Op-Ed: An ECD Explains Why His Agency’s Internship Program Didn’t ‘Suck’

By Kiran Aditham 

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.

We focused on three key components:
1. The interns be integrated and represented across all departments.
2. The interns have clear training and management on Cactus’ beliefs and process.
3. We provide the interns with their very own client separate from existing Cactus clients.

For recruiting, management and training, we assigned lead team members from each department. This intern management team met regularly as the program ramped up and also gave each of the 7 new interns a go-to Cacti if they had questions, problems or issues during their summer.

This team also provided inspiration and gave strategically planned assignments to get the interns to act as a team. On their very first day we gave all interns a purposefully short and intensive one-week assignment — to make a video that would support Cactus’ annual Bike from Work Bash event. This spontaneous and rigorous crash course in problem solving and resourcefulness led to a fun video, but more importantly a team of 7 strong individuals, now with tighter relationships and value for one another. After just one week, they were acting, joking and working together like a team that had been together for 3 months.

Lastly we did something that was a bit unconventional. We wrangled a piece of business specifically for the interns to manage as a unified team. But not just any business or any assignment would do.

The interns needed full control, yet the assignment wouldn’t be valuable if it was just some random spec piece of business. And conversely it wouldn’t be successful if we got some cool, big brand, but the client’s marketing team didn’t have time to truly collaborate, input and be a “good” client to the interns.

We were very selective in finding just the right client for our team. At the top of our list was Whole Foods Market. We knew with their progressive business and marketing model, their high standards for business and community values — that if they were willing — they would be a great fit for us. So we called and asked if they would be interested in this endeavor, having a fully integrated team of interns take on a marketing assignment using Cactus’ process and oversight, but it would be 100% driven by the intern team.

They were not only willing, they were thrilled because the program fit their values and ideals well and they immediately saw the benefit that this program could have in helping them solve a current business challenge.

Whole Foods agreed to give the interns the required energy and time to input, access to their data and team members, providing interim meetings and feedback, and working with the team throughout a 10-week process.  For their investment of time Whole Foods received in return, 2 strategic proposals and campaigns based on research, planning and observations that not only catered to the Whole Foods Market customer and target audience, but catered to a custom understanding of Whole Foods’ marketing team, their systems and operations and how Whole Foods goes to market internally.

Part of the success was that Whole Foods gave the team a real assignment, not fluffy internship busy work. The assignment was challenging; to figure out how to promote and raise awareness for the “365” brand of “Whole Body” products. 365 is Whole Foods’ private-label product line, offering everything from packaged foods like milk, spaghetti sauce, cereals, etc, to the Whole Body 365 products like shampoos, makeup, lotions, toothpastes, etc. And all of the 365 products are made to the same high standards of quality and environmentalism that you’d expect from their food products. The problem was that Whole Foods’ success and reputation for organic foods was overshadowing their “Whole Body” specific products.

This unawareness issue causes many of their customers to shop the outside loop of the store where they get their organic meats, cheeses, and veggies, but then they skip the inner aisles without really noticing the 365 Whole Body products. So the intern’s objective was to somehow get people to pay attention to the notion that if you care what you put in your body, you should also care what you put on your body.Through the summer the interns had their share of ups and downs, just like any complex and intense assignment. But they always overcame issues and grew even tighter as an integrated team, overcoming amazing challenges and time constraints. Mixing both Cactus client work with the intensity of the Whole Foods assignment made for a busy yet rewarding summer.

The results were greater than our set goals for our new program. The team’s ideas were so well received by Cactus and Whole Foods that Whole Foods is currently in the process of working with us to deploy these ideas across the Rocky Mountain region.

“We love win-win-win propositions,” said Ben Friedland, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s Rocky Mountain region. “Cactus made a stellar introduction to a prospective client, Whole Foods Market won with fresh, creative talent tackling a business need, and the intern team won with honest to goodness real world experience. It is such an innovative approach. We were lucky to participate.”

This internship program has become a bridge to the beginnings of a genuine business relationship. One that has benefited all parties tremendously, without exorbitant amounts of effort.

Instinctively we knew that giving the interns their own client would have benefits. And what we came to find was that it forced a sense of accountability that we might have otherwise taken for granted. This unique assignment made the interns feel special, but also meant they had to bring their A-game. They couldn’t just rely on our knowledge or on our relationships with an existing client. For every idea, insight, solution, and presentation, the interns really had to earn it.

Conversely, it was rewarding for the Cactus team, to help nurture and train such talented students to work as a team, and to work efficiently and effectively using Cactus’ process and models. The Cactus team was rewarded to see the output of the intern team reach extremely high levels of quality in their work.

Their solutions weren’t just deemed a nice intern campaign, but rather on par with the leading work we do for all our clients.