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Oxford's Women on the Move: A Spark of Joy

Anna Grace Usery
Chris Sparks’ history is deeply rooted in Oxford’s landscape, but that didn’t stop her from exploring the world during her career as a brand marketer. She’s taking her work experiences and business knowledge and giving it back to where it all began – the University of Mississippi. HottyToddy.com’s Anna Grace Usery sat down with Sparks to discuss her story.
Usery: Mrs. Sparks, why don’t you begin by telling the community a little bit about who you are and what you do at the university.
Sparks: I’m an assistant professor of integrated marketing communication at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. I’m a graduate of the Oxford High School and The University of Mississippi.  I’ve been back in Oxford and here at the university for six years now. I transitioned from a career in marketing and advertising to teaching, so I’m in my second career in my hometown.  I spent 27 years in the consumer/packaged goods industry with Mars, Colgate-Palmolive, The Coca-Cola Company and with the Ogilvy agency, but my husband and I decided to make a move back home. I was lucky enough to start teaching here at the Meek School and be back in Oxford. I originally graduated from Oxford High School and my parents have both been involved in university positions here.  It’s nice to come full circle and be back in Oxford.
Usery: Your dad was a football coach, correct?
Sparks: Yes, my dad was a football coach at Ole Miss. That’s how my family came to Oxford. He coached both offense and defense under Coach Sloan and Coach Brewer. Later, he worked for U.S. senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. My mom, Dr. Ann Canty, was also a part of the University.  She was an associate professor of management, assistant dean of the business school and Associate Provost Emerita. I guess you can say we are an Ole Miss family.
Usery: And what were their names?
Sparks: Ann and Bill Canty.
Usery: And you and your husband have a son? Where does he go to school?
Sparks: Matt is a rising sophomore at Oxford High School. So, we’re going to have a second-generation OHS graduate! It’s fun to see my son at my high school and a part of the Oxford-Ole Miss community.  I love how Oxford has grown, but still retained the charm and traditions that it had before.  Oxford is a special place. 
Usery: Tell us about your time at The Coca-Cola Company.
Sparks: I spent 17 and a half years there and I worked primarily with bottlers to help them with their marketing plans. Then, I went into more of a national marketing and communications role working with the Diet Coke brand. I also worked in food service with restaurants. What I’m best known for at Coke is marketing innovation.  I developed the marketing plan for 17 new brand launches. So, I repositioned and introduced new brands, as well as came up with their marketing plans. Some of those were Diet Coke with Lemon, Lime, Splenda, Cherry and Black Cherry Vanilla. I also did the Fresca flavors, but my biggest brand launch is Coke Zero.  I introduced Coke Zero in both bottles, cans and in restaurants.
Usery: You recently took a group of Meek School students on a study abroad trip to Ireland. Can you tell us about the class you taught and where you went as a group?

Sparks and her group of students enjoyed class at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Photo courtesy of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

Sparks: I taught brand and relationship strategies on the campus of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  We went to Ireland to provide students with an academic and cultural experience that would expand their horizons.  For many students, it was the first time they had been out of the U.S. and I think it is the first time the Meek School has offered a study abroad. We were able to get 44 students to sign up and stay on the campus of Trinity College.  We explored Belfast, Waterford, and other areas of Ireland.  I assigned marketing projects connected to Ireland.  I used a book to teach that was written by a former friend of mine at The Coca-Cola Company, who is now teaching at Georgia Tech. It was an amazing experience and  was kind of a neat thing to come full circle from my previous career and my new one.
The other thing I recently did before the Ireland trip is take a group of students to The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. I think one of the things I’ve been able to do is to provide these extra study opportunities, apply my work experience and offer that information to the students at the University of Mississippi. I arranged for my friends at Coke to take the students in and immerse them in integrated marketing communication strategy and programs at The Coca-Cola Company. The marketing teams in charge of the FIFA World Cup for Coca-Cola came and presented their plan. The brand director who launched the new Diet Coke campaign came and presented all the research and the strategic decisions they made before repositioning Diet Coke this year. So, they got a full week inside the offices of Coke. We had the same immersive experience at Turner. That’s something I feel like I can bring to the students at the University of Mississippi— to leverage my industry connections and expose students to real world marketing experiences. Even when we went to Ireland I was able to find a friend who formerly worked with Coca-Cola who was willing to fly over from Paris. He was the guest speaker for the kids that day. It’s really nice to be able to offer them those experiences.
Usery: It seems like you’ve offered your students a lot of networking opportunities and teachable moments, but what have you learned from them?
Sparks: The students keep me energized and engaged in how they think and learn.  I get to look at some of these opportunities through their eyes, so it helps keep me on my toes. I’m always looking for new examples I can use to illustrate a concept or teach more effectively and be be relevant to my students. For me, it helps me grow.  
Usery: What’s your favorite thing about Oxford?
Sparks’ former co-worker Efrain Rosario traveled to Trinity College in Dublin to speak with Meek School students about integrated marketing. Photo courtesy of Chris Sparks.

Usery: What’s your favorite thing about Oxford?
Sparks: I love that Oxford has retained its character and charm. The combination of the people, the town, and the university is what’s really attractive to me. So I guess my favorite things in Oxford are those that I can connect to how Oxford used to be, but experience the more modernized version of it.  I can still go to the Square and be upstairs at Boure and look out over the Square and it’s that same kind of hometown feeling, but at the same time it’s in a more modern expression. I like that Oxford is growing, but I like that Oxford’s retained some of its character and what makes it different and special from other places.  That’s what I love. As someone who teaches brand, it’s all about the relationships and the feeling of connection that you have. It doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in the past, but you can cherish those things and bring some of those points of difference that make this town kind of special versus other places you can live.

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