College for Creative Studies and Mars Agency collaborate on unique program for design students

Internships are an opportunity for students to learn about their field and make connections in exchange for free labor. Right? Not according to the Detroit-based marketing agency Mars Agency, which has teamed up with the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in creating unique apprenticeship and class called Cross Stitch Creative.  

Sure, CCS students receive first-hand experience in working for and learning from an industry-leading shopper marketing agency. But Mars Agency also obtains immediate insights from the minds of the latest generation of college students. And all involved have gained an appreciation for the power of casual conversation.

The five-year partnership between the college and firm has students working on real projects for real Mars clients while getting paid for their work. The part-academic, part-professional program operates out the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, an educational complex and office building owned by CCS.

The school's advertising department renovated parts of their floor, outfitting it to resemble a modern corporate office instead of a classroom. Couches and coffee tables now complement the student workstations in a more fluid work environment.

Mars has also provided each of the program's ten students with notebooks, backpacks, and even laptops. “The look on their faces when Mars walked in with laptops was quite a moment,” says CCS advertising department chair Mark Zapico.

For Mars, Cross Stitch Creative is a veritable millennial think tank for answering questions about young professionals. What are the students' opinions on the latest trends? What are their pop culture interests? How can the Michigan-based firm keep top talent in the community and not lose graduates to bigger markets like Chicago and New York?

Mars is a major firms in shopper marketing whose clients include Colgate, Palmolive, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, and T-Mobile. It's only the first semester of the five-year long commitment and Mars clients are already excited about their partnership with one of the top five design schools in the nation, says Rob Rivenburgh, CEO of the Mars agency.

“This creates a buzz on a national level,” he says. “I travel quite a lot. When I tell people I'm from Detroit, the feedback isn't what it's historically been -- we're now getting a reputation as a creative hub. We're getting a buzz and we hope to accelerate it.”

Cross Stitch Creative got its start from a simple casual conversation in May of 2015. Rivenburgh and other Mars leaders attended an open house at CCS to take in students' work. That's when Rivenburgh and Zapico started a dialogue. Zapico says that he has a lot of conversations with potential partners and received his fair share of empty promises. This time was different.

“Casual conversations sometimes result in some pretty amazing things,” says Zapico. “We can use this to teach students to never underestimate the power of talking to people, building contacts, and networking.”

It's a long-term project, which isn't the norm -- Zapico assumed that maybe the offer would be for a semester or two. Instead, Rivenburgh envisioned something more ambitious. While the initial commitment is  for five years, Rivenburgh hopes it lasts 25.

With it being the first semester, the department and agency are still adapting the program to fit the needs of the students. While it functions as a paid internship, it's also a class -- just one in a full semester's worth for the students.

Cross Stitch Creative might be a challenge, but it's an exciting one. “This is the very beginnings of a unique way to use our department,” says Zapico. “We're pushing the boundaries of what we can do.”

This story is a part of a series of features on the impact of Detroit's anchor institutions. Support for this series is provided by a coalition of organizations, including Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Wayne State University, College for Creative Studies, and Midtown Detroit Inc.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.