PROVO — "Before you wear the colors, you have to be a team."

"Finally something we can all drink to."

"I am my anti-drug."

These slogans, born in the creative think tank of the BYU AdLab, have grown to occupy TV screens, websites, magazine pages and radio waves — as polished as any professional ad campaign.

Since 2003 the AdLab, tucked away in the Brimhall Building on the south end of BYU's campus, has cranked out hundreds of campaigns and cream-of-the-crop advertisers, thanks to hands-on experience with real clients and genuine assignments.

The Ad Council recently released a new Smokey Bear campaign, featuring an educational DVD created entirely by BYU AdLab students.

"It's awesome for your homework to turn into national, viewable material," said AdLab director Jeff Sheets.

The Smokey Bear DVD will be sent to schools nationwide to teach kindergartners, first- and second-graders about preventing wildfires.

"You really can't tell that it's student work," said Priscilla Natkins, executive vice president, director of client services and overseer of the Ad Council's PSA campaigns. "They have strategic smarts, creative smarts, technical smarts; they're a very impressive group. BYU delivers time and time again."

Before the AdLab, BYU advertising students worked on "case studies" — hypothetical campaigns that ended when the semester did.

That wasn't good enough for Sheets. Ditto for advertising professor Doug McKinlay, who had been asked to start a creative track in BYU's advertising program.

"My thought was, this is really an applied discipline, so we need a place (to practice)," McKinlay said.

His "student-run advertising agency" pitch didn't go over well, he said. But when he called it an "advanced advertising lab," people started listening.

After all, it wasn't too heretical an addition in the Department of Communications where students work in the Daily Universe, Daily News at Noon and Bradley Public Relations labs, developing journalism and public relations skills.

"We've not found anywhere else that has lab operations like BYU does on the scale that we do," said Ed Adams, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications. "BYU is pioneering a lot of ground with these labs that are unprecedented in undergraduate education."

By 2005, the AdLab was fully operational, offering extracurricular, hands-on experience through designing, managing and pitching actual campaigns in conjunction with professional agencies.

"It's where everything comes together," said senior Sara Martinez, account executive. "You learn it in class, but here you get to practice what you learned."

And they practice with big names: Doritos, Haagen Dazs and Nike.

A campaign for NikeiD features the catchy slogan written on arms and legs of athletes: "Before you wear the colors, you have to be a team."

Now the Wieden+Kennedy and BYU AdLab-designed campaign is plastered around the world, backed by millions of Nike dollars.

In the nonprofit realm, UNICEF tapped the AdLab to create a Utah-specific campaign for its larger Tap Project, which raises money to provide clean water for children around the world.

Students played off Utah's unique culture with the slogan: "Finally something we can all drink to."

Work for organizations such as UNICEF and the Office of National Drug Control and Policy is done gratis, but commercial clients are charged based on the size and scope of the project, with all money going back into the self-funding AdLab.

"It's pretty cool to have the chief marketing officer at Volkswagen view your presentations and say they were as good or better than what he's received in the professional realm," Sheets said.

Whether it's wowing the burger reps or dazzling the electronic game gurus, AdLabbers are determined to fill their résumés with projects they hope will set them apart in the applicant pool.

BYU has a good track record, Sheets said. Even in last year's depressed job market, the program placed 54 interns in New York City — the highest number ever.

"My unwritten goal is that you don't leave BYU and get a job as a junior assistant copy writer or a junior assistant anything," McKinlay said. "You go right in as an account executive or planner or copy writer, because you've already been there, done that."

Like Matt Miller.

Miller had already done real work for real clients, including the Library of Congress, EA games, the San Francisco Opera and AOL when he graduated in August 2008.

"I think we surprised (companies) a couple of times with what we could do, but they definitely understood we weren't yet professionals," he said. "With that understanding came amazing guidance, feedback and input. It was like they wanted us to learn just as much as our professors did."

That guidance and feedback got him to Chicago, where he now works as a copywriter for ad agency Leo Burnett.

"I've been told many times that BYU undergrad advertising students are often on the same level as other students coming out of 'portfolio schools,' which are like graduate schools for ad people," he said. "Which might explain why I've been asked a couple of times by people in the industry if I have 'any other Mormon BYU friends looking for jobs.' "

The AdLab has already filled a display case in the Brimhall with awards — a gold bullet, a bronze cube and several other congratulatory polyhedron glass plaques.

The program recently won a Gold ADDY for a Doritos commercial featuring a hawk, badger and wolverine as guardians of the beloved chips. That same commercial won an international first-place student award from D&AD in London this week.

But sometimes the best "prize" isn't something you can show off on a shelf.

BYU is the only student-run agency to partner with the Ad Council and in the past four years has worked on five highly successful campaigns, Natkins said, through advocating reading, reconnecting kids with nature and preventing wildfires.

"They have been really engaging, passionate and effective partners," Natkins said. "We delight in every partnership that we explore with them."

The AdLab has also proven itself with UNICEF and is now considered a strategic agency partner on UNICEF'S newest "Believe in Zero" campaign to eradicate preventable deaths of children, Sheets said.

"At BYU, we have to balance our mission," he said. "We're not only training students to be excellent advertisers and sell things, but to use their skills and persuasiveness to change the world for the better."

To see more:

View the AdLab demo reel: vimeo.com/13043281

A Day in the Forest with Smokey Bear: multivu.prnewswire.com/mnr/adcouncil/44925/

Utah TAP project: www.byuadlab.com/portfolio/utah-tap-project/

sisraelsen@desnews.com