Associate Creative Director Jacob Van Blarcom stood in front of a full room as he scrolled through the type font and geometric shapes his team explored to create the potential logo for a new client.
“Design is problem-solving. … [It’s] more than just making something look pretty,” he said.
The presentation wasn’t at a creative agency in the North Loop of Minneapolis, but in a classroom in the basement of a student hall at the University of Minnesota.
CLAgency is a student-run advertising firm within the U’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Its paid staff is made up of undergraduates who work on marketing materials for not only college departments but, increasingly, for external clients.
The firm’s goal is to transition from an entity financially supported by the school to a self-sufficient organization.
“Since we are student-run, people like to think that we’re a student group. … But in reality we do consider ourselves to be an agency,” said Audra Weigand, CLAgency’s managing director, a senior who is studying sociology and political science.
She continued, “This is a paid job. We work with paying clients. We produce work that other comparable smaller agencies in the Twin Cities would also produce. We create communication strategy plans. We’re definitely a full-functioning agency. The only thing that’s different is that we do work for a college.”
CLAgency was the brainchild of Scott Meyer, the CLA’s chief marketing officer, who had initially created the group in the fall of 2014 to help better market the school and at the same time help students gain experience outside of the classroom.
“To me, it was a logical opportunity to tap into that talent,” Meyer said.
The agency tries to recruit students as sophomores across majors even outside of marketing. The program is set up as an independent study, with students working mostly on their own. During weekly lab sessions, professionals sometimes make presentations during the class (which also gets coffee breaks) but much of the time is spent with the students leading the lab.
“They really do a lot of teaching each other and sharing with each other,” said Meyer, as he listened from the back of the room as Van Blarcom encouraged other CLAgency staff members to take a few minutes to try to create their own logos for a venture capital fund client.
The college financially supports CLAgency, which also receives fees from some external clients. The 35 students in CLAgency are paid $10 an hour.
CLAgency content creators write stories each semester for college departments that are published online and distributed in digital newsletters and on social media.
CLAgency recently partnered with nonprofit Canvas Health, which provides mental health, chemical health and domestic and sexual abuse services. Canvas Health wanted to increase the number of attendees at their summer fundraising events as well as work with staff at local bars and restaurants for a training initiative to intervene in cases of assault and harassment among patrons.
CLAgency prepared marketing strategies for the events and communicated with local establishments for the “Safe Bars” initiative.
“It was good to get that outside perspective,” said Julia Yach, marketing manager of Canvas Health, who said that she would want to work with CLAgency again.
The agency has also worked with ServeMinnesota, the state’s AmeriCorps program, to strengthen the organization’s social media presence and recruit young people to become AmeriCorps members. ServeMinnesota recently agreed to pay CLAgency a monthly retainer of $4,000.
For Faribault Woolen Mill Co., CLAgency researched and conducted media tracking on competitors over a period of five months to try to help the textile company with its approach to e-commerce. The project provided the company with valuable insight from a younger demographic, said Tom Kileen, chief executive of Faribault Woolen Mill.
“From our perspective, it was a worthwhile project and they did a nice job,” he said.
On Dec. 6, First Avenue will play host to a music competition that CLAgency is helping promote and manage called “the Battle” with proceeds going to a scholarship fund for students from diverse backgrounds entering college. The scholarship fund is being set up in collaboration with the BrandLab diversity advocacy group. Most of CLAgency’s current staff is female and a third of staffers come from various ethnic backgrounds.
CLAgency alumni said their experience with the firm has been invaluable.
“It definitely put me on the forefront of résumés. … Reading things from a book is one thing but actually going out and getting that firsthand experience, there’s no question,” said Lauren Myhra, an associate account manager at digital marketing firm Rocket 55, who rose to the rank of managing director at CLAgency before graduating.
Another benefit for students participating in the agency is connecting with professionals who are part of the agency’s board of advocates, said Kyle Tsuchiya, who worked at CLAgency while balancing classes and an active marching band drum line schedule and was later hired as an associate brand strategist at large Minneapolis agency ICF Olson.
“They actually played a really important role in connecting me with people in the industry and just putting my name out there so that I was better set up for success to eventually get a job,” he said.
CLAgency has also been beneficial for students who don’t have plans to work at marketing agencies, said Weigand, who interned at professional agency Fast Horse this past summer.
“I do think that it’s really given me a lot of professional skills that I think are really transferrable,” said Weigand, who has a desire to work within nonprofits possibly helping with communications.
The next step for CLAgency is to land enough paying clients to make the firm self-sufficient, something it hopes to achieve in the next three to four years. Financial independence would mean CLAgency could have more creative freedom to work with a wider array of clients and avoid some of the bureaucratic hindrances that can be associated with being connected to a major university, said Sawyer Boyles, CLAgency’s accounts director.
“For us it comes down to the fact that we are very appreciative to the University of Minnesota for all of the work and all of the guidance that they have given us, but I think it’s really that CLAgency is getting to this point where it’s ready kind of to leave the nest and really go out there and make a name for itself,” Boyles said.
Even if the agency was financially independent, its focus would still be working for the college, Meyer said.
Even though CLAgency has come a long way, there are still lessons to be learned.
Despite CLAgency’s efforts, the venture capital fund that the firm worked with in the fall did not select any of the firm’s proposed logos and is no longer a client. While the team was disappointed, Meyer said it was a learning moment for the startup firm.
“It’s part of what happens in agency life,” Meyer said.