Y Digital: How one BYU graduate, five students and Mountain Dew led to an award winning agency

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Inside the George H. Brimhall Building on BYU’s campus is a lab that sees 30 students every week. They come on their own time and receive no pay, but they do digital marketing work with organizations like the NBA, Subaru and Google.

All because of one man that loves commercials.

“In my heart, I love the idea of advertising,” said Y Digital Director Adam Durfee. “I’m one of the few people that like to watch commercials carefully and see what they are all about.”

Y Digital is a student-run digital marketing agency sponsored by BYU. By the end of 2020, they have worked with over 35 clients and won numerous awards. But back in 2017, the agency was just an idea on Durfee’s dinner napkin.

An idea on a napkin

Durfee began as a marketing student when he arrived at BYU in 2007. With his passion for advertising, he had a clear picture of what his dream career looked like.

He changed his major, however, once he found the School of Communications better suited his interests, and decided to major in Public Relations because it allowed him to graduate faster and pursue his career in the digital advertising space.

After graduation and a short time working with Harley Davidson, Durfee joined a small agency in 2013 that had four members and nearly no money. But he saw the potential to gain the digital marketing skills he needed, so he took the job without pay.

Within four years, that little agency grew into a multi-million dollar business with 30 employees. Durfee was the vice president of digital marketing and having the time of his life.

During this successful period of his career, Durfee said BYU reached out to him several times to convince him to teach at the university. He declined every offer because of the potential he saw and the excitement he felt in his current position.

It wasn’t until one night during dinner, that Durfee took his napkin and wrote a pros and cons list of teaching at BYU. He realized that if it was actually going to benefit these students, it needed to be done his way — with classes, a lab and real clients.

After six months of declining, he accepted the next teaching offer BYU gave him. Durfee arrived at the university in the fall of 2017 with a big task ahead of him.

“I entered an empty room with no furniture, no tables, no clients, no students, no nothing and set out to work,” he said.

Y Digital Managing Director Adam Durfee, who started the agency in Fall 2017. (Gabriel Mayberry/BYU Photo)

Five students and Mountain Dew

Initially, Durfee had a difficult time getting the word out about Y Digital. Students weren’t all that interested in digital marketing at the time because no digital marketing classes had ever been taught before. No payment was offered, so it was hard for him to get students in the door.

Five students showed up the first semester and none had any experience in this field of work. Fortunately, Durfee had a pool of clients up his sleeve.

The first company the students were assigned was Mountain Dew.

“So I had five students who were all of sudden thrown into working on a digital marketing project for Mountain Dew who knew nothing about digital marketing, and it was this extraordinary growth curve,” he said.

With the growth of the students, the agency itself began to grow soon after. The idea of helping brands like Mountain Dew got students around campus interested.

“Word got out very quickly,” Durfee said. “Next semester I had 15 or 16 students lined up, then the following semester we had 30 lined up, and before long, now our acceptance rate is 17%,” he said.

Students work in the Y Digital Lab inside the Brimhall Building of BYU campus. Teams work together on their own time to meet the needs of their clients. (Adam Durfee)

Four years of growth

Four years later, there have not just been more students but a wealth of awards alongside an impressive list of clients.

“We have students working on global campaigns that won’t work on another global campaign for 20 more years,” Durfee said. “We are doing the type of work that mid- to senior-level professionals are doing.”

One of their many successes came in 2018 with Whooshfly, an uber-like organization for private flights. Y Digital created social media videos for Whooshfly that resulted in a 35 to 1 return on ad spend for the company. This achievement earned them a Golden Spike Award in the category “Best Social Media Campaign: For Profit.”

A team of YDigital students won a Golden Spike Award when they worked with the company Whooshfly in 2018. (BYU Photo)

During that Fall Semester, Y Digital worked with Park Savers, a Disney Vacations planning and savings website. The students did everything on the site, from creating new content to advisement about how to maintain a ranking website.

“Y Digital was a fantastic experience that I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their website’s SEO or digital marketing,” said Park Savers owner Dean Gibbons.

Sydney Zenger, BYU student and leader of the project, handled all communication with Park Savers, from bi-weekly phone meetings to weekly email updates. Zenger has been a part of Y Digital since 2018 and has seen it grow from year to year.

“We’ve been able to push the envelope a little bit more and get more creative and more intense with the projects that we’re doing,” Zenger said. “We have grown from a student-run agency to a more professional level.”

Most recently, Y Digital received a national Gold Davey Award for having one of the 10 best social media campaigns in the country.

Adam Durfee and a team of students show off their trophies from the 2020 Davey Awards. (Adam Durfee)

Preparing students for the future

Y Digital consists of four teams that each have a student account executive at the head of their project. While Durfee oversees each team, it’s the students that work with the client and run the show.

Any student in the School of Communications can apply, according to the Y Digital website. Students learn the skills as they go, including social media advertising, video production and SEO techniques to build the reach of a brand.

“As soon as I got into Y Digital, I realized, ‘Wow. Digital marketing is amazing,'” account executive Aubree Smith said. “It’s always changing and always adapting and you have to adapt and learn with it. And that’s the kind of career that I want.”

Students at Y Digital have the opportunity to work with many big corporations. Google is among the biggest and has been their client a number of times. (Adam Durfee)

According to BYU Admissions, Y Digital held a recruiting event last year that saw more recruiters than students. No one walked away without a job.

“I love Y Digital because of all the hands-on experience,” said Jessica Awerkamp, who got a job at a tech startup company while working at Y Digital. “I’ve gained countless skills that transfer straight into the workplace.”

On top of the skills acquired, each student is assigned an alumni mentor who already has experience in the digital marketing field. This one connection immediately invites students into a network of professionals to kickstart their career in the right direction. Durfee said he has a goal to develop his students into professionals, and he is doing everything he can to guarantee their success.

“The level of work these students are creating in this space shows that the value of a good idea belongs to anybody. And if you’re willing to put in a little bit of time, and a little bit of action, you can do something incredible,” he said.

Durfee only expects Y Digital to get bigger and bigger. He anticipates over 100 applications for the 2021 Fall Semester and is excited to see what lies beyond that.

“It’s pretty incredible for me to look back and realize that this started with just an idea on a napkin, five students, and Mountain Dew,” he said.

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