Inspiring People to Live a Better Life

How Chris Cutri helps advertising students excel in a competitive field

Written by Sarah Ostler Hill

[image lightbox=”true” height=”550″ desc=”Photo by Nathalie Van Empel”]/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Chris_full.jpg[/image]

Billboards, commercials, direct mail – advertising is everywhere, sometimes deceptive, often enticing you to get things you don’t need. In the midst of all this noise, Chris Cutri, professor of advertising in the Department of Communications, is on a mission to train students how to create thoughtful and compelling messaging, something he practices as well as teaches. With his teams winning at the prestigious American Advertising Federation’s Student ADDY Awards Competition, he appears to be succeeding.

“All organizations need messaging,” Cutri says. “A lot of it feels like garbage. If we can create something a little more beautiful or interesting, people will pay attention to it.”

Learning Creativity

The best way to inspire students, Cutri says, is to expose them to outstanding work in art, design, and advertising. This shows students where the bar is and excites them. He also encourages students to read a variety of material and know how to think critically.

“If you want to break the mold, be an educated person in the fullest sense,” he says. “Anyone can learn programs. But someone who really knows how to think – who has dabbled in literature, art, politics and philosophy, and knows some of the technical aspects – they’re the ones who are really, really successful.”

Creativity is key, Cutri says. Unfortunately, that’s a hard principle to teach. The traditional American school system is based on systematic and linear problem solving. Because creativity is spontaneous and unstructured, he says, it can be difficult to help students seek inspiration.

“I read a lot, whether it’s a book or on the Internet or cruising through pop culture periodicals, different things hit,” he says. “Adding your own life experience causes you to look at the world in a different way. It provides fodder for new projects.”

He pauses a moment before adding with a laugh, “Or go for a good hike in the mountains. Nature and fresh air are good sources for inspiration.”

Raising the Bar

BYU’s advertising students have had a history of winning at the Student ADDY’s, but this past year was the first time a BYU student was awarded the Judges’ Choice Award. Cutri attributes success as beginning with a good, clever idea. If the idea itself isn’t compelling, it won’t be competitive.

“I’m not interested in creating something mediocre or status quo,” he says. “It’s always about raising the bar. We’ll deconstruct a good piece and see how we can do something like that next time.”

When Cutri was working on his master’s degree in film at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he took a class that combined film and advertising. He always knew he wanted to teach. When he came to BYU as a faculty member, he created a class similar to the class he had taken in grad school. That class led him to where he is today, teaching students in one of the most competitive advertising departments in the country.

Students begin Cutri’s class by bringing in their ideas. Though these often get rejected, Cutri isn’t mean or degrading. He wants students to learn that success comes from a rigorous editing process.

“If someone presents an idea that has potential, then we keep working it and working it until it reaches its full potential,” he explains. “Then we bring in some talented film students and that raises the bar to another level.”

Film and advertising students collaborate to focus their strong concepts with good filmmaking. This, Cutri says, is the recipe for success.

“I tell them to get in the mindset that this is a project, not just an exercise,” he says with passion. “This is a portfolio piece. It’s not just for a grade – it’s for a job.”

Practicing what he Preaches

Cutri also finds time to work on his own film and advertising work. He particularly enjoys working on public service announcements because of the socially conscious messages they present. He has worked on various anti-drug and colon cancer awareness campaigns.

Through a documentary series on YouTube called “The Rake,” Cutri continues to hone his filmmaking skills. The series focuses on LDS artists and the work they create. Currently, he highlights five artists: Sunny Taylor, painter; Daniel Everett, fine art photographer; Patrick Campbell, drummer; Andrew Ballstaedt, painter; and Daniel Barney, general artist and art pedagogue.

“I feel like my faith colors everything I do in my life whether it is with my family and personal life or the stuff I try to create through documentaries, films or commercials,” he says. “I look at everything through the lens of the gospel. I want my work to be meaningful and inspiring. I want to affect people to live a better life.”

With this objective in mind, Cutri encourages students to be conscious of the projects they work on.

“It’s important to teach honesty in our messaging,” he explains. “I tell students to be selective in what they choose to work on and not to have a problem with stepping away from a brand or product that goes away from the principles we believe in.”

When he has taught students creativity and honesty and has coached them through rounds of revisions, Cutri finds a measure of satisfaction. He feels the most grateful, however, when former students reconnect with him to share how what they had learned has helped them.

“I recently received an email from a former student currently living in Harlem, New York, telling me how he thinks about the discussions we had on race in our Pop Culture and the Media course. He said that discussion and other topics from class have really affected his life,” Cutri recounts. “There’s nothing more gratifying to me as a professor than to receive these types of notes.”

When Cutri isn’t in the Advertising Lab or classroom, he can probably be found with his wife, Ramona, and their three children. Being with them brings him the most joy, especially if together they’re hiking or surfing. And whatever life experience or inspiration he happens to accrue along the way will serve him well in his next project.

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