Mary Billingsley noticed something odd as she walked into Metro Center subway station earlier this month. There was an ad for Texas A&M University. And another ad. And another.
In fact, every single ad in the Metro station — from the turnstiles to the walls — was for the Texas university 1,400 miles from Washington.
Mary was in the middle of a trip that had taken her from Cairo, where she lives, to Dallas to visit some friends, and then to Washington, where she used to live. She was in a fuzzy, semi-jet-lagged state.
“I immediately had a thought of, ‘Wait, where am I?’ ” Mary recounted in an email. “Once I realized that I was indeed in D.C., wow, such pride! And how lucky I was to have timed my brief visit to the States to see it!”
Mary, you see, is an Aggie — the nickname for students at what was once called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas — and she was delighted to find that Metro Center has been temporarily transformed into a little patch of Aggieland. The theme of the ads is “Fearless on Every Front,” and they tout the school’s achievements in such areas as science, agriculture and the environment.
But why? Is it to encourage D.C.-area high school students to apply to the Texas university?
Not exactly, said Amy Smith, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at the school. Smith joined A&M in July after working as vice president of communications for Raytheon, the defense contractor. Raytheon is the sort of company that typically shells out for “station domination,” which is what Metro calls it when a single advertiser snaps up every display space.
Most of the people who ride Metro aren’t in a position to buy their own weapons systems, but a few are involved in those decisions because they work at the Pentagon or on the Hill.
The Texas A&M ads serve a similar purpose. Potential students might see the ads, yes, but hopefully so will people who grant research funds, like from the National Science Foundation, and academics who might be lured to Texas to teach.
“We’ve hired maybe 25 National Academy members in the last couple of years,” said Michael Young, who became president of A&M in May 2015. “When we call [potential faculty] we want them to pick up the phone and say, ‘Yeah, I know about Texas A&M and I’m intrigued.’ ”
So Metro Center is like a big help wanted ad?
More of a “we’re helping out ad,” Young said.
“And, so, if what we’re doing intrigues and resonates, and you have a passion to help make the world a better place, come join us,” he said.
Young was in town this week, and on Monday evening, he posed for a photo in Metro Center with more than 50 local alums. (There are about 3,500 Aggies in the Washington area, the highest concentration outside of Texas, Smith said.)
Every college campus has a unique personality. I spent a week at Texas A&M in 2009 as a visiting journalist and can report that its personality is more unique than most. The school grew out of a strong military tradition. I think the ads — which cost about $150,000 for 5 1/2 weeks — are an effort to show that today’s A&M is a little more Athens and a little less Sparta.
If the Metro Center ads are warming Aggie hearts, they’re sending a cold chill through graduates of their rival school. Said Smith: “I’m getting hate emails from University of Texas graduates saying, ‘I assume I have you to blame for walking through this every day on my commute.’ ”
Ambivalent about Aggies? What about cats? You’ll recall the insane coverage when all the ads in a London Tube station were recently replaced by photos of felines, including one from our area.
Now a Maryland woman is hoping to do the same thing here. Nicole Adams, of Gaithersburg, has been getting advice from Glimpse, the London collective that created Cats Not Ads. And she has spoken with Outfront Media, the firm that handles Metro’s ad space.
Nicole doubts she could afford to dominate a station like Metro Center but hopes to crowdfund enough money to cat-ify a smaller one, such as Dupont Circle. She said she hopes to launch a fundraising drive next year. Stay tuned.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.