Experiential Learning from Adv/PR Team Competitions Live on in Careers of Bill Gillespie’s Students

Pictured here with Dr. Gillespie, right, and Louisville advertising executive Gary Sloboda Advertising class team that placed first in Fall 2010 team competition (L-R): Miguel Reyes, Jessica Collins, Abby Watkins and Sean Rodgers.

As promised in the Summer-Fall edition of Insights magazine, here is the tribute to the late Communication & Media Studies professor William (Bill) L. Gillespie and the two unique partnerships – friendships really – that he had with two caring, giving professionals that benefitted hundreds of students who took Advertising 315 and Public Relations 415 over the past decade-plus.

Sadly this incredible streak of experiential learning came to an end when Dr. Gillespie died of a stroke on September 2, 2011. But, the the team competitions he collaborated on with Louisville advertising executive Gary Sloboda and Cincinnati communications executive Tim King provided GC students with lessons many will carry their rest of their careers.

First are fond memories from Sloboda and King, followed by comments from former students. Please add your own!

Gary Sloboda, Creative Director, Bandy Carroll Hellige Advertising, Louisville:

Bill Gillespie cared.

He cared about his role as a professor. He cared deeply about his students. He cared about giving his students the best classroom experience possible. He cared about his students as people. And he cared about the world. Because of this he had the ability to make you care about many of the same things he did.

I could see this in Bill from the very first time we met. I believe it was 1994, or maybe 1995. I was the Creative Director of a different advertising agency in Louisville than the one where I am currently a partner and Creative Director. One day Bill came by, introduced himself, and asked me if I would look at the student reports from his advertising class at Georgetown. I said that I would. After looking at the reports, I felt they were so bad, that I tried to avoid speaking with Bill again, as I didn’t want to offend him. The reports were not only bad, but as I told Bill later, the subject matter was so shallow, that I believed that it was a waste of the students’ time and effort.

After avoiding Bill for a few weeks and sending the reports back to him with no comment, he finally cornered me and got me to tell him exactly how I felt. His response was remarkable. Rather than being offended, he simply replied, “Help me make them better.” How could I refuse?

For the next 15, 16 years I worked with Bill every Fall to help his advertising class learn, grow and get a very real taste of what it’s like in the world of advertising.  Bill loved the class. He loved helping me select the task the students were to accomplish – the more challenging, the better. And, he really loved giving his students the full experience, especially bringing them to the agency every year for the winning presentations and judging.

Bill always encouraged me to be tough on the students – be fair, but candid, truthful and honest – even if it was a little tough to hear. Bill felt the students would learn more that way, and I agreed. We tried to make the experience as real as possible. One year, we even changed the presentations two days before the final pitches, causing the students to rework much of their presentations with little time – just like in the real world. The students grumbled, worked hard and pulled it off. Bill was especially proud that year, in fact, there were “Bravos” enough for everyone.

I truly enjoyed the class every Fall. The students were usually a joy to work with, but I especially looked forward to working with Bill every year. He was always so appreciative and so grateful of the time I spent, even though I got as much out of it as I gave, including a few star employees. Plus, I just loved to spend time with the guy and talk about anything and everything – his experience at the radio station, Burning Man, The Grateful Dead, students and experiences from the past years we both remembered.

Bill was unique, one-of-a-kind and someone I considered a friend. I will remember him often, kindly and usually with a smile on my face. He was a gentle soul. A spirited individual. And most of all, he cared.

Bravo to you, Bill, for all the students, classes and experiences we made better.

Tim King, Vice President, Corporate Communications and Investor Relations, The E.W. Scripps Co., Cincinnati, OH

Scripps VP Tim King, center, with winners of the Spring 2011 PR team competition (L-R): Taylor Vaughn, Shelby King, Ross Buskey and Tori Page.

What was appealing about the competition? There are two parts to this answer, and both are quite selfish. First, the few days a year I would spend on the Georgetown campus or on conference calls with the students were always among the best of any work year. I was able to escape the office grind for a few hours and spend time with these engaging students in a beautiful setting. So I always looked forward to the way the project would divert my attention from office pressures and allow me to focus on the students who were so energizing and so eager to learn.

But the one constant over the past decade — Bill Gillespie — was the reason to keep coming back. Working closely with Bill – including presenting a paper with him in Chicago in 2004 – will always be one of the treasured highlights of my career.

What were Bill’s strengths? It’s tough to list key strengths in a man with no weaknesses that were apparent to me. From my interaction with him, Bill was unfailingly brilliant, curious, gracious, hospitable, good-natured and good-humored. He was respected in the communications world, and it was easy to see why. 

Seth Flynn ‘04, Manager of Development Communications, UK HealthCare

With Dr. Gillespie, it was never about the classroom. It was always about firsthand experience. Like other classes, he gave the typical, theory-based lectures, assigned readings and papers, and tested us on the material, which was all great and he did an excellent job at it. More importantly, he always was a strong proponent of experiential learning. That’s why his advertising and public relations classes were dynamic and carefully fashioned to induce that type of learning environment.

Year after year, he brought in powerhouse, seasoned professionals from respective communications fields, who served as visiting professors. He knew that what we learned would be pointless without some real-world application. So, we learned by doing. We wrote news releases and media advisories. We drafted detailed communication plans and carefully itemized budgets. We were thrown curve balls, as he changed the assignment to include new elements that made us think, strategically, as well as work under pressure. All things I now experience as a communications professional. He knew what types of demands would be placed on us in the communications field.

I find it hard to even put into words what a great, powerful influence Dr. Gillespie was on my life. He was the first communications professors I met during a VIP day. I think I took every class he offered during my undergraduate years. The only time we ever had words was when he told me I was being lazy and could do better than the work he had just returned to me. I remember how angry I was that day. I left in huff. Not at him but at myself. I knew what he said was true, and it infuriated me to think that I had let Dr. Gillespie down. He challenged me in ways no other teacher did. He always made time for me, although I know he didn’t always have it. I constantly would seek him out for guidance and counsel. Never did the knowledge or words he impart disappoint. To this day, I often think about him as I am working on big projects. I owe my professional career to him and will never forget him – as a professor, as a character and as a friend.

What Dr. Gillespie did was prepare us for the future. His classes weren’t about studying for a test or drafting a paper. It was him supplying us with knowledge and necessary tools to achieve success. He would then create an environment in which we tested ourselves. Whether we succeeded or failed was up to us. Regardless of the outcome, we learned.

Holly Prather ’99, Vice President/Marketing for the Leadership Louisville Center

Dr. Gillespie’s classes were always lively and he continually worked to prepare us for the “real world” after college.  In Advertising class, his connection with Gary Sloboda, who was then with Doe-Anderson, added tremendously to our learning.  We teamed up to put together an advertising campaign and had the unique opportunity to pitch our work to Doe Anderson.  While intimidating to present to seasoned professionals, I came away with invaluable experience and knowledge of the marketing industry.  My team didn’t come away as winners, however I gained a great deal of knowledge of the necessity of research, critical thinking and creativity in the communications world.

Dr. Gillespie showed us through example the value of connections.  He never stopped talking about this and he continually brought professionals into the classroom via teleconference or in person.  His insistence on the class participating in professional organizations such as the Advertising Federation and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) played another significant role in my career.  Through networking and job shadow opportunities, I was able to connect with professionals in my chosen field and gain insight into the interviewing and hiring process. 

In fact, the class project and connections I gained as a result of Dr. Gillespie’s classes ultimately helped me land my first job after school.  In February 2000, I began my career in the public relations department at Doe Anderson. 

Jeremy Riess ‘98, Senior Art Director, Leap Frog Interactive of Louisville

Having Gary Sloboda, a creative director from one of the regions strongest advertising agencies critique, and provide an inside glimpse into real-world agency life was immensely responsible for solidifying my desire to pursue this career path.

I learned the value of surrounding myself with hard-working, ‘team-first’ colleagues with the same goal and same vision.  I learned that everyone has unique strengths and when those are joined together, great things can happen.

Ashley Ray Chatham ’07, External Affairs-Community Relations, Toyota Motor Manufacturing-KY

If I had to pinpoint one experience that most defined my career path, it would be my experience in COMM 315 and the opportunity to essentially intern with a respected ad agency (Louisville’s Bandy Carroll Hellige). This was the experience that taught me how to design a cover letter and resume… how to think outside the box… how to overcome the challenges of group work…  to always have a “plan B”… not to mention little things, like how to continue a presentation when someone’s cell phone rings (and they answer!). I wouldn’t have survived a week in my current position without these lessons.

I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but the opportunity to present in front of executives from BCH and Scripps (Scripps!) is a huge deal- not everyone gets that kind of face time with such respected professionals. And, not only were they present at the end of the semester (during our presentations), they gave us their phone numbers and email addresses, and shared feedback throughout the campaign design process. Students should be lining up for those types of experiences!

Allison Koch ‘07, Personalization Specialist, Greystone Communities at Masonic Homes of Kentucky

The experience of our PR class with Dr. Gillespie & Mr. King was priceless. I learned how to think and act quick on my toes, which is certainly something you have to do when you get in the real world (you can’t always have flashcards). I truly felt as though doing that project forced us to incorporate everything we’d learned in the Communications/Media Studies major, because PR involves a multitude of communication aspects. The pressure of presenting in front of real professionals, not just peers, opened my doors to more real-life experience, and forced me to put more intentionality behind the project. I think the biggest thing I learned, which I have carried with me through all my jobs to-date, is to always keep the focus on your target audience. It’s easy to just be very broad, and touch a large range of people. But when you focus on a key audience, you are more effective.

King taught us about a swot analysis, which I still also use to this day. It’s always important to consider not only your audience, but your competition and the strengths and weaknesses of it all.

The PR class taught us about team work, and forced us to use our leadership and collaborative skills we’d been taught over the years. Team work is something you can’t escape in the real world… and in a class like this, with a required group presentation, you can’t just pick up the slack from your teammates – you must encourage, empower, and motivate them to pick up their own slack so you present a prepared and united front.

This class also simply taught me about the PR professional and allowed me a look into what it would mean to follow this industry. It allowed me to broaden my horizons and thoughts on what I might want to do when I graduated.

Nina Clarke Iorg ‘05, Entertainment Manager for HGTV – Scripps Interactive, Knoxville

After taking Dr. Gillespie’s advertising class I knew this would be my career path.  He was one of those rare professors that used every method of teaching to reach each of his students individually. From the first day of class it was if it was the first day working at any advertising agency.  After completing the research, design, and presentation I felt like a had a real sense of what a career in advertising would be. Not only did Dr. Gillespie make learning enjoyable and challenging but he did a fantastic job of preparing me for my future in advertising.

Two years ago I was at a cross road in my career path and after months of consideration I kept going back to a lecture Dr. Gillespie had given me. He me told go after my dream company and work towards my dream job. Six months later I moved from Texas to Knoxville to begin working at Scripps Networks Interactive as the Shopping Manager for HGTV.com, fineliving, DIYNewtwork.com and HGTVPro.com. I now have moved on to be the Entertainment Manager for HGTV.com where I use every single skill I was introduced to in Dr. Gillespie’s class.

To say Dr. Gillespie’s classes affected my life would be an understatement and I am deeply sadden that future Georgetown College Students with not have the privilege to learn from him. His legacy lives on in all his students and he will be greatly missed.

Liz Stout ‘05, Brand Manager, Women’s Accessories, Ralph Lauren in NYC

I am extremely thankful for the time and attention that Dr Gillespie gave me while at Georgetown College.  When most were skeptical of my Fashion PR/Marketing dreams; it was Dr Gillespie who helped me to sharpen my skills, fine tune my resume and even write a recommendation letter as I ran off to the “big city.” It is because of teachers like him that I stand where I am today.

A LOT of time and effort went into that competition, probably as much research as my senior thesis and when we presented we has to be confident that we knew what we were taking about (company, statistics, etc)…I could compare that to any meeting I have today: “prepare your information and be confident when you present it.”

Brandi Sweeney ‘06, Director of Account Services, (California-based) Dreamentia, Inc.

Truthfully, I owe my career in marketing to Dr. Gillespie and his classes. Having the opportunity to learn from him and successful business leaders who coached our classes was an invaluable experience that largely inspired my career path and me personally. In fact, after graduating, I went to work with Gary Sloboda, who led the advertising class. I’ll never forget the call I made to tell Dr. Gillespie the news. He was so proud. I will always hold a special place in my heart for Dr. Gillespie and the lasting impact he has had and will always have on me and so many other students whose lives he touched. 

Ross Buskey ‘12

Dr. Gillespie’s COMM 415 class helped me take my competiveness from the field and apply it to the classroom. Working within my group revealed to me how significant each member was. We all filled a vital and integral role. Presenting in front of Tim King was intense and nerve wrecking, but my true colors shown through during the presentation. It reminded me a lot like being on “The Apprentice” and campaigning for Donald Trump.



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