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USC marketing class helps CIA recruitment

Looking to hire recent graduates, Central Intelligence Agency turns to university students nationwide for help developing ad campaigns. The economic downturn increases the jobs' appeal.

March 29, 2009|Larry Gordon

It's not all cloak-and-dagger anymore. These days, the Central Intelligence Agency is using marketing classes at USC and elsewhere to create public recruitment campaigns on college campuses.

The timing during such a deep recession helps sell the agency as an attractive employer, say USC students involved in advertising a CIA recruiting event at their school next month. After all, a well-paid, secure government job, even one touched by controversy, may appeal to soon-to-be college graduates who might never have considered a spy career in better economic times.

"All we hear today is about the bad economy and how this is basically the worst time to graduate. But the CIA is very interested in hiring graduating seniors and is targeting USC students," said Allison Kosty, a political science major who is in a class of USC students working on the CIA campaign. "So that's a huge bonus for us."

She and 26 classmates are part of a five-year-old program that has joined the CIA with students in marketing courses at 30 universities throughout the country.

The agency wants help selling itself to bright young candidates, especially those who speak such key languages as Mandarin and Farsi or who studied economics or computer engineering. The schools -- USC, Michigan State and the University of New Mexico for the current semester -- say they want their students to gain real-world marketing experience, whether for soft drinks or clandestine operations.

Therese Wilbur, an assistant professor of marketing who teaches the USC course and ran a similar project for the FBI last year, said CIA officers visited her class twice this semester and asked for a campaign that taps into USC's ethnic diversity and does not wrap itself too tightly in the flag.

Wilbur, who managed international brands for toy-maker Mattel Inc. before she began teaching in 2006, said the campaign tries to appeal both to students' interest in an intriguing, well-rewarded career and to their altruism.

The student marketers say they know they may face criticism that the CIA failed in intelligence-gathering missions before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq and that its past practices are much-debated. Still, Wilbur said, no student objected to assisting the CIA in finding high-quality recruits to help keep the country safe.

In the class, a preliminary suggestion for a slogan urged potential recruits to "Discover the Truth" about the CIA. That was jettisoned after some students in a test survey didn't understand it and others suggested that such a search might turn up information discouraging to applicants.

Instead, the class settled on a slogan that invites people to "Discover the CIA. Be Part of Something Bigger," imposed over a colorful world map in the campaign's graphics.

Class member Sunny Nguyen, a fine arts major, said she was struck by the assignment's significance. "By joining the CIA, you can make a difference globally," she said. "And your life holds a different sort of meaning."

USC is the first Southern California campus to participate in the CIA's collegiate marketing program. Other schools have included UC Berkeley, San Jose State, Georgia State, the University of Pittsburgh and Morehouse College, according to CIA spokesman George Little.

Schools are chosen for their marketing curricula as well as a broadly diverse student population. "We are looking constantly for diverse pools of applicants given the critical nature of our mission," said Little, who added that the agency especially values language skills, overseas experience and candidates from families who are first- or second-generation Americans. U.S. citizenship, however, is a requirement.

Last year, the CIA recruited at about 1,000 U.S. campuses, with the marketing classes a small part of those efforts, he said. About 120,000 people, college-age and older, applied for CIA jobs last year and the numbers are running higher this recessionary year.

Overall, the agency is continuing a hiring surge that began after the 2001 attacks, but Little said the number of hirings is classified. CIA starting salaries range from about $50,000 to $90,000, with bonuses for some language fluencies.

The student-designed marketing programs are arranged through EdVenture Partners, an organization based in Orinda, just east of Berkeley, that serves as a middleman between colleges and such clients as Honda and the country of Morocco. The classes receive $2,500 to cover such costs as posters, table rentals and pizza for focus groups, but reap no reward aside from bragging rights on their resumes, officials said.

Wilbur's upper-division marketing class, which operates like an actual advertising agency with one big account per semester, did not know in advance whom its client would be. So students quickly had to dispel their own CIA stereotypes of a James Bond life with hot cars and cool gadgets or a secretive existence with no family contact allowed.

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