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JarenWilkey/Byu, BYU
BYU students participate in a water-balloon fight July 23, 2010. The BYU Ad Lab won a top advertising award for the video, competing against professional-level marketers.

What began as the world's largest water-balloon fight has evolved into an award-winning production, which has provided students with opportunities

That might typically be expected of more-seasoned professionals, fully integrated into the "real world" of advertising.

However, BYU's Ad Lab is blurring that line between on-campus theories and off-campus practice.

The organization recently became the first-ever student-operated advertising agency to win an award from One Show Entertainment, an award show devoted to honoring the best in the industry from all over the world for producing effective and entertaining brand messages, according to its website.

Competing against the likes of Toyota, Scope and Sony Electronics, among other media professionals, the Ad Lab — teamed up with ad agency McCann Erickson — won a "Bronze Pencil" in the competition's music category for putting together last summer's record-setting water balloon fight on BYU's campus and filming a music video.

"It's a big deal any time you win an award of any sort — student or professional," said Scott Stevens, the lab's copywriter. "To win a professional award shows the level the BYU advertising program is at … (and that) we can produce students that show … we're on the same-level playing field. It shows recruiters what we can do — something big — not just mock campaigns."

Stevens, along with BYU Ad Lab Director Jeff Sheets and three other students that were involved, received the award in Los Angeles earlier this month.

He said the group flew out the morning of the show, not quite knowing how to dress or what to expect. They ended up spending the day with those invited to the award show — including ad execs, filmmakers, cinematographers, producers and other big names with predominantly inconspicuous public presences, due to the industry's behind-the-scenes type of work.

According to Stevens and company, many of the professionals were surprised to learn college students still in school were very much a part of the evening's award ceremony, describing how simultaneously amazing and humbling it was to be in the same vicinity as so many famous brands and campaigns.

"The difference [with the Ad Lab] is that we get to work with real clients and do actual projects," Stevens said, describing why he thinks BYU secured the Bronze Pencil at the event. "In a classroom setting, most of the time you have unlimited budgets and resources … and it's mostly just brainstorming. We get to work with actual people. It prepares us for the real world and real-world problems."

McKay Hathaway, the Ad Lab's creative director who handles the more artistic side of the client projects, said as soon as it was announced they would be involved in a music video, he knew right away it would be a worthwhile project.

After brainstorming and deciding on some concepts, Hathaway said they pitched the idea to McCann Erickson and featured musician Kyle Andrews who loved it and quickly were on board with the campaign for Holiday Inn.

He said he knew the idea for a huge-scale water balloon fight would cause a stir online and demand publicity, so the members of the Ad Lab — in conjunction with BYU's film department and enrollment committee who were looking to spark enthusiasm for spring/summer terms — orchestrated a world-record battle with 4,000 students launching over 120,000 balloons into the air while Andrews strummed his guitar.

"We filled water balloons for 48 hours straight," Hathaway said. "If we weren't going to do it, nobody else was. We just kept trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Luckily, their efforts paid off and — along with a viral online video — those involved have made a splash on the national advertising scene.

"I just hope that me and my team have done our part to give back to the lab [and] get more business in the future," Hathaway said. "We want to keep getting bigger, better clients. A lot of what the Ad Lab has been able to do has been based on what previous students have done there. A lot of big famous agencies are coming to BYU to recruit now. Hopefully they [future students] can get the Gold [Pencil] at One Show."

Right now the students are involved in a Gatorade campaign and look to continue to set new standards in the future, creating an avenue to secure more employment opportunities.

"The Ad Lab has been the biggest and most important part of my education here at BYU," Hathaway said. "I couldn't do anything better than to prepare me for a future job."