S1:E24 Adam Durfee – Bridging theory and practical application

July 13, 2021 |  Students
31 min

Adam Durfee has founded and built a program using students to run a marketing agency hired by well-known businesses looking for a fresh perspective. The results? 100% job placement, a self-funded program, and plans for growth in the future.


Tyler Jacobson  0:01

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now let’s get into it. For LabChats today, we are joined by Adam Durfee with Y Digital Agency. Adam, you want to give yourself a real brief introduction and tell us what the heck is Y Digital Agency?

Adam Durfee  0:33

Certainly, and I appreciate you having me on here Tyler. So I’m Adam Durfee. I’m the managing director and founder of Y Digital Agency. I’m about a 10 year digital marketing, digital advertising professional, who a few years ago, recognized a need for digital marketing and digital advertising as a more individual niche to be brought into the higher ed space. So [I] worked with my alma mater, Brigham Young University, and started up a program here and that program is called Y Digital Agency now part of the reason that we are an agency is because we sort of brainstormed “How do we teach digital marketing and digital advertising?” Which is a pretty, a pretty fast moving fast adjusting field. How do you teach that in a higher ed-type space? Does this work in a classroom with curriculums that take years to update ultimately decided that would be pretty tough. So we wanted to create something where we could work with real clients, and work on real projects at the speed the industry moves at. So we have a system. We bring students in to work with us more like an on campus internship. And we work on real clients [and] real projects for real brands. So we work with Subaru, Marriott, Disney Feature films, the NBA, Mountain Dew, etc. Doing some pretty high level projects, we put the students in the driver’s seats, and help them help them, I guess, practice how to help them learn how all this works, and do some really good career prep for them.

Tyler Jacobson  1:57

Okay, so how, like, you just opened up a whole bunch of questions for me…how do you recruit people that they work with? Is this a credit course? Or is it more of an internship? How does that structure work?

Adam Durfee  2:12

Yeah, so the structure is really, really unique. It’s part of what makes us special. So this is a four credit opportunity with limited enrollment. So we have students who will take basic research classes, basic writing classes, basic media essentials and knowledge classes. They give them some basic skills and their standard classrooms. And then they apply for what works out to be the three credit internship concept. And if they’re accepted, they come into our space, we put them into student teams. So every student team is led by a student account executive, that’s a student who’s been in the program for at least one year already. So they have a lot of experience under their belts in the various service practices. We do SEO, content marketing, digital advertising, paid search, and social etc. And then there’s sort of mid-level management, we call those our assistant account executives our AA’s. They’ve been in the program, at least one semester, sometimes two, as well. And then some new students get distributed amongst these groups of experienced students. So we can kind of create a student mentoring-based concept. But it all is for credit. These poor students work their tails off or for just the same three credits that you might get for taking, I don’t know, bowling classes or something else.

Tyler Jacobson  3:18

So what services are you providing? Because you said that you actually have customers that you serve?

Adam Durfee  3:24


Tyler Jacobson  3:24

And then you gave a couple of examples? What specifically are they doing for them? And how has that worked out?

Adam Durfee  3:32

Yeah, you’re exactly right. So part of the blessing and the curse, I suppose, of being a pilot program, is we had to find our own funding. And so we are a self-funded organization inside of the university, funded by client revenues and, and donor dollars. So when we engage with clients, they do pay our students as you’d pay any marketing agency to do work for you. What makes us a little more unique, I suppose, is that our contracts instead of being long monthly retainers for years in the future, we stick to four month blocks. So one semester at a time you hire our students and work with us. And we’ve done all sorts of really neat, really compelling projects. We did a project with Hard Rock Cafe where our goal was to look at what was said about Hard Rock Cafe online and help them determine Okay, how do we reorganize Hard Rock Cafe restaurants? How do we put the things in there that get people to take Instagram photos or Snapchat or Tik Tok? How do we get people to engage with our brand to put online because that counts as free advertising for us? We’ve worked with other other large companies, Marriott for booking seasons to “Okay, during travel and tourist season, how can we increase the awareness in the booking numbers directly through Marriott instead of through third party partners like Expedia or others?”. The idea is our students get to be this sort of think tank that companies can visit. Another large company and unfortunately under NDA, I can’t tell you too much about that one. But another large company, he came to us he said…large clothing company that most people have worked with and they said “We want to start selling on Snapchat. Is that even possible? Do SnapChat ads work? We don’t have Snapchat experts in house, we do a lot on Instagram and on Facebook and Google.” And so our students got to spend four months thinking of this pretty cool Snapchat campaign that we then got advertising dollars for launched, tracked all those results and turned out a pretty significant ROI for the client. And those are the sorts of things. So it’s really, really compelling, interesting work, where clients realize that the value of an idea can be had by anybody. You don’t have to be a seasoned professional to have a good idea. seasoned professionals are just better at executing. And so that’s where I come in to help teach them that execution side. But our students will sit around, take this problem, brainstorm, think and come up with some really, really interesting projects that ultimately we get paid for. And that money comes back around. It funds back who we are, and keeps us in business and keeps us educating students.

Tyler Jacobson  5:53

I think you will already largely answered the question, but that was one where you’re referencing companies that have their own marketing groups that are probably very well funded and have a depth of experience. So what is it that they’re getting from a college program that they’re missing in house? And you did mention that they didn’t have any experience on certain platforms? Is that where most of it’s coming from? Or is it you know…what’s their incentive to pay you guys to do that work?

Adam Durfee  6:25

Some degree of it is a new platform, new media, that definitely helps. But a big chunk of it is new brains, new ideas. And I don’t know all of your background, or the background of those who listen to this. But we all understand that in a corporate environment, we start to figure out where the red tape is, where the lines are. Okay, all the ideas and the campaigns, the interesting things I want to do, they’re going to bump up against this barrier or that barrier. Our students don’t know those barriers. Our students don’t understand that, “Oh, yeah, Subaru only works with dogs and commercials,” or whatever. We don’t know all of these things. And so in that case, we bring I think, novel, new and maybe out of the corporate line, ideas to the table. And sometimes those get funded. And that’s something you do I mean, I think most people probably are audio here. But if you’re on video, you’re able to see that behind me we’ve got a whole bunch of awards. We won 17 state national advertising awards, and all of them, I don’t think, have got better execution than any of these industry professionals were talking about, right? They’re more talented or more skilled anyway. What you’re seeing these awards for is just truly novel ideas, things that companies haven’t thought of before, that maybe that our way of thinking or the boxes we put ourselves into in a corporate environment, just don’t allow us to think of them. But students come in unhindered. They just think: “Wouldn’t this be cool,”. I mean, our whole classroom is whiteboards, every wall, rolling ones, every window, everything can be written on, because the idea is, every idea deserves to be recorded. It’s sort of an idea that we have here really tightly because we want to know [about those ideas]. One of these things is going to stick. And when that idea hits, we want to lean full into it for four months and put everything we can behind it.

Tyler Jacobson  8:00

I have also seen that in many of the companies that I work with is there’s a general idea of what the company has done in the past that does outline what you’re more likely to do moving forward and releasing yourself from that and having somebody that is not afraid of saying or doing something that overshadows what their predecessors have done, may have great value there. So you had mentioned that it’s a competitive program. What is it that sets a student apart to be part of your program versus those that still have more to accomplish before they’re ready? 

Adam Durfee  8:46

And that’s a good question. And that, candidly, is one of the things I get asked the most inside of our own university. Right? How are we making these selections? We sort of joke about Y Digital’s got 32 students, and we have 32,000 students at BYU. And so you’re truly one in 1000, if you get into our program. And in some ways, that’s probably a little more tongue in cheek than maybe it needs to be. But what makes the students stand apart for me, especially in an education space, is I want a desire to do this long term from a student. So we get, you know, 80, 100, 120 applications or so every semester. And as those pour in, and I look at them, myself and my management team go over them together, we all look the blind actually, which is maybe an important part about this. My management team goes in for me, and they block out all names and all majors and all things from resumes. And so we end up reading resumes and cover letters and score them all blindly. But a lot of what we look for is what’s your desire to be part of this digital marketing and digital advertising industry? Because at the end of the day, the students say, “Oh, I hear that there’s some cool clients and I might be able to get a job.” I can get maybe a little bit nervous about that, because I’ve got limited spots for people. And if the goal here is “Hey, I want to throw something cool on my portfolio. Maybe that’ll help me one day,” less interesting to me than a student who says, “Listen, I may not know very much. But I think SEO is amazing, or I think social listening is incredible, or man, I’d love to get into paid Instagram,” something like that means a lot to me. Because I know if a student comes to me and says that this is their desire, this is the thing they care the most about. They want to work professionally in the space that I know they’re going to come and put in time, I’m going to see him in my classroom every single day working on something. So any lack of skills that’s on me, my job is to teach the students the skills and so you don’t have to have maybe all that many skills when you come work with me, you just have to want to learn it. Because if you’re there long enough, I believe in myself, I believe in my senior students, I believe in our ability to tutor students, mentor students and help them learn the hard skills they need.

Tyler Jacobson  10:41

It also seems like where you are working with actual customers and actual clients, that it’s now bridging from theoretical to application knowledge, which means that you’re establishing a reputation for Y Digital Agency as an actual agency, which means that you’d want to be pretty selective and pretty careful about who you bring on. Because you’re building your reputation as more than just a class, you’re building a reputation as a service provider. So that is very interesting. Is that something that you’re looking at expanding down the road? Or is 32 kind of your sweet spot?

Adam Durfee  11:21

Oh, man, you’ve hit such a cool spot in my life. To answer your first piece of this: yes, we are a standalone brand. In fact, we’ve got mouse pads, we’ve got mugs, we’ve got shirts, we have the custom face masks for our pandemic, we everything we’re Y Digital is a standalone brand. We’re very proud of it. That brand itself, at least we don’t do…I don’t do a lot of sales anymore. I’ve got more companies who want to work with us than we have the ability to work with. So now it’s kind of fun that a few months in advance, I’ll just get stacks of emails in people saying, “Hey, we have a cool project you want to help us with.” So that’s been neat. We’ve had 100% job placement three years in a row. We have more recruiters than we have students, the student graduates, because you’re right that we have a brand entity. We’ve got a perfect five stars on our Google reviews, right? We’ve done this great job, I’m really proud of it. As far as expansion goes: our goal is to expand. Programs like this don’t need to be limited to exclusively small sets of students. But I said at the caveat: they do have to be adapted. So officially Y Digital actually has 40 students. I know I like to bring the 32 number in because it’s sort of a fun 32 out of 32,000. We have 32 base-level students. We have four interns. Interns are underclassmen, we bring in for one semester. (Sorry I got someone knocking on my door). For one term. So eight weeks, those are our interns. And then we’ve got four students who are paid, and that’s our top level account executives. So it is actually 40 in our program. But what we’ve looked at and discovered as we get into this is we want to expand this. We want to have sort of: picture like your high school sports. We’re gonna have a JV team as well, we want to have a freshman team and have a development squad. We want to have a G-league if we’re the NBA. The idea really is that the sky’s the limit for this program. I like the situation where you can bring in 100, 200, even 300 students into this, but we have to adapt that experience all along the way. A big part of this is a resource, right? You know a lot about resource deployment, resource management in sort of your line of work. And that’s a big piece of it. How many resources do we have available to us? What are our software packages? What’s our teaching capacity? How many professionals can we get to help us? And then build teams out to say, “Hey, listen, if you’re a sophomore in our university, and you’re excited to do this, we’re going to put you on spec projects, you’re going to work and pretend that you work for Dannon yogurt or for Cheerios,” or something like that. And you are going to put together a spec project and then maybe the next year up as a junior, we’re gonna say, “Okay, you’re gonna work with campus and local entities. You’re gonna help work with our BYU athletics program or with a local startup or something else, get your feet wet. And then we’re gonna take our top tier seniors, maybe what’s sort of currently our top 40 kids and say, “You guys are the ones who are going to get to work with the NBA, or HGTV or Coca Cola.” And so that sort of idea for me, is how this thing expands. And honestly, is the dream, right? If you get years down the road, that’s how we develop a system that is all encompassing and lets all people in. But you do have to cater that experience based on the student’s appetite and ability to perform for some of these clients.

Tyler Jacobson  14:22

So you mentioned 100% job placement. Is that with the companies that they were working for, or is it just people kind of saying, “Hey, who’s the talent that you have that is rising to the top?”

Adam Durfee  14:35

C, all of the above. So at the end of every semester of work, almost without exception, the companies you’ve worked with will almost always want to hire and usually they’re AE, their student who’s sort of been their team lead and their liaison, those students get gobbled up super quickly. But then we have other companies, digital ad agencies, larger scale companies. Google has set up shop here and takes two of our students every couple weeks, like every year. It’s been this