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Transitioning from Student-Run Agencies to Professional Agencies

Published on October 18, 2021 at 7:36 p.m.
by Lady Reynolds.

In a 2019 post for O’Dwyer’s, Doug Swanson, a professor of communications at California State University, noted student-run agencies put “PR students in the driver’s seat.”

Student-run agencies allow undergraduates to obtain hands-on experience with real-life clients, and they are becoming increasingly popular across college campuses. Currently, there are 34 nationally affiliated student-run agencies in the United States recognized by the Public Relations Student Society of America. Working for these firms gives students an upper hand when they become employees at professional agencies.

Visual by the Capstone Agency

Katey Quinn, assistant account executive at Edelman and alumna of Capstone Agency at The University of Alabama, revealed that its student-run firm was one of the main reasons she attended the university. She had heard of its exceptional recognition and knew it would guide her career in the right direction.

Similarly, Grehan Associates at The University of Kentucky and Talking Dog at The University of Georgia gave graduates Shannon Strivieri and Carly Wages remarkable experiences that led them to work at professional agencies.

Gaining experience
Strivieri, a previous marketing and sales associate at the creative agency Hook Interactive, built Grehan Associates from the ground up. The firm was absent from the university for 10 years and gained momentum in 2017 when Strivieri became the first assistant firm director and later the firm director. She explained how she developed relationships with peers, faculty and clients to prove the agency was worthwhile.

Visual courtesy of Grehan Associates

Strivieri also experienced jobs in the corporate world during her time as a finance management trainee at Nestlé. She currently serves as a financial operations analyst at Boston Beer Company. She said, “The person who had the position before me had nine years of experience. I had three months of professional experience at Hook Interactive and Nestlé as well as experience from Grehan. Because I have those leadership qualities and traits now, I’m able to have these positions.” While working at Hook Interactive, she learned how to “reach out to freelancers and research potential clients” — a responsibility she undertook at Grehan Associates.

On the other hand, Talking Dog and Capstone Agency have established a noteworthy presence on their respective campuses for several years. Wages, a strategist at the ad agency BBDO, received her first job offer upon graduation from Luckie. She attributed this offer to the respected reputation of Talking Dog.

Valuable lessons
The professional and personal skills student-run agencies teach young adults are validated through their work at professional agencies.

Quinn revealed the most valuable lesson she learned at Capstone Agency was confidence. “[That confidence-building experience] taught me about the landscape and broad overview of what public relations and advertising are, and all the different services you can offer clients,” she said. “Pitching, the structure of pitching and how to handle relationships with journalists gave me a huge foundation for the skills I need in a professional agency.”

Strivieri explained how her time at Grehan Associates taught her important personal skills. “It taught me to be open-minded and not so type A. … I had to find trust in other people to do their jobs,” she said. “If you’re a leader, you have to be a leader who listens. You can’t just think you know everything that you don’t. I genuinely think what Grehan taught me in some ways was more valuable than what classes taught me.”

Visual by the Talking Dog Agency

Wages said many skills from Talking Dog still play a role in her work as a strategist, such as the ability to present ideas and speak in front of others. She explained, “Having that skill early when I came into BBDO helped advance me in my career probably faster than some of my peers. I had already done that initial onboarding where I was able to get in front of a group and speak up in a meeting room — you don’t have to build that confidence here because student agencies inherently give you that confidence.”

Structural comparisons
A key aspect that simplified the transition from a student-run agency to a professional agency is the similarity in organizational structure.

Talking Dog, Grehan Associates and Capstone Agency all have similar structures: a firm leadership that oversees different departments comprised of students and their top skills. For example, there is typically one team to every client, and within that team, there is a full wheel of roles.

“Structurally, the way it functioned was there were dedicated teams that served each client, Wages explained. “Fully staffed, from account to strategy to creative team and analytics, as well, you kind of have this nice little microcosm of what it’s like to be working in a true agency but as a student.” At BBDO, she noted how she sits on several accounts but the team switches between accounts and clients. As a result, she’s able to pick up new skills and working styles from different co-workers.

Strivieri, who created the entire organizational structure of Grehan Associates, said breaking down members into different buckets was Grehan Associates’ key factor. She noted how each person was able to focus on their specific role, which is very similar in professional agencies.

The transition
While the experience, lessons and organizational structure provide a smoother transition into a professional agency, Quinn argued that the adjustment was also challenging. “I had to get used to all the logistics of being in such a large agency,” she said. “Edelman has over 6,000 employees — I’m able to connect with everyone, but it takes a little bit of getting used to how large it is.”

Visual courtesy of BBDO

Although Wages did not go through quite as rigorous of an interview and application process due to her previous internship at BBDO, she realized the reason she loved BBDO from the beginning was because it felt so much like the things she loved about Talking Dog. She noted, “If you’re somebody who enjoys collaborative work and being part of a team, agencies are the place to go. It very much has that high-energy feel that a student agency would.”

Day-to-day duties
Tasks each day in a professional agency are different by the hour. Quinn and Wages both agreed that no day is the same, and that is one of the most exciting parts of the professional agency path. Quinn stated, “An earned media opportunity could pop up at any point,” meaning a multitude of new administrative obligations immediately arise for her.

Wages explained how her duties as a strategist translate what the human and client needs are. Her time at Talking Dog prepared her for common agency tasks, such as research, crafting creative briefs, developing impactful relationships and strategizing ideal messages.

Strivieri, Quinn and Wages emphasized the importance of getting involved with student-run agencies and recommended the experience to all aspiring professional employees. They described the liberating feeling the work in their respective student-run agencies gave them. Each now commands the driver’s seat in her public relations journey.

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