CPCC, Wray Ward Embark on Creative Project

Erik Spanberg
Senior Staff Writer-Charlotte Business Journal

Building buzz on social media, producing video vignettes and coining new catch-phrases. Few people think of such skills when it comes to community colleges and companies joining forces to train workers.

Central Piedmont Community College and Charlotte ad firm Wray Ward, the top-billing agency in the city, hope to make the notion commonplace.

Recent changes at the agency -- Rob Horton is the new VP of client engagement, and Aaron Thornton assumes creative director responsibilities -- have coincided with a campaign to attract more homegrown talent. Horton came from Cleveland and Thornton from Dallas, but part of Thornton's role involves ensuring interns dabble in writing, designing and producing digital content, among other things.

Wray Ward has 70 employees. Jennifer Appleby, agency president, has steered the firm to more regional and national accounts, emphasizing expertise with accounts tied to companies involved in home décor, including skylights, lighting, flooring and fabrics. Along the way, she noticed more competition for the creative workers all ad agencies crave.

Locally and regionally, agencies fight over small pools of prospective employees. Appleby, drawing on community connections with CPCC, mentioned the dilemma and, eventually, was surprised to hear from acquaintances at the college that students with skills aimed at creative industries can also be found at CPCC.

Like many people, Appleby tended to think of the community college system in terms of technical and manufacturing training.The CPCC-Siemens partnership for advanced manufacturing offers a well-known example.

Or, as Melissa Vrana, CPCC assistant dean of arts, puts it, "People are more familiar with (training at the school for) heating and air conditioning. We offer so much people are not aware of. I have a lot of students interested in creative endeavors."

Now, Vrana and Appleby told me, CPCC and Wray Ward have established what Vrana calls "a much more intentional" partnership to move students into advertising and other creative jobs. Wray Ward has its first CPCC student working at the agency. Thornton, one of the agency's newly hired executives, hopes to increase the number of students at the agency to three or four at a time. The hope being that those relationships will lead Wray Ward and at least some of those students to stick together after graduation.

Graphic design, film editing, journalism and other classes can feed into creative professions, Vrana says. She points to students versed in social networking and marketing as potential candidates for agency jobs.

Thornton notes Wray Ward, like many agencies, is expanding its video and digital work for clients. Students can often have an influence on such projects because they are so immersed in the morphing, growing online media consumption and habits.

"If we train them, we have a better chance of keeping them," Appleby says. And she's looking for rivals to join the cause, telling me the industry benefits if and when more ad shops decide to help train and attract the next generation of workers instead of fighting for the same people again and again. "We have made a commitment to growing our talent."

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