, and the ability to think on their own.
Change your definition of “relevant work experience.”  An employer wants to see that you are relevant to them.  There are many ways to show that you are relevant:  from school projects, from work experiences, from pastimes you’ve enjoyed, from your philosophies, from your passions, and from any stuff you’ve done.  Many jobs (including all types of communications and marketing) need people who are passionate, creative, connected, problem solvers, smart, and willing to work hard.  When you demonstrate that you have these qualities, you will have the attention of any employer.
Another important point is that ALL experience is relevant experience.  How you approach your school work is probably similar to how you’ll approach all types of work.
One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”
If I was looking to hire someone (for any job), I would seriously consider hiring a street sweeper who approached his/her job like Michelangelo approached his work. This is especially true for any entry-level position.
Sistine Chapel

Write your resume to show that you have the passion and dedication demonstrated by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Sure it’s nice to have relevant work experience (in the traditional sense). Fortunately, you can have a strong job application (and/or resume and cover letter) without any relevant work experience.  You have the ability to apply for many, many jobs with which you have no direct work experience (in the sense of doing that job before).