Kevin O'Neill's 'Creative Brain' class digs into the crucial emotions tied to advertising

By Georgie Silvarole

November 13, 2015

Newhouse professor Kevin O’Neill doesn’t just teach advertising. He teaches the emotions and motivations behind what makes advertising work. His unique approach—encouraging students to be sensitive and thoughtful about potential customers—resonates with students in such a way that many remember his class long after graduation.

Dominick Hadley ‘15 described O’Neill’s graduate class, The Creative Brain (ADV 615), as one of the most important parts of his Newhouse education. O’Neill, a professor of practice in the advertising program at the Newhouse School, pushes students to address human sociality and emotion by creating sympathetic and attentive advertising solutions — O’Neill taught him to think about what consumers need from a product, Hadley says.

“He humanizes the field,” Hadley says. “One of our assignments — we had to write a 30-second commercial for Listerine, the breath strips. And before we could even do that, we had to understand why do people use Listerine. Is it just because they don’t want their breath to be funky? Or is it a human need attached to that? And one of the things we came up with was that it allows you to be social. And humans need to be social.”

Kevin O'Neill has more than 25 years of experience in advertising. Photo by Georgie Silvarole

O’Neill, a professor of practice in the advertising program for the past eight years, was a writer and creative chief in the advertising world for 25 years, he says. As the faculty member directly responsible for the portfolio track of the graduate advertising degree, he teaches The Creative Brain each spring.

There are many sides to an advertising agency, O’Neill says: account managers, researchers, media buyers and creatives. Everyone in the business needs to be creative though, and ADV 615 aims to develop that connection between management and creatives in an advertising agency.

“The aim of that class is to make those future account managers the best partners a creative ever had,” O’Neill says. “It also takes on the historic divide that often exists between the creatives and the managers. They gotta be able to communicate and cooperate and collaborate.”

The graduate program at the Newhouse School is management-focused, and therefore not designed to produce creatives, O’Neill says. The portfolio development gives students a chance to flesh out those skills while they’re in school.

The Creative Brain forces students to develop solutions on a multitude of advertising fronts — television, print, outdoor and digital media are all reviewed and tackled during the three-credit course. Near the semester’s end, an interdisciplinary relationship between Newhouse and the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science poses a real-life challenge.

Hadley says being paired with an engineering student’s creation and developing a name, a logo, a marketing strategy, branding and advertising options for ADV 615 was one of the most valuable experiences he received during his time at Newhouse.

“I remember at the end they have this presentation where they showcase their product and I went. Immediately I walked up to the display case and the whole team was there — and I hadn’t met everybody. I walked up to one guy who didn’t know me and he was like, ‘Yeah, we have a cool product and these advertising students, they gave it a cool name.’ And he was really excited about it, and he didn’t know that I was the person who had came up with the name, the logo and the marketing strategy,” Hadley says. “We’ve done other campaigns for other clients in other classes, but this was a campaign that I actually felt like was going to be used.”

Hadley, now working for Carat in Los Angeles as an assistant media planner, says other assignments pushed students to think deeper about ads — O’Neill taught them how understanding human emotion and basic needs is crucial to successful product marketing.

Jonathan Papazides ’15 now resides in New York City and works as a digital media trader for Media iQ Digital. Keeping in touch with O’Neill has come easy, he says.

“He was always one of my favorite guys, my favorite professor at Newhouse, for sure,” Papazides says. “Just having so much experience, he’s definitely someone I know all of us respected. It was great to talk to him on a personal level too. He helps you whenever you need it and always provides great feedback — if you put the work in, he will make sure to do whatever he can so that it pays off.”

From bootcamp to The Creative Brain, O’Neill is a well-loved staple of the advertising program, Hadley says. His past experience and teaching confidence make him a respected and treasured friend and teacher, he says.

“You can’t not pay attention when professor O’Neill is speaking,” Hadley says. “He’s passionate about the subject matter and he lives out that passion every day in the classroom. You just can’t help but be engaged.” 

O’Neill credits the students in making the class interesting. Papazides, he says, emerged as a surprising talent when it came to creative work, and students like Hadley have made the engineering school collaboration a “home run.”

“They understand the demands — that’s the heart of the course,” O’Neill says. “What makes advertising agencies screamingly successful is when those two different kinds of people can collaborate.”

Story and photos by Georgie Silvarole, a junior newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.