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Grand Gold Rush
Grand Gold Rush

From a global contest to attract international students to a pledge to protect the world’s oceans, the 2016 Circle of Excellence Grand Gold winners aimed high and connected with their audiences

By Theresa Walker



Inspired design, storytelling, ingenuity, humor, and brevity were hallmarks of this year's CASE Circle of Excellence Awards Grand Gold winners, the highest prize bestowed by the program. Whether attracting international applicants with an ambitious contest, sharing advice through campus fun facts and pride points, demonstrating that campus quirks will garner attention and gifts, or redesigning a magazine in a way that makes class notes inviting and (gasp!) readable, institutions relied on research, knowledge, and creative skill to push boundaries and deliver inspired work—much of it produced in-house.

Dozens of volunteer judging panels, made up of advancement practitioners and other experts, reviewed the more than 3,350 entries received in nearly 100 categories from more than 713 member institutions across the globe. After submitting their best programs and products in advancement services, alumni relations, communications, marketing, and fundraising, 185 universities, colleges, independent schools, and nonprofit organizations worldwide earned 323 grand gold, gold, silver, and bronze awards. Fourteen institutions won 18 grand gold awards—a new record. Half of the winning projects are profiled here. View the full list.

UofT Med magazine

A Lean Read That Feeds the Mind

Robert F. Sibley Magazine of the Year

University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine


It's no surprise that UofTMed, the alumni magazine for the University of Toronto's medical school, is one of the periodicals patients often pilfer from their physician's waiting rooms. It offers a striking design, bold use of color, and accessible take on health subjects.

Thought-provoking themes: The spring 2015 issue tackled "the future," with professors and alumni forecasting this century's medical advancements. The bold (but brief) answers explored everything from wearable technology to bionics and big data, enlivened with accents of bright color in typography, illustrations, and photos. The issue concludes with a selection of 20th-century predictions and notes whether they proved true or false. Winter 2015, dubbed "the food issue," delved into food insecurity in Toronto, the obesity epidemic and public policy efforts to educate and change behaviors, and the ways certain foods affect people differently on a genetic level. School and alumni news incorporate the overall design of each issue so well that a reader might not realize they are recurring departments.

But wait, there's more: Each issues promotes "Three Reasons to Read U of T Medicine Online," including descriptions of bonus stories, video content, and videos. View the extras.

Fun facts: In the 73-year history of the Sibley Award, UofTMed is only the fourth special constituency magazine to win the honor. It also marks the first win for a magazine from a Canadian institution.

The fine print: UofTMed, which publishes twice a year, is produced largely in-house by Heidi Singer, editor, and Raj Grainger, designer. The spring and winter issues typically run 40 pages. Per-unit cost is $3, on average.

Judges' take: "Original and creative, outside the norm." The magazine stood out to judges for its content, writing, and design. "Imaginative photography and surprising illustrations are carefully art-directed to integrate each story with the overall look and feel of the magazine."

Credits: Raj Grainger, Liam Mitchell, Lloyd Rang, Heidi Singer

U of Manchester video still

Poetic Power

Grand Gold for General Information Videos (Short)

University of Manchester, U.K.

Inspire and Be Inspired

"Open all minds. Open all dreams. Research. Question. Open all doors. Open all senses. Open all defenses. Ask: What were these closed for?" An expansive yet inclusive viewpoint marks the dramatic two-minute video featuring award-winning poet Lemn Sissay performing a mashup of his writings. The project served as both an authentic introduction to the University of Manchester's new chancellor in 2015 and an inspiring look at the U.K. institution and its work. Before the video debuted at his installation ceremony, Sissay remarked that it encapsulates his feelings about being selected chancellor and the feelings of everyone who comes in contact with the university. The video's closing lines underscore that emotion: "We belong here. We belong."

Worth the risk: An atypical chancellor provided an opportunity for unconventional and creative treatment. The communications team wanted to connect Sissay's poetry to the university and the city and imbue them with the inspiration and aspiration he sought to bring to his chancellorship. In addition to serving as a key moment in the Foundation Day ceremony, the video was also used to connect with institutional audiences, including students, alumni, staff, prospective students and their families, business partners, and donors.

Lucky day: Filming began at 6 a.m. atop one of the campus's tallest buildings to catch the sunrise for the video's opening shot. The crew filmed Sissay exploring Manchester—the campus and the city—to capture the environment's look and feel during the remainder of the rare rain-free day.

Successful connection: The video has garnered more than 22,000 views on YouTube and 14,000 on Facebook. The team also produced companion videos, including a Q&A with Sissay, which have earned more than 7,500 views each.

Judges' view: "A risky concept, brilliantly executed" and "lofty in vision and ideals while still unique."

Credits: David Gennard and Born Communication (filming/editing)

Wake Forest Univ. website capture

You Name It

Grand Gold for fundraising: Annual Giving Programs

Wake Forest University, North Carolina

Naming Rights for the Rest of Us

Most people can't give the kind of gift that comes with the right to name a school or stadium. But that doesn't mean smaller items can't be in the running too. The annual fund at Wake Forest University, aka Wake Forest Fund, had some fun with this concept in February 2015 by launching the social media campaign "Naming Rights for the Rest of Us." The goal: Celebrate the difference people make with their gifts to the annual fund.

Name that leaf blower: The team selected quirky items or locations that would have significance to Wake Forest alumni, such as the phone used by the employee who records the messages alerting students that classes are canceled due to inclement weather, a sought-after electrical outlet in the library, and a mystery object later revealed to be the skillet of a beloved campus cook. Donors who contributed in February were automatically entered into a contest to win the right to name the nine items. Winners were announced each week.

What a difference a year (and some fun) makes: The effort raised nearly $180,000—99 percent more than in February 2014 and $27 shy of the largest amount ever raised in February. Young alumni giving in February 2015 nearly doubled from the previous year. Visitors to the campaign page stayed an average of five minutes. The team spent $40 on engraved nameplates to label the items and recognize the winners.

Strategic shift: In the past five years, and in response to feedback from young alumni, the Wake Forest Fund has amped up its digital and social media efforts to attract gifts from this population and raise awareness of the impact of annual giving. A big part of the team's push has been "not to take ourselves too seriously."

Imitation game: In true "copy and share everything" spirit, at least three institutions have already borrowed this idea for their annual giving efforts, including Berry College in Georgia.

Judges' take: They loved this "creative effort to excite and interest alumni at lower giving levels."

More claims to grand gold: Wake Forest University projects garnered two additional 2016 Circle of Excellence Grand Gold Awards—both for design. The iPLACE viewbook took top marks in the multipage publications subcategory while a promotional piece designed for author Ta-Nehisi Coates' appearance as part of the campus's "Voices of Our Time" speaker series won the posters subcategory.

Credits: Blake Absher, Emily Bratton, Mary K. Elkins, Kris Hendershott, Hayes Henderson, Gretta Kohler, Bart Rippin, Ashley Walker, Lloyd Whitehead

BI Norwegian Business School video still

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Grand Gold for Recruitment Videos (long)

BI Norwegian Business School, Norway

A Flying Start: To Your Career and Your New Life in Oslo

Attending a graduate program in a different country can be challenging. But what if everyone at school—heck, the whole country—recognized you and your qualifications before you arrived? That's the promise behind this fast-paced three-minute video that launched a campaign aimed at attracting more international students to the highly ranked business school in Oslo, Norway.

Now that's a welcome: At the center of the campaign was a competition—one qualified international applicant would be introduced to students, faculty, potential employers, and the Norwegian people before classes began in August 2016. The winner appeared on billboards across campus and the city. Ads in business newspapers highlighted the winner's qualifications and skills. Pre-arranged media coverage included a magazine profile and a short documentary on the winner that aired on national television. The hearty greeting also involved winner-branded merchandise such as canned drinks, dispensed free from a voice-activated vending machine when people pronounced the person's name correctly.

Did it work? More than 3,000 people applied within a few weeks, and international student applications were one-third higher than the previous year. The campaign website attracted visitors from 158 countries, and the international section of the school's website saw triple the traffic over the same period the previous year. The video has logged more than 1.8 million views. Among the campaign's target countries for applicants—Germany, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.-the school saw increases ranging from 34 percent to 112 percent for its master's program and 50 percent for its undergraduate program.

Judges' call: The panel was unanimously impressed. Describing the project as "masterfully executed," the judges said it was bold, beautifully scripted, and fun—a "wow" video.

So who won the contest? Learn more about the winner, Emma Rebeca Pinto Guzman, and the campaign at

Credits: Steffen Fidjeland, Anette Øverås Skott, Karen E. Lærdal Skuland, Kim Syvaldsen, Arne Wellberg, Try/Apt (advertising/digital agency), OMD (media agency), Be On Nordics (media partner)

Deerfield Academy Magazine

Making Redesign Look Easy

Grand Gold for Independent School Magazines

Deerfield Academy, Massachusetts

Deerfield Magazine

In summer 2014, Deerfield Magazine embarked on an in-house redesign process that rethought every aspect of the publication, including how it organizes content. The result was an easy flow of material that's no longer confined to traditional categories. It's all here: top-notch photography and illustrations, infographics, color, and space. Stories are shorter and offer readers multiple entry points.

Nothing common about this idea: The overhaul and restructuring of the class notes section is something every alumni publication should study. The section is now known as "The Common Room," a reference to the spaces at this primarily boarding school where classmates become lifelong friends. Dotted with photos and filled with narrative captions and first-person notes, the section has the familiarity and personality of a well-curated blog. Rather than being segmented simply by class, "The Common Room" is effectively divided into life milestones, bringing alumni from different periods together.

Did readers notice? In addition to complimenting the revamped class notes section, readers are requesting reprints, visiting URLs listed in the magazine, and using the enclosed business-reply envelope to send gifts. Alumni and parents are submitting articles and sharing positive feedback with the advancement office.

The fine print: Deerfield Magazine is published three times a year (fall, winter, and spring) and runs 96 pages per issue, on average. Its circulation is 20,000, and the per-unit cost is $1.65. The publication saved money by switching print vendors. It has also reduced costs by integrating materials typically sent separately, such as the 12-page "Imagine Deerfield" final campaign report in the spring 2015 issue.

Judges' view: Deerfield Magazine earned perfect scores in every judging category and was described as "visually stunning" from cover to cover. "As close to flawless as a publication can be!"

Credits: Cara Cusson, Jessica Day, Joseph Delaney, Danae DiNicola, Brent Hale, Anne Lozier, David Thiel

Northeastern Univ. video stillA Challenge from the Future

Grand Gold for Fundraising Videos (Short)

Northeastern University, Massachusetts

Class of 2025

Preparing for and investing in the future can seem like an abstract concept. A two-and-a-half-minute video created for the Northeastern University Board of Trustees' annual retreat was designed to reinforce and humanize the challenges, opportunities, and implications of the long-range planning process the leaders were starting. A question posed by five potential members of the Class of 2025 cut to the chase: "Will you create the university of my future?"

Smart play: Each of the five child actors explores areas of Northeastern's campus, often darting in and out of classrooms and labs, while wondering how their schooling so far will compare with college. A girl clutching a smartphone asks, "Will my college classes be available on demand?" Typing on a computer in Northeastern's library, a boy discusses working in groups and going to his school's library to be social. The girl describes the library as a place to make things that haven't existed before as the pair run into the building's 3D-printing studio.

Leave room for change: Director of Digital Media Joe Case interviewed the child actors to discover their views about college and learned they didn't know enough about higher education institutions to have many. He revised the script to inject a more inquisitive, authentic tone.

Message received: While the video was created and produced for a small, specific group, it quickly found new life in other places. At events for Northeastern's comprehensive "Empower" campaign, President Joseph Aoun often introduces the video by saying, "Meet the Class of 2025."

Judges' call: "On the surface, the video had a playful energy, but beneath was a slight edge and pointedness that made the call to action a surprise and quite successful. Very clever, simple concept that was highly memorable."

Credits: Joseph Case, Frank Hegyi, Noelle Shough

Univ of Michigan donor packet

A Little Piece That Does a Lot

Grand Gold for Individual Fundraising Publications

University of Michigan

First-Time/Second-Time Donor Packet

Annual giving stewardship pieces have a big job to do, and the University of Michigan's packet for first- and second-time donors is up to the task. The self-mailer's four double-sided panels contain messages of thanks, gift impact, programmatic support, and institutional reputation. The text makes the case for continued support to offset declining state funding.

School spirit wherever you go: Inside the mailer was a sheet of stickers donors could use to display their Michigan pride on their digital devices, along with a small block "M" for their computer keyboard. The "stick with us" message gets the point across on two levels.

Inclusive by design: The fiscal year 2016 mailing included donors to nonacademic units such as the library and Michigan Athletics as well as the UM-Flint campus. Creative staff members took care to select images that accurately depict the institution's diversity.

Final tally: The cost for the 8,750 units—including printing, mail services, and postage—totaled $1.34 per piece. U-M's overall donor retention rate is 67 percent.

Grand gold trifecta: U-M projects earned two additional 2016 Circle of Excellence Grand Gold Awards. Findings, a publication from the School of Public Health, won for periodical design. A story about the university's defending American Solar Challenge champion team (now made up mostly of alumni) as it raced in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge earned the top prize in the news and research videos category.

Judges' take: "A clear message that creatively says ‘thank you and your gift matters.' A visually succinct and pleasing design with lots of information using minimal words."

Credits: Craig Alcala, Denise Cope, Megan Doud, Cathy Mizgerd, Kelsey Nelson, Susan St. Charles, Annie Varner

Oregaon State Univ. video stillTo Preserve and Protect

Grand Gold for PSAs and Commercial Spots

Oregon State University

From Glaciers to the Ocean

When universities have an opportunity to air a commercial during nationally televised sporting events, they typically opt for spots that tout their campus, academic offerings, and facilities. In fall 2015, Oregon State University went in another direction and focused on water. Not a single frame was shot on campus. Why? The 30-second commercial tells the story of the university's Marine Studies Initiative, which examines climate change's effects on the world's oceans and marine habitats and addresses ways to meet the challenges. An in-house crew filmed in seven locations, from a glacier atop Mount Hood to the Oregon coast to waterways in between. The message: "The ocean takes care of all of us. And in Beaver Nation, we take care of the ocean."

Who saw it? The spot debuted during a football game against the University of Oregon, earning millions of impressions. It aired multiple times during basketball season and has garnered tens of thousands of views online.

Give your project a long digital life: OSU's University Relations and Marketing Office created a website that houses the advertisement, information about the dozens of researchers and students featured in the spot, and an extended video on the new Marine Studies Initiative. The site links to the initiative's website, which features the commercial. A behind-the-scenes video explores the making of the project.

Judges' take: Amazing production value, visually stimulating, great sound mix, powerful message.

Final tally: The project's budget was $14,500, which included sound design and editing, travel, and logistics.

Credits: David Baker, Steve Clark, Oliver Day, Gary Dulude, Annie Heck, Darryl Lai, Claire McMorris, Callie Newton, Melody Oldfield, Laura Shields, Kegan Sims, Justin Smith, Santiago Uceda, Digital One (audio mix and sound design), The License Lab (music)

Univ. of Calif. Santa Cruz promotional publication

Fifty and Loving It

Grand Gold for Institutional Relations Publications: Print Promotional Publications

University of California, Santa Cruz

Fifty Things We've Learned Along the Way

When the University of California, Santa Cruz, turned 50 in 2015, it celebrated the way many who reach the half-century mark do—with a big dinner where friends reminisced and shared life lessons. The institution compiled those takeaways in a 52-page publication that's part campus history, part brag book, and gave it to guests of its 50th-anniversary gala.

Tell me more: Lesson-themed headlines and bite-sized facts tell the story of UC Santa Cruz's achievements and promote alumni and community pride. The seventh lesson, for example, advises readers to "make play serious" and notes that the campus was the first UC institution to offer a major in computer game design.

Purposeful repurposing: The book's axioms became the theme for the gala and were used in the evening's speeches, videos, and performances. They also became the framework for the university's 2016 messaging strategy.

By the numbers: The project was conceived, written, and designed in-house. The production cost for printing nearly 2,500 books totaled $4.59 per copy.

Judges' call: A great concept that used resources well. "A comprehensive and successful marriage of words and graphics."

Credits: Eric Arvizu, Keith E. Brant, Gwen Jourdonnais, Sherry L. K. Main, Lisa Nielsen

About the Author Theresa Walker Theresa Walker

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.




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