Faculty Innovator: Tammy Voigt

31st March 2017

Tammy Voigt's hand selecting soda brandTammy Voigt
Professor of Practice in Strategic Communication
School of Arts and Letters







By Steven Krolak

TEL 440, Advertising Strategies, is an evening class for students with senior standing. Most of them have jobs and other outside commitments, before or after or both. Sometimes it’s an effort to fit the class into their lives, but they’ve come a long way, and are closing in on graduation. Time is precious, and they act like it.

The topic on this night is consumer touch points—the many and varied contact situations that advertisers exploit to garner share-of-mind and, hopefully, share-of-wallet. There is no shortage of examples here as Tammy Voigt, professor of practice in strategic communication, moves through a PowerPoint replete with images of familiar products and their ad campaigns.

“What do you think?” and “How does that make you feel?” are refrains that draw students into sharing insights that are both professional and personal. They discuss, debate, listen, laugh, cajole, persuade, all with the easy familiarity of a team.

Here it’s all about moving consumers toward that moment of choice, moving a mind and a heart to prompt a hand to click a mouse or sign a cheque or press a button on a soft-drink vending machine. Knowing how to inspire an act is the single task of these future strategic communication professionals, and it doesn’t come easy. To learn how that moment is born, they must examine their own experiences, motivations and mind-sets. For in real life they are both buyer and seller, audience and performer. So the four-year journey through this program is not just about sharpening elevator pitches and parsing click-through rates. It’s about understanding oneself.

Drawing on two decades of experience in the business, Voigt cultivates both the unique atmosphere of trust and the snap-crackle-pop of a creative industry. By bringing the real world into the classroom, she brings the classroom into the real world.

“The sum is more powerful than the parts”

Back in 2008, Voigt interviewed at IU Southeast for a fill-in gig teaching advertising and public relations classes. It was made clear to her that a search for a permanent position was underway, and her role was strictly temporary.

“It’s now 2017,” Voigt said. “And as you can see, I’m still here.”

Over the past few years, she has helped to create the degree program in strategic communication―“stratcom” for short―which prepares students for careers in this demanding field with courses in public relations, advertising, marketing, media planning, persuasion, consumer culture and more.

Along the way she has picked up four nominations for the Distinguished Teaching Award, served on two panels for The Common Experience and the new Adjunct Scholars Conference, and garnered coverage in The Huffington Post for a persuasive speaking class project she had initiated.

It’s hard to believe that this is her second career.

The first one began in a classroom at New Albany High School, where the New Albany native, then 17 years old, was piqued by a chapter in a compulsory English course on organizational communication. She followed that interest to a bachelor’s degree in public relations at Western Kentucky University, and straight into a position as PR coordinator with Keep Evansville Beautiful, a small nonprofit in that city.  Here she learned how to use messages to build relationships on a shoestring budget—or no budget. Before long, she accepted a salaried position as brand manager for Clark Memorial Hospital, writing press releases and building community relations.

Then came her epiphany, while listening to a pitch from an ad agency employing an integrated marketing communications approach. The brave new world of IMC opened up before her.

“The industry was changing, and I was right in the middle of it,” Voigt said. “When you integrate PR, advertising, promotion, brand identity and consumer profiling, the sum is so much more powerful than the parts.”

This new path took her first to an account management team at Power Creative and from there to Group Nine, a full-service marketing-public relations-advertising boutique agency, where as vice president and eventually part owner she crafted complete integrated campaigns for clients ranging from Jewish Hospital to Edwards Motorsports, focusing ever more keenly on building strong brands.

“For ten years I did it all, from conception to roll-out,” Voigt said.

“It” is shorthand for a slew of activities that included overall development of integrated campaigns, perception studies, copywriting, art direction, ribbon cuttings, ad placement, and production assistance for broadcast, print, audio, video and web campaigns.

Among. Other. Things.

That mastery of strategic thinking and comprehensive grasp of brand development and marketing mechanics were to play a key role in the next chapter of Voigt’s career: teaching.

A master of metaphor

Voigt teaches branding. It’s an entity that slaps us in the face every moment of every day, and yet remains shrouded in mystery. One of Voigt’s singular gifts is her talent for dispelling that mystery with diamond-cut definitions, endless real-life examples seemingly on speed-dial and metaphors that actually work.

“Your brand is how the world sees you,” Voigt said, distilling the essence of the overarching concept. “From that flows the identity, the image and the personality, eventually becoming your promise to the rest of the world.”

The job of the stratcom expert in brand management is far deeper than coming up with a logo. To Voigt, it’s more akin to parenting.

“Like a child, the brand grows and changes over time, has to be nurtured and disciplined and has to have guidance from the people in charge of caring for it,” Voigt said.

The best stratcom professionals come to understand the brands they nurture as quasi-living organisms, and Voigt is careful to include responsibility as a core concept in her teaching. Selling is only part of strategic communication. There are other aspects that speak to the values, ethics and character of the organization. Like people, brands exist in time and space. They have ups and downs, successes and crises, world championships and bad hair days. They have identity and purpose beyond packaging. And they are citizens with real life impacts in the communities they serve. Building students into “strategists who get that” is the purpose of this four-year program.

It starts with a simple proposition.

“Everything can be branded, and every brand has a problem,” Voigt said.

Solving that problem with communication is the raison d’étre of Voigt’s profession, and the focus of her teaching.

One of Voigt’s favorite metaphors is the bow tie that symbolizes the workings of IMC. Essentially the tie consists of two funnels on their sides, one gathering information on audiences, mapping competition, and refining goals and objectives as it narrows to the knot in the middle, where a definitive message or strategy is adopted. On the other side, the message is delivered through a widening array of channels that includes earned media, digital, social and traditional media campaigns, sales promotions, special events and more.

Understanding the overarching concept in college is one thing. Applying it in the real world is another. From Day One, Voigt works to put the concepts to work in the context of the real world.

As professor, Voigt imports her professional experience directly to the classroom, guided by a very simple premise.

“Nothing in a textbook can prepare a student for those situations that tend to define common strategic communication challenges,” Voigt said.

That premise is built of the realities of deadlines, pressure, overtime, writer’s block, failure, and teamwork.

Those realities help to temper the bold schematic constructs of her field, delivering the proverbial grain of salt.

“When I blend the concepts, constructs and theories inherent in strategic communication with practical examples, students can actually see the discipline in action,” Voigt said.

Her classroom approach blends lectures, interactive discussions and demonstrations with collaborative activities in which students are involved in models that mimic the actual industry, such as the structure of an ad agency, resulting in the production of portfolio-quality materials and exercises in pitching their campaigns.

As good as it is, Voigt knows this is still one step removed from the reality she seeks to prepare her students for.

“Students who do not have practical experience are going to have a very hard time convincing an employer that they can do this stuff,” Voigt said.

So she pushes her students to seek out as many internships as possible, wherever they may be, at whatever level in the strategic communication structure of an organization. To add impetus to the process, she strongly encourages students to take advantage of a three-credit hour internship offered as an elective, working with IU Southeast’s Career Development Center to find partners in the community who can be counted on to deliver solid challenges and monitor progress.

Coaching the individual

Another innovation that helps Voigt reinforce the connection to the real world is the coaching model.

In contrast to training, coaching does not try to qualify students to fit a pre-existing niche. It seeks instead to support the innate gifts of differing talents and learning styles.

“What I do in using the coaching model is help students build on their strengths, inherent to their interests, personality, and where they want to take this career,” Voigt said. “I coach students not to undergo a wholesale personality change, but to embrace their individual sense of self – personality, perspectives, diversity — and bring that individuality to the strategic communication academic environment.”

Concretely, Voigt uses rubrics and grading scales as wayposts along the learning journey. Students are not graded just on what they have achieved, but on how significant that achievement was to them, and what kind of effort was involved in their accomplishment.

The result is the trust and camaraderie of TEL 440―a room full of mature, confident individuals unafraid to share their individual perspectives in the pursuit of deeper insight.

This mirrors the real world of strategic communication, in which practitioners function with open-ended job descriptions in organizations that prize their ability to expand their capacities in response to new challenges. Preparing students to succeed in this environment is Voigt’s goal.

“The profession is comprised of so many different personality types, yet is marked by everyone able to contribute in a meaningful way,” Voigt said. “This dynamic is present throughout their entire experience, from the classroom to the internship, to the workplace.”

Different drummers

Voigt’s industry experience weaves its way through lectures and projects. Some of that experience yields viewpoints that are decidedly contrarian, challenging students to question conventional wisdom by trusting their own judgment and weighing the contributions of different drummers.

Voigt subjects her own conclusions to constant revision, making it a point to follow the work of industry mavericks like West Cost innovator Sasha Strauss and iconoclast Bob Hoffman.

She inoculates students with an informed skepticism toward bandwagons and bright shiny objects—be they digital pop-ups, pre-roll video or cable TV. This is especially important in a sector that prizes freshness and innovation, and in which clients can easily be tempted to throw all their marketing muscle behind one tactic. For Voigt, the key to success in brand management is the integration of multiple channels to present a multitude of touchpoints and to tell a deeper, more nuanced story that will anchor the brand in the hearts, minds and lives of consumers.

“Our industry pros tend to get so hung up on delivery systems—TV, cable, print, radio, billboard, transit, digital, social, SEM, SEO—that we tend to forget what is at the heart of good brand strategy: great brands with great messaging,” Voigt said.

Relationships are everything

In pressing her students to adapt and flourish in a world of relentless change, Voigt is careful to anchor her message to a fundamental verity of the business.

“Relationships are absolutely everything.”

This applies to her own relationship to her students. Not only does she closely monitor their academic development and internships, she stays in touch after graduation as a career coach, continuing to lend expertise where needed.

It also applies to the relationship of her students to their chosen field. In Voigt’s view, communication itself creates a bond between people, and on this bond all trust is founded.

“Never think of your consumer or stakeholder as a nameless, faceless entity,” Voigt said. “At the end of the day, these are real people with real wants and needs and interests and motivations. It’s our job to strategically communicate directly with them.”

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