Studio 5 Imparts Real-World Industry Experience to Communications Students
Simmons is unique because it is women-centered, and a lot of agencies are composed primarily of women/people who identify as women.
Studio 5 (COMM 390) is the senior Capstone project for Communications and Public Relations and Marketing Communications majors at Simmons. Essentially a student-run communications agency, Studio 5 gives Communications students — whether they focus on PR, journalism, integrated media, or design — a taste of real work experience. We spoke with Communications professors and recent alumnae/i about what makes Studio 5 such a successful exercise in experiential learning.
In an article entitled “Experiential Learning: The Future of Communications,” published in the student-run CommTracks magazine (spring 2023), Sidney Pilot ’23 writes: “Studio 5 is a student-run, professional communications studio that produces cutting-edge work for clients nationwide. Throughout the semester, students work in collaborative teams to provide innovative solutions to modern problems and to apply classroom knowledge to real-life situations.”
Associate Professor and Department Chair of Communications Briana Martino, who taught the course from 2017 until 2021, explains that Studio 5 derived its name from its original location on the fifth floor of the old Lefavour Hall. (The CommLab space is currently located in the Main College Building.)
In Martino’s view, the value of Studio 5 lies in its collaborative and integrative design. “Studio 5 is a true laboratory of collaboration between all elements of Communications, including journalism, design, integrated media and public relations.” Accordingly, students take on different roles for multiple clients, including project manager, client liaison, or design/creative team. “This framework helps students discover their strengths as well as their passions. Moreover, this unique experience sets Simmons apart from the [few] other student-run agencies elsewhere, which may focus for example, on advertising,” says Martino.
Studio 5 is a true laboratory of collaboration between all elements of Communications, including journalism, design, integrated media and public relations.
Since 2019, Associate Professor of Practice and Internship Director Kristina Markos has taught and mentored Studio 5 students. A PR and advertising veteran with 15+ years of industry experience, Markos is aware of the challenges that recent college graduates encounter. “If you look statistically at people who start in PR agencies, they often burn out within the first five years. All of a sudden, they are constantly switching roles and handling multiple projects at once, and most people fresh out of college are not prepared for this. You cannot learn these skills from a textbook, exam, or traditional class — you have to do it. Therefore, the experience of Studio 5 adequately prepares Simmons students for the career paths that they desire to follow.”
During this semester-long experiential course, seniors are allowed to choose their clients. When Audrey “Mack” Mackenzie ’21 took Studio 5 in Fall 2020, she recalls students being split into groups of three or four. “Performing different roles within our groups ensured that everyone develops a different skillset for each project. We then received lists of potential clients and their projects. We evaluated them individually and then selected clients as a group.”
The process for allocating roles and teams has since evolved. Currently, Studio 5 students are placed into departments: Account Management, Creative, or Project Management. Their placement is loosely based on their interests and personality types, as indicated by the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) self-assessment test.
During the pre-pandemic era, Studio 5 students worked closely with Boston-based hospitals and nonprofit organizations, including the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center for Young Women’s Health, First Teacher, Back on My Feet, and Strong Women Strong Girls. Studio 5 has also supported internal clients, namely Simmons’ Institute for Inclusive Leadership. One silver lining of COVID-19 is that Studio 5’s client base expanded well beyond Boston, given that many companies/organizations transitioned to remote work (and thanks to Markos’ robust professional networks).
I did not know that I was interested in branding until Studio 5. Having that hands-on work experience was formative.
Mackenzie worked as lead designer for Nia Impact Capital, a women-led investing firm based in Oakland, California. She codified various aspects related to branding, including the colors, typefaces, and writing tone on the company’s website. “The clients were very gratified to receive our help,” remarks Mackenzie. “Moreover, I did not know that I was interested in branding until Studio 5, so it was an important learning curve for me. Having that hands-on work experience was formative.”
During their Studio 5 participation in Fall 2022, Sophie Bredensteiner ’23 was on the team for a PR campaign. Bredensteiner’s client was chef Saba Wahid Duffy (a Massachusetts native), whom Martha Stewart named the Grand Chopped Champion on the Food Network’s reality television series Chopped in 2021. “We wanted to get Saba’s name out there and generate some buzz about how talented she is,” says Bredensteiner. “Her food is phenomenal and we wanted to share her story.” Their team reached out to different news outlets, designed a press kit, and arranged for Duffy to give a cooking class at a local kitchen in the Boston area.
Kate Farrell ’23 also took Studio 5 in Fall 2022. She served as project manager for her team’s principal client, Embrace Pet Insurance (Cleveland, Ohio). “We created a TikTok guide for them, since they didn’t really know how to use the platform. They were also onboarding their own social media manager at the time, so we tried to make that transition as seamless as possible,” explains Farrell. Her team conducted research on the company’s competitors, which gave any PR/marketing personnel at Embrace an accurate grasp of the current market.
[Students] are treated like professionals; they hold titles that employees would hold in an agency. [They] emerge with a portfolio comparable to that of a junior person in the industry.
The stories from these alums underscore how Studio 5 constitutes real-world experience. “Studio 5 is really a job for students, not just coursework,” explains Markos. “They are treated like professionals; they hold titles that employees would hold in an agency. Yes, it is a college course, but students emerge with a portfolio comparable to that of a junior person in the industry.”
For Bredensteiner, Studio 5 introduced unique challenges to their Simmons experience. “Studio 5 was by far the hardest class I took at Simmons. You are working for real clients, so the stakes are much higher than with traditional course assignments. However, you also have a network of support.”
Farrell likewise emphasizes the prevalence of community and mentorship: “I truly believe that Studio 5 allows students with a space to fail. In other words, people can make mistakes and learn from them while we receive guidance from Professor Markos. Thus, you grow as a professional under her expert tutelage and within a safe space.”
Studio 5 taught me how to work directly on a team with teammates and accomplish a common goal, which I do every day.
Students’ hard work has paid off, as many Studio 5 alums procure impressive employment promptly following graduation. Farrell is the Social Media and Digital Strategist for Historic New England. “This is a historical and preservation society, and I help promote our sites. What I learned from Studio 5 made me a top candidate for this position.” Bredensteiner is a Customer Relationship Associate at Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution (Scarborough, Maine), and claims that “Studio 5 taught me how to work directly on a team with teammates and accomplish a common goal, which I do every day.” Mackenzie has since returned to Simmons as the Marketing Coordinator for University Communications. As a key figure among the marketing team, she produces innovative digital content that highlights the University’s brand, mission, and founding principles.
This academic year, Studio 5 has paved additional avenues for professionalization. Three agency mentors are joining students for three consecutive weeks. On October 13, Aaron Pickering, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Purpose for Headstand Communications spoke with students in the classroom. When asked why he was excited to work with Studio 5, Pickering replied: "Agencies struggle to find entry-level talent with real world experience and Studio 5 is giving students not only the chance to work with professionals in the work world, but the opportunity to produce real world content they can use in their portfolio."
Two additional agency mentors, Rebecca Schmidt, Account Director of Water and Wall, and Kaitlynn Conney, Account Director at Brodeur, will visit Studio 5 later in October. “The agency mentors are not only reviewing students' work but guiding them on client-management, agency culture, and teamwork,” says Markos. These direct industry connections add value to the program and help students gain access to industry work before graduation.
Beyond professionalization, the close-knit atmosphere of Studio 5 has made an impact on students’ personal lives. “Professor Markos not only makes the most effective teams, but also creates an environment that nourishes friendships,” says Farrell. “We saw each other a lot more outside of class. As a result, I became very close to Emma Larkin ’23, who is now among my best friends.” Likewise, Mackenzie bonded with her Studio 5 collaborators. “I developed a deep friendship with one of my group members, and we eventually became roommates. We are now lifelong friends.”
For Markos, Simmons is an ideal place to familiarize oneself with communications work. “Simmons is unique because it is women-centered, and a lot of agencies are composed primarily of women/people who identify as women.” According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals who identify as female account for 63% of public relations specialists, whereas 73% of the members of the Public Relations Society of America (the leading organization for communications professionals) are women. Moreover, 59% of women in PR firms hold managerial positions. “Therefore, the Studio 5 environment mirrors what will be in their workplace and facilitates their path toward leadership.”
Linking passion to lifelong purpose, Studio 5 replicates the central mission of Simmons. “Historically, Simmons has been a place that balances professional training with academic inquiry,” explains Martino. “Studio 5 emblematizes how Simmons prepares students to leverage their academic passions in their professional lives.”