university of tulsa logo

Branding professional Nick Barham shares industry insights

Nick Barham, right, with TU adjunct professor Bill Hinkle

After receiving his degree in English literature from The University of Oxford, Nick Barham did not want to move back in with his parents. He applied to several different advertising agencies, but only received a job offer from one. He accepted, and it has served him well. Barham is the global chief strategy officer for TBWA/Chiat/Day, a top-10 ranked global advertising agency. His position has allowed him to work with iconic clients including Converse, Disney, Airbnb, Netflix and Gatorade.

Barham said his liberal arts studies served him well because today his job entails “looking at the chaos of culture and turning it into simple stories for companies today.”

It’s all about understanding culture because “branding brings emotional values and human purposes to a company that are otherwise no more than a collection of assets,” he said.

With the recently renamed TU Brand Center, media studies Adjunct Professor Bill Hinkle and Director of School of Art Teresa Valero want to bring departments together in an interdisciplinary program that will helps students to broaden their focus and better incorporate advertising, public relations, digital media, graphic design and written and oral persuasion.

Companies are looking for employees who can put their own mark on the brand. Barham emphasized that having different expertise, backgrounds and personalities is important.

“Successful companies are those that allow different viewpoints to flourish simultaneously,” he said.  

Barham stressed, however, that advertising isn’t exclusively a creative job; and because of the frenetic pace, employees need to have a strong work ethic and be “responsive, reactive and comfortable with multiple unfinished projects.”

“To never feel finished can be destabilizing,” Barham confirmed. But, amidst the buzz of social media and 24-hour news, “it’s important to find a space to have time for personal thought.”

Barham finds his personal quiet time during long flights when traveling, by reading books — paper copies, not on his phone — and by spending time outside, which he admits “is easy to do when you’re on the West Coast.”

When Barham conducts interviews with young professionals and students, he wants them to have an opinion on advertising. Students should know a variety of brands, not just popular examples, and should be able to articulate why they do or do not like a brand’s work. Barham also stressed having a point of view about the world, because as he puts it, “ads are quite trivial” when looking at the bigger picture.

Two of Barham’s memorable interview candidates did just that. One young woman who was interviewing had written her final thesis on evolving masculinity and football. She got the job for the Gatorade campaign. For another, the man had taken a road trip across America after his college graduation; and he completed a series of interviews and filmed throughout the duration of his trip, which showed his interpersonal skills and film experience.

Most importantly Barham says, “I want you to be passionate, interested in culture. I would much rather have that than someone with a perfect GPA. It’s about how you think and see the world, and what you do with it.”