Going pro

Carl Collective staff (l to r) Gabriella Santamaria, Patrick Leahy and Stella Quinlan in the Johnston Hall office; photo by Aliza Baran

A novel student agency launches from the Diederich College, providing students real-world experience and clients access to young talent.

The conversations began about three years ago. What if undergraduate students in the Diederich College of Communication could get real-world experience in an agency? What if they could work directly with clients and build professional-level portfolios even before graduation?

It wasn’t a wild idea. Student agencies operate on other campuses using various models. Marquette was looking for something similar yet more ambitious. “We wanted students to be involved in making strategy decisions and generating solutions for clients on the highest level,” says Dr. Sarah Feldner, dean of the Diederich College.

And that’s what gave one Kansas City alumnus an idea. “I started thinking about what that could look like,” Angelo Trozzolo, Comm ’97, says. “And I ran the idea by them.”

Trozzolo runs Trozzolo Communication Group of Kansas City, Missouri, a company founded by his father. Since graduating from Marquette, he has remained in close contact with Marquette — even more so after two of his children enrolled. In recent years, that included some conversations with Feldner and her predecessor, Dr. Kimo Ah Yun, who is now provost. The student agency concept was a recurring topic.

The idea Trozzolo proposed: a partnership between Marquette and Trozzolo Communication Group to create a firm in Milwaukee with professionals working alongside students. Not a marketing research lab. Not a shop turning out brochures. A full-service agency delivering professional-level services to clients with real budgets.

When Trozzolo pitched the idea to Feldner and Ah Yun, “I told them, the best I could tell, it’s never been done before. But if it’s something that you’re interested in, I’ll dig into it a little more.”

They were, and Trozzolo did. Today that idea has blossomed into Carl Collective, a student-involved public relations, advertising and communication agency in Milwaukee. The first five student workers were hired in April, working with a Marquette faculty adviser and one of Trozzolo’s former Marquette roommates who was hired as director of the Milwaukee venture.

“Nationally, most student agencies work with low-stakes clients and lower budgets,” Feldner says. The Diederich College wanted a more elevated experience, “which we only could do with the kind of budgets that come with paying clients. Having a student-involved agency that is backed by a fully established agency allows us to do this,” she adds.

A deep well of resources

The university-agency partnership and student-professional workforce are what make Carl Collective unique. But what really excites Trozzolo and others is the scope of benefits Carl Collective can offer to clients, students, alumni, the university and the community. All will benefit from a deep well of resources: the Trozzolo group’s wide-ranging expertise and experience; the Diederich College’s faculty, alumni and community connections; a seasoned and well-connected local director; and a steady pool of young talent.

Carl Collective Director Erik Brooks (standing), Comm ’97, advises student associates.

In just its first few months, Carl Collective was already working with clients on communication strategy and planning, website updates, a media event, social media messaging, design projects and more. Some clients had come over with director Erik Brooks, Comm ’97, from his former communication agency. Others were new, and more were in the pipeline.

Student associates and a student general manager work for an hourly wage — juggling their part-time Carl Collective duties with their studies — and get a lesson in billable hours. Each is hired through graduation. Carl Collective jobs can earn internship credits if a student chooses and if they meet the standard internship requirements.

“I’m most excited that students have the opportunity to do real work for real clients,” says faculty adviser Dave Wilcox, a strategic communication instructor who became involved with the concept early on. “This will be portfolio work — a marketing strategy, a media plan, a PR treatment. It’s going to be way cool.”

“I’m excited to tell the story of Carl Collective,” says Brooks, a former classmate of Trozzolo’s who worked in newspapers and corporate communication before forming his own communication firm. At Carl Collective, he’s running day-to-day operations. “I think we’ll be able to provide a real value that you probably can’t find anywhere else — or certainly not many places.”

That value includes something most companies are scrambling for: insights from young consumers.

After word got out about Carl Collective, Brooks quickly began fielding inquiries about its “secret weapon” of Gen Zers. “Insights from Gen Z are a big deal,” he says. “I had lunch today with a potential client where that exact need came up. A lot of people want that, and we’re in a unique position to deliver it.”

It remains to be seen how the Gen Z factor will be worked into Carl Collective’s strategic vision as it takes shape. But including young voices around the table will most assuredly have an impact. Patrick Leahy, Comm ’22, the firm’s first student general manager who was later hired as a full-time account coordinator, says, “Clients appreciate that we can produce great work with the fresh perspective of college students. This happens when industry professionals and students just launching their careers collaborate together.”

Hitting the ground running

The startup process involved tasks you won’t find on a communication curriculum: ordering furniture for a work and collaboration space in Johnston Hall, scouting off-campus office locations, trying to figure out a scheduling system. There were potential clients to meet with, back-office details to coordinate with Kansas City and logistical procedures to iron out. By all accounts it was hectic and rewarding.

“This agency is fast-paced, caring and evolving,” says student associate Verónica Rosado. “Three qualities that I look for in any workspace.”

Carl Collective logo

“It’s rare to find a workplace that encourages a free flow of creativity from students,” says Gabriella Santamaria, a senior and Carl Collective’s current student general manager. “That’s what we have here. It’s a great atmosphere.” 

Rosado, Santamaria and their colleagues don’t take any of it for granted. They know how valuable the experience is, and they’re aware they are helping build something. “I get to be a part of the beginning of something huge and important, which will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Rosado says. 

The opportunity resonates differently but just as vividly for Trozzolo and Brooks, who marvel that they’re finding themselves back in the same building — Johnston Hall — where they forged a friendship, put out a newspaper, and in Brooks’ case met his future spouse, Sarah (Hammill) Brooks, Comm ’97. They’re grateful for the chance to give back as well as launch a new venture together.

And the office space they have chosen for Carl Collective’s main office? It’s at Campus Town, the very complex where they lived as roommates years earlier. “It’s uncanny,” Brooks says.

Read “Behind the Name” to learn how Carl Collective was named.