Ideas, insights and inspirations.

Communicating before, during and after a capital campaign requires the kind of symphonic thinking that author Daniel Pink explores in A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Strategic visions and campaign priorities can quickly deconstruct into campaign inventory and itemization — losing all connection to a larger and more compelling story about why a college matters and to the invitation for how donors might connect their singular sense of purpose to something larger. It’s not a matter of longer versus shorter content, but a question of what Pink calls the “relationship between relationships.” Pink talks of the three types of people that thrive when asked to overlay little and big pictures. Boundary Crossers: comfortable with abstraction, they understand how a concept like regulation can inspire donors to support the training of future financial accountants who will police insider trading and osteopathic doctors equipped to ease an epidemic of diabetes. Inventors: able to project new … Continue reading

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A familiar Chinese proverb instructs: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” The current situation in higher education defies that enduring wisdom. Change arrived suddenly, with little regard for institutional history or might. In this respect, all colleges stand on relatively common ground. All college presidents, to a degree, have become new college presidents. It might be tempting in this moment of great uncertainty to think that successful colleges/presidents will be those that summon deeper reserves of managerial will or command with greater “corporate turnaround” intensity. More likely, how you and your college navigates this public health crisis and its aftermath will come down to something as fundamental — albeit elusive — as how effectively and artfully you communicate. Every college has crisis communications plans in place, and these plans have served everyone — especially students — well through the initial weeks and months of this crisis. We know that eventually, the urgency of this moment will give way … Continue reading

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A colleague of mine spoke a phrase several months ago that won’t stop ringing a clear and undeniable truth in my ear. After I showed him video from a flash mob brand launch, he said, “I hate that kind of fake energy.” That bell rang again for me this week as imposter birthday greetings between dropping through my apartment door mail slot. Nice to hear from you, chiropractor I saw once and then ran from in horror. You too, hair stylist who binges a little too hard on caffeine and can’t stop her scissors from shaking. Welcome, dentist who bought one of my best friend’s once-thriving practice only to run it into the ground with incompetence. And let’s not forget you good neighbor State Farm agent who ceaselessly tries to upsell me renters insurance no matter how often I refuse. Anyone with access to a birthdate now feels emboldened to enter your private space without so much as the courtesy of knocking; to pose as a kind of trusted, intimate friend knowing full well … Continue reading

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You know, the creative business is an odd bird. Anyone who has a creative bent knows what I mean. My uncle was a welder but when he came home, he was welding crazy little metal sculptures, (which later on became crazy big metal sculptures) transferring what he did at work, welding, into art… his art. The tension between mind (his working as a welder) and heart (his desire to create) did exist. At the time, I didn’t really didn’t understand how a welder could be a sculptor, but I do remember his enthusiasm for doing it. For him it fit…being a welder and an artist. An inner drive to create and to make. He resolved the tension within. Pure happiness. Oftentimes throughout my career I have been asked how we, as designers, arrive at the solutions we present. How do we arrive at solutions that speak directly to the mind and hearts of our clients. Much like my Uncle Jim, … Continue reading

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I enjoyed a rare two-hour sit down recently with an entire marketing and communications team at a major university — and we never once talked about story. They, like many of you, spoke of feeling beleaguered by the demands of an unending news cycle, a tumbleweed website and the torture drip of “next in line” requests for this event press release or that event poster. I realized that as much as I believe in the power of good story telling, many in house departments have lost control of the conditions that might allow it to happen. In the spirit of giving, let’s all take a few minutes and give ourselves the gift of a good story.  I found a couple of recent examples from higher education — reminders that the mission of our college and university communications efforts is not to meet every trumped-up deadline, but to help make a lasting difference. As TV writer Steven Moffat says: “We’re all stories, in the end.” … Continue reading

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We recently met around the conference table at Elliance to discuss the pros/cons of pursuing an RFP opportunity —  a major state research university wanting to sharpen its brand focus and tell a better capital campaign story in order to raise a nice round $1 billion dollars. Needless to say, with that kind of money on the table, stakes are high — for the customer, of course, but also for Elliance. Although the four senior people around the table could claim a combined 70-plus years of higher education marketing and higher education branding experience, none of us had ever worked on a capital campaign of this magnitude. The RFP spelled it out clearly: “significant demonstrable, direct work experience and expertise in the field of fund raising consulting and projects related to fund raising for institutions of higher education is essential.” My colleagues read this as a well-manned checkpoint and major obstacle. Their body language suggested skepticism and discouragement. I leaned … Continue reading

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In my experience, if you want to put your higher education brand to a quick and dirty reality check — what engineers call “stress and failure” analysis — there are two places to look. First, review any and all content that’s scored high enough to be placed in the feature area of your home page over the past six to 12 months. Does it consistently provide visitors compelling, living proof of what makes your particular approach to higher education distinct and worthy? Does it invite prospects to easily project themselves into the experience — a.k.a. does it advance the hero’s story, instead of simply spouting an institutional claim? Finally, does it overachieve as content — by delighting, stirring or otherwise inspiring our prospective hero? A second “stress and failure point” involves the campus tour — where well-intended student guides and admissions counselors often receive little or no training in how to translate a brand line or position into tangible examples … Continue reading

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Colleges, and those charged with articulating why institutions matter, seldom lack for words… yet rarely learn to speak their school’s one true voice. Why so? In my experience, it has to do with how comfortable any of us can be in that stage before sudden insight arrives — in sitting with “not knowing.” I like what Richard Saul Wurman wrote in his introduction to Information Architects. You’re supposed to look smart in our society. You are supposed to gain expertise and sell it as the means of moving ahead in your career. That is where the rewards are supposed to come from. Of course, when you sell your expertise, by definition, you’re selling from a limited repertoire. However, when you sell your ignorance, when you sell your desire to learn about something, when you sell your desire to create paths to knowledge, when you sell your curiosity — you sell from a bucket with an infinitely deep bottom. My bucket … Continue reading

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While we heed one alarm after another signaling the decline of higher education as we know it (brick and mortar campuses made irrelevant by more, better and cheaper online courses and degree programs) a counter revolution can be seen and heard, in the form of heaving equipment digging foundations, paving roads and pouring fresh concrete. A new book from the Brookings Institution Press, The Metropolitan Revolution, explores in detail how cities and metros are “fixing our broken politics and fragile economy.” Not surprisingly, colleges play an increasingly active and vital role in the revolution. All cities thrive today thanks in large part to concentrations of land, people, investment capital, talent, amenities, ideas and innovation. Colleges and universities provide many of these key ingredients. Authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley describe a variety of “anchor plus” innovation districts with major higher education and academic medical center tenants.  The paradigm traces to the 1980s when research powerhouse MIT first joined with developer … Continue reading

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Mr. Gilka, Director of Photography at National Geographic, recently passed away. He was adored, feared and respected – all at the same time. Two quotes from his Remembrance in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine stood out. “He pinpointed talent like a heat-seeking missile, assembling a team that would bring the excitement, immediacy and candor of photojournalism to the pages of the magazine.” And “Gilka wasn’t looking for photographers. He was looking for storytellers.” RIP Mr. Gilka. The world will miss you. Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic. Elliance is fortunate to be the home of some of the most talented people I have met in my life. I pray they live long healthy lives bestowing their gifts to our valued clients and to each other.

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