Insights from the Next Top Ad Execs

The competition revealed that younger Canadians struggle to define AI and don't consider it with a sense of urgency.


From left: Gladstone Grant, director of solution sales at Microsoft; Michelle Vacarciuc and Jaclyn Shapiro, Next Top Ad Exec first-place winners; Sherief Ibrahim, general manager of modern workplace at Microsoft); and Tejasvi Kamath, program chair. 

Artificial intelligence may be the “defining technology of our time,” says Sherief Ibrahim, general manager of modern workplace at Microsoft Canada, but many university students outside of computer science and engineering – like those in marketing – still fail to see how AI is relevant to their current work and future employment prospects.

In addition, Ibrahim says many Canadian students continue to perceive AI as inaccessible to the masses, not realizing that they already use it on a daily basis.

These were some of the central insights the technology giant gleaned from case studies presented during the final stage of the Next Top Ad Exec competition on April 1.

Launched in 2007, the post-secondary marketing competition aims to identify the next wave of marketing talent. This year, more than 300 teams answered a brief co-developed by Microsoft (the competition’s lead sponsor), universities and brands including PepsiCo, Canadian Tire, McDonald’s and Snapchat. Through three stages of competition, the list of top ten teams was determined.

Those teams were invited to Toronto to pitch their cases in 25 minutes to a panel of 20 senior marketers, who ultimately crowned Jaclyn Shaprio and Michelle Vacarciuc from York University’s Schulich School of Business. The duo was awarded a $25,000 cheque and internship opportunities with the event’s partner brands and agencies.

Ibrahim says Microsoft has been looking beyond students who are typically exposed to AI, such as anyone in computer sciences, to connect with those in other disciplines, like business and marketing – or “any field where we’ll see AI amplify their ability to do their jobs over time.”

Participants were tasked with figuring out how to increase interest and use of AI amongst post-secondary educators and students, while positioning Microsoft as a thought leader in the space. They had to increase consideration and students’ intent to learn AI skills using Microsoft Learning programs, among several other goals, with a campaign budget of $1.5 million.


Consistently, the teams highlighted a lack of understanding around the pervasiveness of AI. They mentioned surveys showing Canadian students are unable to define it and are often unaware of its current applications. For example, their research showed many don’t know that AI is embedded within mobile apps, predictive search and GPS apps involving real-time traffic data.

The cases also revealed that there’s no “sense of urgency” around using AI, Ibrahim says, meaning students feel it’s not something to worry about today, but rather a technology that will be relevant in five to ten years.

Ibrahim says Shaprio and Vacarciuc’s winning work tapped into these insights with a series of “not humorous, but definitely relatable videos and experiential marketing tactics” showing students what their day would look like if AI was taken away. The campaign included a call-to-action for students to use Microsoft’s Learning platform to get their AI certifications.

Finally, he says Microsoft was surprised by the different media that was chosen by students. While the company tends to shy away from more traditional media in favour of gaming and targeted ads, he says many groups found ways to incorporate new channels. Several called for  interactive print media, with one team using a cardboard cutout that turned into a speaker microphone as part of its campaign.

The competition was open to students from all disciplines. Ibrahim says marketing and business was the most popular, although a few students had joint-degrees or some level of background in engineering or computer science. There were also more female applicants this year than last.