About Professor Nancy Tag: Nancy R. Tag is the Program Director of the Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) Master of Professional Studies at The City College of New York. She is also a full-time BIC Professor and serves as an advisor to students of the Management/Planning track of BIC. Prior to her work at The City College of New York, Professor Tag taught advertising methods and principles to potential art directors, copywriters, and design managers at the Parsons School of Design, and received the Henry Wolf Award for Teaching Excellence twice for her work with students.

As an active creative director and writer residing in New York City, Professor Tag has travelled from Toronto to Tokyo, working on projects as diverse as the Globe and Mail, Foster’s Ale and Yamagataya Nori. She has also held several agency positions, including on Dentsu’s New York Board of Directors and as Creative Director of Canon, Shiseido, JVC, Noritake and other accounts. Among her numerous industry awards, she has two TV commercials in the permanent collection of advertising at the Museum of Modern Art.

Her first commercial was a Christmas special for Folgers that ran every December for nearly twenty years and her recent book, Ad Critique, is a landmark textbook that teaches both creative and corporate professionals how to effectively develop and critique ingenuity in advertising.

Professor Tag holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The City College of New York’s Master of Professional Studies in Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Professor Tag] BIC is the only graduate program that teaches branding and integrated communications in an integrated and holistic way. And what I mean by that is we teach students how to use multiple media channels and an interdisciplinary approach to create a cohesive brand identity for organizations.

Branding is defined as determining the character, history or narrative, and mission of an organization, as well as its values, and then projecting that effectively to target audiences. And how we achieve both of these aims–defining an organization’s identity and communicating it to the public–is through integrated communications. Integrated communications is the use of multiple media channels to develop a unified message. So the use of paid, earned, shared, and owned forms of content in order to communicate brand value. When an organization wants to amplify its value to its consumers and stakeholders, it needs to do it in a coordinated, integrated way, utilizing multiple forms of communication. We try to encourage our students to move away from discipline-specific thinking–for example, thinking strictly in terms of public relations, or strictly in terms of advertising or social media. It’s not specifically about advertising, or promotion, or PR. It is about building relationships for branding and figuring out value, and then how do you do that. You do that through integrated communications.

Students enter the program in one of three tracks (Account Management & Planning, Creative, and Public Relations), but they begin their studies in a discipline agnostic way by collaborating in four foundational courses: Research and Awareness, Strategy and Measurement, Idea Development, and Brand Experience.

The first core course, Research and Awareness, teaches students how to conduct communications research and apply it to communications initiatives that motivate audiences, provide valuable information, and drive brands. As an advanced communications professionals, our students need to understand how to conduct and leverage research in their workplace. They need to understand how people develop awareness, and through what media they learn about the world around them, learn what to value, etc. They need to understand the consumer and what he or she needs. What kind of research is needed in a branding and integrated communications environment? How can you learn about the interests, desires, and ethics of your target audience, and how can you promote consumer awareness of certain brands and the values they represent?

For the next core course, Strategy and Measurement, in a world where media channels are exploding–if you don’t think strategically, then you run the risk of just acting randomly, or reacting instead of being proactive. Regardless of whether it is now or 30 years from now, you are still going to want to anchor anything you do in a clear strategy. To do this, you must know the core communications strategies that exist and stand the test of time, and understand the distinction between different types of strategies, such as corporate communications strategies versus a creative advertising strategy or a public education strategy. In this course, students learn the methods and principles necessary for building a strong brand and measuring audience response to brand messaging.

The course Idea Development focuses on conceiving of a story, developing it, and presenting it to your target audiences. How do your customers experience your story? What resonates with them? How do you transform messaging that is internal to a corporation into compelling public-facing content?

Some of the other courses, such as Research & Awareness and Strategy & Measurement are fairly internal. Whereas Idea Development is more external-facing focused. Typically, these are the content writers, art directors, videographers, etc. who design the messages that the public sees. We make all of our students do everything so that they understand all steps of the process. They get a foundational understanding of all areas of branding and marketing, and each one of them will find that one area resonates with them. And they take ownership of that role. But they also have to experience those other roles so when they sit down at the table, they understand who they’re sitting next to and how the whole process unfolds.

In the Brand Experience course, students study how consumers experience brands, at what point in the consumer journey they experience that brand’s story. It is a broad survey of all of the ways in which a consumer immerses him or herself in a story, and also teaches students about how to create a cohesive and engaging brand experience through digital, traditional, and social forms of content. Students also learn how to assess consumer engagement outcomes.

After the core courses, students take classes specific to their specialization, as well as electives according to their interests in the second and third semesters. The Account Management & Planning track has courses in Relationship Building, Consumer Behavior & Persuasion, and Internal Management. The Creative track has courses in Creative Concepts, Multi-Media Executions, and Design & Portfolio Development. The Public Relations track has courses in Branding Influentials, Internal Corporate Branding, and Public Relations Branding Campaigns.

In their specialization coursework, students get the opportunity to delve into the areas that resonated with them in the core classes. For example, our Consumer Behavior & Persuasion course examines the consumer journey more closely. Students in this course read and discuss seminal works in human psychology and connect the principles and concepts in these works to new technologies and current trends in consumer research, content development, and media management. Our Creative Concepts course is a hands-on course for students interested in creative persuasive print advertising and other compelling campaigns using the print medium, while Internal Corporate Branding explores how communication leaders can optimally engage employees in the brand development process. Our electives cover topics in digital integration and integrated communications, leadership and ethics in communication, native advertising, and advanced strategic media.

After their core and specialization coursework, students come back together as a cohort to work in cross-disciplinary teams for paying clients. Students must develop and defend a portfolio in order to graduate, and they must rethink and evaluate their projects through a professional lens, reinforcing the skills and knowledge acquired through the program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The curriculum for your program is unique in its requirement that students take two Convergence Workshops/Practicums. Could you elaborate on these two workshops, and how they allow students to engage in real agency work in branding and integrated communication?

[Professor Tag] Unlike programs that have a single capstone, BIC students take two consecutive convergence workshops in their final year. In the fall semester, students work in fully functioning, cross-disciplinary communications teams on a mission based project for a non-profit organization. Limitations and relationships in the non-profit space are explored as teams develop their own strategic and organizational approaches to campaign development.

In the spring semester, the same teams tackle a project for a paying corporate client. Building on the last capstone, students now apply their skills and knowledge to a more complex challenge as outlined by the client brief and budget. Because the assignments are based on an industry-based project, how students achieve their goals will vary from semester to semester. The semester culminates in a client pitch in which judges determine which project best delivered on the brief. Both capstones often yield portfolio quality work that many students then develop further for use in their Portfolio Defense prior to graduation.

Our goal for these two capstone practicum courses is for the client to have a product where they feel like the work itself could actually be used. We ask them to pay for it, and I think that changes the relationship between the client and the students, the type of work that the students deliver. Having the client pay for a product makes them more invested in the outcome, and the fact that they have skin in the game makes them hold students to a standard that then becomes an added learning benefit for the students.

The project that students engage with for both the non-profit client and the corporate client vary every year, based on the clients’ needs and goals. For example, last year we worked with Columbia Children’s Hospital as our non-profit client. They had a big ask for students, which was to come up with an entire brand identity, and to help with the communications efforts to get doctors and staff buy in as well as philanthropic efforts to understand what Columbia Children’s Hospital is, and what its history and mission are.

A couple years ago, our client was the United Jewish Federation. They wanted to do an advocacy campaign, not specifically for UJF, but for teen depression and anxiety. And they were having trouble connecting it to UJF’s identity and mission. They needed to convey a reason why they were sponsoring this event, otherwise the message would untethered to their organization and would suffer from a public awareness/marketing perspective. So how the students made that connection was communicating how UJF is an organization that appreciates that the teenage years are formative from a religious and spirituality perspective. It is a period of time when many individuals form their religious identity. And at the foundation of this identity discovery was the stressors, questions, and anxiety that many teenagers face. UJA wanted to be a source of help, and so that was how we integrated the ideas of religion, stress, and stress management together.

For the corporate client in the spring, it is again based on what the client is interested in. The corporation pays up to $15,000 for students’ original research, content development, prints and mockups, media plans, and other concrete deliverables. For example, we had Universal Music Group and they came to us with ten up-and-coming artists whom they wanted to feature that year. They gave the student teams an option to select one of these artists, and to determine a yearlong launch campaign for him or her. Last year, we worked with Heineken, who wanted to create a campaign that would address a corporate social responsibility issue, which was drinking and driving.

Heineken wanted to become known as the alcohol manufacturer or beverage manufacturer that was really looking at corporate responsibility in this area in a very innovative way, because they like to stand for innovation. This year, we’re working with Diageo, and they are giving us a new rum to launch, which has just been released in 17 test markets. And so it is a year-long launch campaign for a spirit that incorporates content in paid, earned, shared, and owned channels.

So as you can see, the clients really dictate the solution they’re looking for, while I guide them to make sure that the project parameters exercise every aspect of the concepts and skills we teach here. What I mean by this is, I do not want a client to come to us and say, “Redesign the packaging.” I’ll say, “Well, that’s not really what we do here. We’re not about product design. We’re about communications. If you can give us a communications challenge that will enhance brand value, we can help you. Whatever your business challenges, we will give you a communications solution that not only solves the business problem, but that enhances your brand value.” Because that is what we teach here–if you’re solving the problem through communication, you have to do it in a way that enhances brand value.

That is really where the power is in the communication space right now: making sure that brand value is clear and meaningful to the consumer. And so we do that with integrated communications. So if we do not close the loop on brand value, then we are not delivering what we teach in the program. So in the end, that’s the parameter that I give all the clients, and I usually work with them on the brief. I tell them, “Here are the deliverables that I think we can provide based off of your needs and objectives. I’ll sit down with each client to make sure we give them what they want, while also creating a meaningful educational experience for the students, and delivering on the program’s values.

Reinforced learning on real-life projects gives students the chops to take on nearly any professional communications challenge upon graduation. Alums at high-level agencies and businesses often cite the capstone experiences for preparing them for the industry.

Here are some selected comments from clients from the past:

“Participating in the BIC Capstone was an incredibly rich and memorable experience. Having an opportunity to review and hear ideas from passionate and driven Grad Students was refreshing and thought provoking. The immense effort taken by the students to create diverse, rich, and unique content while trying to stay true to the brief provided was clear and a good way to get a fresh perspective. It was a great experience and an honor to participate in the program.” – Katharine Preville, Heineken® Brand Manager

“It goes without saying that I’m seriously impressed with the output of your students. It is no exaggeration and to make abundantly clear the raw abilities and sensibilities displayed by the people presenting. Many thanks for giving us the opportunity to participate.” – Ray Mia, Universal Music Group

“Working with the BIC program, staff, and students was incredible. By the end of the semester, we were left with concrete and creative ideas that we are able to bring to life. Their work was inspired and they truly listened to what we, as the clients, wanted. Every moment that we spent with the BIC program was worth our time. We wish we could do it every year!” – Pamela Schuller, Here.Now. Program Manager, Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services

“The BIC presentations were better than some agency presentations I’ve seen!” – Diana Rojas, Vice President, Brand Development, Univision Communications

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students must complete and defend a Senior Thesis that is comprised of a printed and electronic portfolio. Could you please elaborate on the Thesis, its required deliverables, and the steps students must take to complete it?

[Professor Tag] Throughout their second year, students work independently to take their best class and self-generated projects to a higher level for inclusion in their portfolios. Work is reframed, re-developed, and seen through the students’ particular professional lens. In the fourth semester, students may opt to take the Portfolio Thesis elective for extra support in the development of their portfolio.

Throughout the year, there are scheduled group critiques from BIC faculty, industry professionals, and recruiters to help students streamline their work into a professional portfolio. In March, the unique BIC PiP Recruitment Event allows industry professionals to review Portfolios-in-Progress, giving students critical feedback before taking part in a weeklong Portfolio Bootcamp to drill down on both the substance and style of their portfolios. Each night, a new set of professionals come to campus to offer up their expertise.

As a degree requirement, all BIC students must present their BIC portfolio to a panel of professional jurists on a designated day scheduled during graduation week in late May. Presentations are 25 minutes long–18 minutes to present with 7 minutes to defend. Students’ advisors must sign off on all portfolios before students receive a slot in the Portfolio Defense.

Final portfolios must include a minimum of 4 projects that best showcase a student’s area of professional interest in the area of branding and integrated communications. Projects should detail process, product, and personality – as well as measurement of success. Portfolios are presented in a digital format that enhances their content and can live on the Internet for recruitment purposes and to showcase in the public sphere. In addition to submitting a live link, students are required to design and create a PDF version of the portfolio itself for off-line viewing.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The City College of New York’s Master of Professional Studies in Branding + Integrated Communications program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?

[Professor Tag] Here at the BIC program, the onus is on us as a professional program to make sure that our students are constantly engaged with the industry and are delivered opportunities to get jobs. Our Portfolio-in-Progress event is one of the unique ways in which we ensure students leave our program with concrete and compelling evidence of their qualifications and experience. We also bring in recruiters about two months before students graduate as opposed to once they’ve graduated, so that they can connect with students and even see their portfolios before they are finalized and presented. Those connections can help students find jobs more quickly once they graduate.

So what that does is it allows students to network through less high-stakes encounters with recruiters and people in the industry. So the students can come to recruiters and say, “Here, I’m working on my portfolio, what do you think?” And the recruiters feel like they’re actively investing in the talent rather than just seeing the talent. Students can reach out to these contacts months later and say, “You gave me some great advice on my portfolio, would you like to see how it wrapped up?” So I believe that we have high value recruitment opportunities.

While The City College of New York has a career center on campus, our students tend not to use it–it’s usually used primarily by undergraduates. What we do have, however, is networking built into the program at almost every stage. We’re here in New York City, so it’s easy relative to areas that are less metropolitan and with less of a media, arts, and advertising scene. Students are required to attend at least two New York City communications conferences and write up their experiences to share the information with their peers, and we do that for a number of reasons. One is we want our students to understand that in order to survive in this industry, they need to remain current, and it is not enough to just say I have got a diploma. We want our students to develop the muscle to constantly go to the wealth of opportunities that they have here in New York City, so we make that a requirement.

Furthermore, a majority of BIC’s faculty are adjuncts, by design. BIC’s New York City location in the world’s media and communications capital gives us unparalleled access to industry leaders and cutting edge practitioners. That means amazing adjuncts, guest lecturers, and speakers are just a subway ride away. On any given night on campus, BIC classrooms sound like mini-TED Talks. Why learn from a dated textbook when you can learn from high level professionals?

We are so fortunate to have faculty who are also practitioners. It’s a bit of a funny origin story, but our faculty, because they also work in industry, helped with building the branding of our very program. We had the money to pay for professional branding, but the original branding materials were done by me, with the help of adjuncts who are super invested and who had the expertise to help me refine our content, designs, and messaging.

We do not have desks and offices and nameplates, like you might think from the depth and breadth and quality of our program, but we have such a huge community of people who are so invested in our success. And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that we are in New York City and when I set out to design the program, I talked to a lot of people in the communications industry. And they all responded enthusiastically, because there was nothing like the BIC program previously. And it was unbelievable how many heavyweights signed on to be a part of the BIC board. So many big names in advertising, communications, and marketing wanted to belong to something like this. So I rely on them very heavily, too. I think that accounts partly for why the program looks so rich and dynamic.

I have a really nice stable team of adjuncts and board members who contribute on a substantive level. My research professor, for example, is the EVP of strategic research at Y&R [Young & Rubicam]. Because of her, I have access to all of these awesome databases that, without her help, would not have been possible.

BIC’s location allows us to provide astonishing mentoring, interning, and networking opportunities. For example, each fall, BIC introduces its latest batch of brilliant “BICsters” to the industry at our annual Mix + Mentor. Sponsors have included Y&R, R/GA, Ketchum, and McCann Erickson. Business-like, but cocktail casual, the mixer creates a platform for industry movers and shakers to meet and shape the future. Industry professionals, consultants, and recruiters from agencies offer encouragement, exchange business cards, and make a commitment to be a mentor.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for The City College of New York’s Master of Professional Studies in Branding + Integrated Communications program?

[Professor Tag] As a branding program, BIC considers the application a bit of a branding exercise. Candidates should submit work that reveals their ability to connect the dots, think strategically, and write compellingly. Ideal candidates select work that tells the story of who they are and shows off the skills they’ll be contributing to the program. If they have worked on an impressive group project in college or on the job, applicants should include that, but also provide a written case study of their project with its strategic goals, their role, and the measurement of its success.

Those applying to the Creative specialization must also submit a spec portfolio of two print campaigns. Candidates may include other creative work that they have done such as logo or editorial design, a blog, or creative short story; exhibiting work in an online platform that shows off all aspects of their creative side is great. BIC is looking for a candidate’s ability to think conceptually and to be able to carry through and execute.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The City College of New York’s Master of Professional Studies in Branding + Integrated Communications program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Professor Tag] As the only MPS program to teach branding and integrated communications in an integrated way, BIC is a terminal, professional degree – like an MBA – that can turbo-charge your career. Launched in 2013, BIC has already a long list of alumni successes. One student entered the BIC program as an Account Executive at Y&R and left as a Copywriter at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY and, ultimately, got onto 4A’s Advertising 100 List (which also featured two of BIC’s Board members). Other grads have gotten jobs as Account Supervisor at 360i, Digital Media & Graphic Arts Manager at the NAACP, Copywriter at BBDO, Art Director at Droga5, Marketing Communications Manager at NBCUniversal, Creative Insights Strategist at The New York Times T Brand Studio, Digital Marketing Manager at American Girl, Account Supervisor at McGarryBowen, Senior Account Executive at BerlinRosen, Digital Marketing Analyst at Hunter Public Relations, Brand Analyst at Future Brand, Digital Strategy and Design Associate at RooneyPartners, Market Research Strategist at Instapanel, Associate Procurement Business Partner at Nestle, Art Director at Y&R, Senior Art Director at DDB, Research Associate of Branding and Insights Group at Cohn & Wolfe, Account Manager at Vox Media, Art Director at True North, Senior Project Manager for Y&R, and Industry Value Advisor at SAP.

Thank you, Professor Tag, for your excellent insight into The City College of New York’s Master of Professional Studies in Branding + Integrated Communications!