Mary Ellen Barto has no problem sharing what she’s learned during her 35 years in agency and client marketing with students.
In fact, she’s happy to give back to advertising and public relations students as manager of the Talking Dog Agency in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
“One of the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts of my job is helping to mentor younger professionals,” she said. “It’s always been a passion of mine, and this felt like the right way to give back and invest in the communications professionals of tomorrow.”
Barto comes by her career honestly—her father was in magazine advertising sales. She also developed an interest in writing and earned a bachelor’s degree in business psychology from Albright College in Pennsylvania. She then spent several years working in media planning at agencies in Manhattan. Eventually, she moved to Atlanta with one of those agencies. Then, after holding positions with a couple of additional agencies, Barto spent 13 years as vice president of brand media and field marketing at Arby’s Restaurant Group.
Over her career, she worked with clients including Kraft Foods, Hershey, Pepperidge Farm, McCormick, AT&T, American Express, Sheraton Hotels and more.
“Media planning was never boring to me,” she said. “In my mind, it’s this wonderful way to combine strategy and tactical planning and execution and creative thinking all in the same place. It suited me really well.”
A few years ago, Barto and her husband moved to Athens for a “second act.” She was already connected with the public relations department as part of an advisory group of professionals. Grady College decided to formalize Talking Dog Agency, which started as an outgrowth of the American Advertising Federation AdClub chapter and the college’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter, and asked Barto to lead it.
“It gave students an opportunity to do hands-on applications of the things they were learning in the classroom,” Barto said. “It’s still student-led, which I’m very passionate about. Having the students actually be responsible for owning those relationships with clients, working through hurdles and problems that come up, and managing teams of people is an experience that most students don’t get.”
According to Barto, that development of soft skills sets her students up for success in their post-graduate life.
The agency is set up like any other advertising and public relations agency. They use the same systems and software and have teams focusing on different clients and production areas. The more than 100 students in the agency are placed on client teams in roles like account executive, public relations specialist, copywriter and art director. Those teams are overseen by four student co-directors and a board of roughly 11 other students. This year, there are 10 client teams working with clients like Amazon Music and, in partnership with BBDO Atlanta, the Georgia Lottery. They also work with local nonprofits, such as Historic Athens and Share the Magic Foundation, Malcolm Mitchell’s childhood literacy initiative. The entire agency meets every Wednesday night from September through April.
Barto sees herself as a connector between her students and the industry and her students and the academic department. She works closely with the agency’s co-directors, meeting with them multiple times each week, and frequently checks in with the agency’s partners and their client teams. There are also two faculty advisors for the agency.
“Guide. Inspire. Connect. That’s how I view my role in the organization,” she said. “Here, there’s a whole layer of learning. It’s a little bit of a safe space where you can learn and make some mistakes. I think that gives you grace to stretch yourself and maybe be more creative and go in different directions.”
In addition, she handles the administrative aspects of the agency, like client billing, and helps with creating presentations for interested alumni and setting agendas for agency meetings.
Outside of work, Barto enjoys traveling, hiking and spending time with her family, including her dogs.
Barto also spends time keeping up on industry trends so that her students have the most up-to-date knowledge.
“We’re preparing them for a career, to walk into their first jobs, with solid skillsets and confidence,” she said. “Watching them grow from the beginning of the year to the end of the year—seeing their progress and how proud they are of it—is wonderful.”