laptop with colorful image on screen; photo by NordWood Themes via Unsplash

Need creative help? Try the Department of Creativity

January 20, 2020

Did you know that students at the University of Colorado Denver run a creative agency? Well, it’s true. The agency designs and develops everything from logos and posters to websites and promo videos.

Housed in the College of Arts & Media (CAM), CAM Creative is a faculty-led, student-managed creative agency providing media solutions for university departments and Denver-area businesses. It’s a win-win model: students get hands-on experience and clients get high-quality, cost-effective products. 

Students in all three CAM departments—Music & Entertainment Industry Studies, Film & Television, and Visual Arts—can work for CAM Creative, getting paid for their time and tackling real-world, cross-disciplinary creative projects. The agency is also seeking to hire students from other units, such as the School of Business, Department of English, and others. For readers wondering what propelled the college to establish a professional agency, the answer is research, creative work, and the importance of developing entrepreneurial skills.

In 2016, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) collected and analyzed data from more than 200,000 arts graduates in North America, including University of Colorado Denver alumni. CAM graduates were overwhelmingly satisfied with their education, with 84% rating their experience at CAM as good/excellent. 

However, Dean Laurence Kaptain, DMA, was struck by certain SNAAP results. Graduates indicated that they wanted more in these areas: “entrepreneurship, project management, technological skills, and business/finance.” The dean could not single-handedly change programs at CAM—but he found a way to respond to SNAAP’s research. “What I can and did do was start co-curricular and non-credit opportunities to help students advance their creative and professional toolkits,” Kaptain said.

Broken Violin Book Design by CAM Creative
A book cover designed by CAM Creative.

Design agency teaches structure and standards

And thus, the student agency that eventually became CAM Creative was born in 2016. “This was highly successful—and engaged students across the three departments of CAM,” Kaptain said. After undergoing a name change, CAM Creative has been revamped for the 2019 – 2020 school year. Currently, the agency is headed by Instructor Stephen Schaf, who previously worked at advertising agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

portrait of Stephen Schaf
Instructor Stephen Schaf serves as Creative Director for CAM Creative.

“Our top priority is the career path of the student,” Schaf said. CAM Creative gives students a safe place to try things out. “I’d rather have them fail here than in the real world,” he said. Student Todd Smith, a film and television major who serves as VP of Creative, believes the agency experience is invaluable for students: “Maybe they find out agency work isn’t for them; they find that out now before they enter the work force.”

Besides building their portfolios, students work in a true agency environment, which means they have to meet clients, pitch ideas, accept feedback, and reach compromises. This isn’t always easy to do for idealistic students who are passionate about their artistic visions. “Creatives are all such odd little birds to work with,” Schaf admits. 

Schaf tries to prepare his student-employees at CAM Creative for the real world. For example, the students must present three options to the client, which is standard practice at many advertising/marketing agencies. Typically, the creative solutions fall into experimental, conservative, and middle-of-the-road categories. “You must be willing to live with any of those creative solutions,” he stresses.

RedLine is one of CAM Creative’s happy clients. The nonprofit connects artists with the greater Denver community in order to create positive social change. Regranting Manager Libby Barbee worked with CAM Creative on a series of promotional videos. “I think it was a great experience, wonderful to be able to support students as they’re learning their trade,” she said.

RedLine liked the end product—and the cost incentive, which is particularly helpful for nonprofits. As a student-run agency, CAM Creative charges less than traditional creative agencies. “I imagine it’s a plus for anyone, but we try to make our dollars go as far as we can,” Barbee said.

Schaf is hoping to accomplish three things as CAM Creative moves forward. He wants to get more external clients, do more experimental work, and involve more departments. The opportunities for collaboration are virtually endless for both faculty and students. Off the top of his head, Schaf, who is a fast talker full of effervescent energy, rattles off, “business, computer science, psychology, English …” One gets the feeling he could forge connections across any discipline, including the fabled underwater basket-weaving.