Liberal arts provides the perfect preparation for a career in marketing and advertising
While on a St. Olaf College study abroad program in Iceland, Johnny Goodson ’20 began to see the power of using communication and storytelling to mobilize action.
“The two St. Olaf professors who taught the course, Björn Nordfjörd and Linda Mokdad, packed the 16 of us in a van and we drove around Iceland for a month studying the media’s role in portraying environmental issues, specifically global warming,” Goodson says. “The big project throughout the month was to make a documentary on a pressing environmental issue in Iceland. And I loved it! I just loved finding a creative way to tell that story to mobilize action and mobilize people to care about something. That sent me off thinking I wanted to do something in the broad creative communications field after graduating.”
Goodson was particularly drawn to the work of creative agencies. He solidified his interest in marketing and advertising through his work for the college’s Marketing and Communications Office and the student newspaper, the Olaf Messenger. He then gained hands-on experience through internships at Neuger Communications, a full-service integrated communications agency based in Northfield, and Friends & Neighbors, a Minneapolis brand strategy and creative advertising agency. He’s now an assistant brand planner at Carmichael Lynch, an industry-leading creative advertising agency based in Minneapolis.
Over the past couple years, the number of St. Olaf graduates pursuing careers at marketing agencies has risen significantly. Many Oles credit their St. Olaf education for the start of a flourishing career in marketing and advertising. A class on marketing offered by Entrepreneur in Residence and Director of Management Studies Sian Christie has propelled many students into the field.
Through the new Ole Career Launcher program, St. Olaf also offers several tracks that provide students with applied skills in marketing. The Marketing, Advertising, and Digital Design track led by Director of Creative Services Fernando Sevilla combines a hands-on educational component with an applied project either for St. Olaf or an outside organization. The Google Data Analytics and Mini Internship with the Ovative Group led by Associate Director of Digital Marketing Daniel Hollerung provides students with analytics training and the opportunity to work with a digital-first media and measurement firm.
“Agency roles require dynamic and versatile problem-solving skills — a perfect fit for so many of our liberal arts students,” says St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career Director Kirsten Cahoon ’98. “These employers seek out Oles for their communication skills, creativity, analytical acumen, ability to drive projects and deliver results — to meet the needs of their clients across sectors and industries.”
Piper Center Director Kirsten Cahoon ’98Agency roles require dynamic and versatile problem-solving skills — a perfect fit for so many of our liberal arts students. These employers seek out Oles for their communication skills, creativity, analytical acumen, ability to drive projects and deliver results — to meet the needs of their clients across sectors and industries.
Goodson says the liberal arts education he received at St. Olaf, where he majored in political science and American studies, prepared him well for work at a marketing agency.
“In advertising and communications, it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you have. My classes taught me about people. I was just really interested in what makes people tick. And that is directly transferable into a career in advertising,” he says. “You want to figure out who the target consumer is, and then you need to figure out why they think the way they do. How do we need to appeal to them to make them buy our product? And it’s that sort of advertising view of culture that a liberal arts degree really brings to the table.”
Goodson also emphasizes the importance of the St. Olaf alumni community and the potential of networking in it. “Oles love talking to Oles and helping them out. I’ve done a ton of networking in my years; that’s how I got this job. And I’ve never, ever had somebody say no to me when I’ve asked to network with them,” Goodson says.
While studying abroad and completing several internships helped Goodson determine what he liked about agency work, John Smith ’19 went into marketing after eliminating what he didn’t like. He pivoted from biology to chemistry and landed on a major in economics. He didn’t like the idea of a traditional business career — but marketing and advertising had appeal.
He connected with a digital agency through his network and is currently working at Uproer, a search marketing agency based in Minneapolis. The Advertising Federation of Minnesota (AdFed) named Smith to its list of 32 under 32 young marketing and advertising minds. The nominees were people who disrupted industry trends by introducing new customer engagement strategies, and redefined organizational marketing norms during the pandemic. Smith developed tracking systems, acquired grants, and ran fundraising ads for MN350, part of a global movement to end pollution and speed the transition to clean energy based in Minnesota. He also co-founded Minnesota Brain Trust, a Minnesota-based agency that helps nonprofits find search experts to help them grow their business.
This fall Smith started a part-time graduate program in environmental policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He says this desire to keep learning and keep innovating — the very thing that helped him earn the AdFed recognition — is at the heart of the liberal arts. Being an Ole is “Being way too willing to go in over my head, in the best way possible,” Smith says. “It means going into something with the best of intentions and saying ‘I’m going to dive into this thing and I don’t care how deep I go because I’m curious about this.’”
Skye Sonnega ’21 works with the SEO team at Uproer. SEO, in broad terms, is optimizing website content so it ranks higher in search engine results, which is especially important for e-commerce and tech companies.
While there are multiple components to SEO, Sonnega’s role focuses on making sure web pages are indexed for search engines to rank them and making edits to ensure the pages can be found, such as using strong keywords in titles. Sonnega’s work at Uproer helps her express her creativity in a way that also brings some value into the world. “One thing that the liberal arts prepared me for was connecting with people on a whole different level through smaller class sizes. Going into my new job at Uproer, I’ve learned that having those communication skills, especially in a smaller team-based learning style, is super important. I think in this job, especially for SEO, it’s something that is changing every single day — and in my opinion, you don’t need a marketing degree to succeed in it. Uproer really values an entrepreneurial mindset, the desire to learn, and to dig deeper on things without being told to. And I think that’s one thing that a lot of Oles have.”
Anna Manning ’21, an English and management studies major at St. Olaf, is currently working at the Ovative group, a Minnesota-based, digital-first media and measurement firm. “Business and marketing is constantly changing, and the liberal arts teaches you how to adapt with that,” she says. “You’re being encouraged to take different classes and use different parts of your brain. That’s what a liberal arts degree teaches you; it teaches you how to adapt. And really, in the world of business right now, that’s a super valuable skill.”
Other than her education at St. Olaf, Manning also credits the Piper Center for helping her acquire multiple internships and build networks that allowed her to gain some valuable experience and relationships. She did four internships during her time at St. Olaf. Her last internship experience had a profound impact on her future career.
“In my junior year, I did a virtual internship with We Sparkle, which is a startup in Minneapolis, through the St. Olaf Entrepreneurial Scholars summer internship program. I was their marketing intern. That’s where I started to create a marketing strategy, track data, and actually make huge moves to grow their social media presence digitally. And that’s where I confirmed that this is the path that I want to take after college,” she says.
Peter Tressel ’84 made the decision to go into advertising after taking a New York art Interim program at St. Olaf. He connected with an agency through his network and got a job in 1984. Since then Tressel has worked at three different firms, and he is now a Creative Director and Senior Vice President at Preston Kelly, an independent marketing agency in Minneapolis focused on creating a positive impact through its work.
Anna Manning ’21Business and marketing is constantly changing, and the liberal arts teaches you how to adapt with that. You’re being encouraged to take different classes and use different parts of your brain. That’s what a liberal arts degree teaches you; it teaches you how to adapt. And really, in the world of business right now, that’s a super valuable skill.
“My favorite thing to do now is to make advertising programs that lead to a website that we design that lead to a company where we did their brand identity. We provide a seamless integrated experience for these consumers. It’s not just about getting yet another transaction — we actually create marketing materials and add a viewpoint to make marketing that respects the consumer and makes their life better. It’s an enjoyable experience, and they feel like they’re getting something back, other than a receipt in a transaction.”
As a creative director and senior vice president, Tressel’s job on paper is to lead creative teams to make advertising campaigns, websites, and social media campaigns for their clients. In reality he does a little bit of everything.
“Oftentimes, I might be a writer. Once in a while, I become a strategist. I work with clients and function as an account director from time to time. I have a lot of experience and I can adaptively step into different roles in order to fill the gaps and serve whatever the purpose is that we’re serving, and then set up a situation where my coworkers are succeeding and thriving. My job is to identify issues and offer pathways if my coworkers are finding an impediment rather than criticize or redo things for them. Sometimes I make decisions about moving forward with a client or not. I look forward to chatting with people, coworkers and clients, and answering a lot of questions,” he says.
In a leadership position one has to fill in for many roles, and Tressel says that it comes easy to someone with a degree in liberal arts. “It’s just like going to a different class. We don’t bat an eye because we are used to going from religion to chemistry. We’re used to shifting gears quickly like that.”
Tressel has some advice for young students venturing into the marketing and advertising business, or into any other business. “I think there’s a big emphasis in some quarters to mean college will get you ‘this kind of a job.’ And I just think that’s the wrong reason to go to college,” he says. “You have got to pick a school where your values and your thinking are challenged.”