What do you get when you put motivated UNC-CH students, inspiring professors, and a difficult, real-world problem in the same classroom?


While there is no perfect formula for creativity, the UNC School of Media and Journalism has found a way to foster ideas that disrupt the way we think about how national brands like Office Depot and IBM interact with college students.

In 2015, Dean Susan King of the MJ-School and the managing director and founder of APCO’s Raleigh office, Kelly Williamson, created the communications consulting class responsible for fostering the environment where UNC students can bring their national newsworthy ideas to life.

According to Williamson, part of being in an agency is making sure you are thinking ahead of your clients and bringing them new and fresh ideas. So, when Williamson and her team went to pitch to Office Depot in the fall of 2016, she knew she could bring them an idea that was thought up by their target audience — a perfect fit.

“It was a really beautiful thing to be able to go with them to say that we had worked with the University of North Carolina to basically brainstorm what other new things that Office Depot could do to communicate to college students,” Williamson said.

The idea that gained them national coverage in publications like the Chicago Tribune and Consumerist?

Pocket Points: an app that rewards students with coupons for keeping their phones locked in class.

The idea that put Office Depot at the forefront of the conversation about student productivity was developed by seniors Claire Sears and Carlton Rollins, juniors Sarah Davidson and Hunter Travers, and sophomore Ariana Demetriades.

“I was just impressed and amazed, and shocked that anything we could have come up with during some Tuesday night brainstorming session could actually be used by a national organization,” Travers said in regards to hearing about how APCO pitched Office Depot their idea.

Davidson was working at APCO as an intern when she heard the news.

“I was super excited,” Davidson said. “It made me super proud of our team, because we were a group of girls who had never met before this class and then we achieved something that was up to the caliber of a professional agency, and beyond that the client actually liked it.”

Despite the UNC-CH students’ success, no one really knew what the outcome of the communications consulting class Williamson and King created would be. The semester-long pitch competition Williamson and her APCO team designed gave the students as real world of an experience as possible, but Williamson said she was absolutely blown away with the caliber of thinking of her students.

Not knowing what quite to expect, Williamson said she and her team joked, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we got some new fresh ideas for our clients?”

When Travers and the team first read the RFP, she said the team was completely overwhelmed.

Davidson said that they had no idea where to start nor how creative they could be, but the most difficult part of the competition was trying to channel all of their ideas into one cohesive pitch.

In order to teach the students how to work through such a challenging pitch, different guest speakers from various APCO offices and management levels visited the class to offer them advice.

“We totally challenged ourselves and were like ‘This is the bar that’s been set, and it doesn’t matter if we’re in college we can do this.’ It’s super inspiring” Davidson said of the impact the guest speakers had on her experience.

Williamson said an important part of the class was also making sure that students learned how to develop valuable research-based insights, ideas, and strategies.

One of the teachings that the MJ-School instills in its students is the idea that our future customers and clients won’t be like them. Davidson said she’s learned that you can’t design a pitch based on what you or your friends would like.

“This experience totally affirmed me in that [teaching] and grounded me in research and forcing myself to get out of my own viewpoint,” Davidson said.

It’s classes like these that prepare students to enter the job market by connecting academic lessons and real-life teachings. Classes like these are what gain UNC-CH students national attention.

Classes like these are part of what makes Carolina, well, Carolina.