Despite COVID-19 Disruption, ViacomCBS Keeps Its Commitment to the Next Generation

Reviving a mentoring program that was assumed to be postponed until further notice
Dec 18, 2020 12:00 PM ET

By Kavell Brown

2020 has been a year filled with uncertainty, shifting paradigms, political and social tension, and a global pandemic that no one could’ve predicted. Imagine now that all of these factors are stacked on top of the already present challenges of remote learning, maintaining a social life, and a solid GPA for students matriculating through school this year. Reports have shown that adolescent students are struggling with their mental health, looking to feel connected with their peers, and trying to find ways to productively occupy their time. Despite these compounding negative factors, students are more eager than ever to learn new skills, engage with new learning models, and receive guidance on how to navigate these uncertain times. In response, the ViacomCBS Social Responsibility team partnered with Reel Works and the Nickelodeon Creative Marketing team to revive UP Creative, a mentoring program that was assumed to be postponed until further notice. 

UP Creative is the eccentric, younger sibling to ViacomCBS’s broader mentoring initiative called (U)nlimited (P)otential Mentoring. After seeing the success of the original mentoring program the team saw the need to create a program that offered support and guidance to aspiring creatives. Even though NYC is one of the media capitals of the world, the industry remains mystified to so many of the city’s natives as access has historically and systemically been a barrier of entry. To meet that challenge the ViacomCBS Social Responsibility team partnered with Reel Works, a local non-profit that seeks to empower the next generation of creatives and filmmakers, and the Nickelodeon Creative Marketing team to create UP Creative in 2016. During the 6-week program Reel Works students learn how to create promotional short-form content using iconic nickelodeon IP while gaining career advice from seasoned Nickelodeon writers and producers. The program culminates in a competitive showcase where creative executives judge and provide constructive feedback, giving the students a sense of what it’s like to produce promotional material for a giant brand. For that short 6-week run, the students are creators whose work is judged and critiqued, for better or worse, as if it's our own. 

Typically the UP Creative program occurs inside the ViacomCBS headquarters located in the heart of Times Square, NYC. Students and mentors gather on the Nickelodeon floors which are covered floor to ceiling with quirky drawings, figurines, and apparel of legendary Nickelodeon shows found in stores around the world. Then Covid-19 hit. The logistical uncertainty, pivoting business models, and government prescribed quarantine mandates gave the impression that the program wouldn’t be possible. Mentoring is based on connection, and for a moment, the program had lost its core driver. In spite of those factors, the team used adaptive creativity to alter this year’s curriculum and accommodate a virtual pivot. With a combination of zoom breakout rooms, a video syncing tool called Watch Together, and a modified virtual curriculum created in partnership with the Reel Works teaching staff, the program was able to come to life and continue. The show must go on. 

Mentoring typically is most effective when conducted in person, however, a virtual program yielded a few unforeseen benefits. From allowing a California student to join the NYC-based students to saving money on transportation. Mentors were more readily accessible to guide students on the editing process and students were able to collaborate on the creative process in unexpected yet highly-productive ways. To foster connection and comradery, the Reel Works and Nick staff engaged in trivia, energizing ice breakers, and collectively reviewed iconic promotional trailers to nurture conversation and interests.

Although UP Creative isn’t the one-stop-shop solution that provides the level of guidance that underserved students need, the impact of the program helps fill a gap now exacerbated by the pandemic. Students walk away with a better understanding of how content gets marketed to consumers as well as the technical ins and outs of voice-overs and video editing. 

Upon completion, the students were given a program evaluation survey and when asked “What were your favorite things about being part of UP Creative,? Or what stood out to you?” Joseph Sexton replied, “Getting to hear back from Nick executives was invaluable. Realizing that our efforts were considered professional by their standards gave me a huge boost in confidence and motivation.”Moreover, the impact of the UP Creative program is bi-directional. The mentors increase their communication skills and take on leadership roles their day-to-day positions may not afford them. Additionally, UP Creative provides the Nick employees a sense of purpose, allowing them to use their skills and talents to pour into the next generation, ultimately engaging in social impact.

The takeaway from this year's program is that impact is always worth it, even if it takes a little persevering to achieve. In our current societal state holding fast to moments that illuminate the best parts of humanity provides glimmers of light and hope that give the energy to keep moving forward. Ultimately, the act of giving unlocks a feeling that things are getting better.