We’re gonna flip the script a little bit today and get some perspective from the ones running the internship at the agency. Below, we get a lengthy recap/case study from Norm Shearer, ECD/partner at Denver-based Cactus, which works with brands including Denver Zoo and Smashburger.

The focus here, though, is on Whole Foods and a summer internship program where seven Cactus recruits spanning all departments from account to creative to social essentially served as the “agency” for the supermarket chain’s Rocky Mountain Region division. The end result is a Whole Foods-approved integrated campaign that will be produced early next year. But why don’t we just shut the hell up now and let Shearer share the story. 

Let’s face it, internship programs at creative agencies mostly suck. They eat up time and resources, and the work is usually junior at best. Sure they can act as a semester-long job interview, and over Cactus’s two decades of summer intern programs, we’ve hired more than a few participants—they’ve injected fresh energy and novel ideas into our culture. But in an industry where hours are always in short supply, lavishing them on interns sometimes just isn’t worth it.

So this year when my business partner Joe Conrad and I were deciding whether to keep the program alive, we were leaning towards no. Doing it “right” seemed like it would require pouring even more agency resources into it. The ROI just didn’t seem to be there. But the thing with big ideas is they almost always require risk.

I wondered what if we didn’t have the interns work on Cactus clients? What if we could create an integrated agency within an agency, equip them with Cactus’ beliefs and processes, and find a client that had a business problem they could tackle. Not a nonprofit looking for free work, but an experienced client that would expect the absolute best an agency can deliver.

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