Sparq Catching Fire for Clarion Natives Roth, Nellis Under Leadership of CUP Grads

WEXFORD, Pa. (EYT) – Growing up around the same time in Clarion, Kait Roth and Bri Nellis were teammates in basketball.

(Photo: The Sparq Designs team is made up of both Clarion University Alumni and Clarion Area High School graduates with strong ties to the Clarion Community. Left to right standing: 2010 CU grad James Blundo, 2010 CU Grad (2011 masters) Nick Brucker. Left to right sitting: 2010 Clarion High grad Kait Roth, 2012 Clarion High and 2016 CU grad Bri Nellis and Adele Stewart, who attended Clarion U.)

Fast forward a decade, and the two continue to be teammates but now as key members of the marketing team at Sparq Designs, a marketing agency for the digital world in Wexford, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh founded by Clarion University graduate Nick Brucker with the help of his college buddy Jim Blundo.

“It’s cool working with Kait,” Nellis said. “We grew up playing basketball together, being on the same team. Now we are on a different team. It’s cool to take on this adventure with someone you grew up with, and it’s cool to know she has my back whatever we do. The transition has been a lot easier because we have worked on the same team for a long time.”

Cool is a word Roth uses as well when describing working with Nellis.

“It’s pretty cool to get to work so close (with Bri),” Roth said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

What might be more awesome than working close together is what the two are working on for Sparq.

The company, founded in 2013 by Brucker, a former golfer at Clarion University, and his buddy Blundo (more on that later), quickly has grown to the point where it has partnered with the Leadership League, a company that hosts and manages all of the NFL cruises and non-game-day experiences.

That meant a chance for Sparq to do the marketing work this winter on cruises that included current and former Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers players and next year will also branch into the San Francisco 49ers.

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And, with the sports backgrounds of both Roth and Nellis, Brucker (their boss) thought they would be a perfect choice to lead the way.

“A lot of what we have done on the sports and entertainment side is what I have Bri and Kait working on, building and essentially running,” Brucker, said. “I sent a cold e-mail to the Leadership League saying I would love to kick around ideas for the Steelers cruise, and we hit it off. It was good timing. Internally, they didn’t have a marketing department, and we could handle the work across multiple NFL teams.”

For Roth, the idea of marketing NFL players and team was exciting.

“I knew coming into Sparq, we had the ability to take on projects like this,” Roth said. “To finally get the opportunity to make it ours and to have control and to use our team to manage a strategy like this, it was finally coming to fruition. And for me to be able to take the reins on it, I’m a big pro football fan, to work with some of the athletics I have watched is something I couldn’t really comprehend.”

Roth said it was the culmination of a dream come true, a dream she had had since she was in elementary school.

“My mom (Carol) and I were just joking,” Roth said. “In third or fourth grade, we had a career day at the Elementary School.The idea was to tell what our dream job was. Most kids dressed up as doctors or lawyers. I actually dressed up as a journalist for the (Los Angeles) Lakers. I wanted to be on the media team for the Lakers. I kind of had a vision back then.”

For Nellis, the opportunity to work on a cruise with NFL players brought together the two loves of her life.

“It’s crazy,” Nellis said. “To do the cruises is combining both of the things I love, sports and traveling. It was fun documenting the whole experience, capturing all the moments we wanted to capture for (marketing) next year, to get people on the cruises.”

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Marketing, after all, was what Sparq was there for.

“We did video, photography, social media, live streams on Facebook and Instagram,” Roth said. “The idea is to make an urgency to book for next year. The focus is booking a year in advance.”

As part of the marketing, the Sparq team rubbed shoulders with some of the most exciting up-and-coming athletes in the NFL including the Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Packers Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

“Working with JuJu is ideal,” said Roth said of the soon-to-be second-year wide receiver who took the town by storm not only with his play but with his use of social media in 2017. “With up-and-coming influencing marketing, there is no better person to work with than him. The way he promotes himself, especially doing it in an authentic way, you just tell him to do what he normally does.”

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Roth said the same held true for the Packers Clinton-Dix, Brett Hundley, and Blake Martinez.

“All three had a big impact on the growth of our brand,” Roth said. “When you have your own voice and tone like they do, it makes my job a lot easier.”

According to Roth, the fact that the fan bases on teams like the Steelers, Packers, and 49ers are passionate fan bases, the challenge isn’t to get fan engaged but rather to find ways to engage fans depending on how they feel about their teams.

“How fans are feeling about their team and how it relates to booking is a challenge,” Roth said. “Take for example the 49ers. We are seeing a lot of energy towards booking because of the prospect of them having a good draft and people are loving Jimmy G (49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo). How the trajectory of the season is going will have a big impact. If you win the Super Bowl, you will probably sell our the cruise. Working with passionate fan bases presents some unique challenges.”

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The fact a startup company like Sparq, whose roots are firmly placed in relationships build at Clarion University, is in the position to take on those challenges is a credit to Brucker, Blando and their team, which also includes another team member with Clarion University roots Adele Stewart – Nellis is a Clarion U. grad as well while Roth went to Westminster but did an internship in the Clarion U. Sports Information Office while both of her parents, including dad Kevin, worked at Clarion U.

Sparq’s beginnings came about when Brucker’s job as a temp/intern at Philips Respironics in Murrysville, Pa., got cut.

“While at Philips, I had self-taught myself some design software and had saved the company some money by doing some of the work they were spending with an ad agency,” Brucker said. “After my job got cut, I was about 24, I started a design drag-and-drop web company and took on Philips as my first company. Even though there was no room in their budget to keep me on a staff, they still saved money using me. That is how Sparq Designs got started.”

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From there, Brucker got with Blando, his college friend, and the business really took off.

“In 2013, I was living on the South Side (of Pittsburgh),” Brucker said. “Jim was also living on the South Side, and he wasn’t a huge fan of his job and it was eliminated. We sat down and said let’s see what we can do the leverage our network, let’s see if we can build a business out of it. We attended some networking events and did a lot of pro bono work. Those relationships led to a lot of the things today that are at the core of the business. It was just Jim and I at the time. We built relationships and contacts who are still at the core of the business today.”

Brucker said the main essence of Sparq is to be a full-service digital marketing agency.

“We essentially create marketing strategies with the goal of connecting people with brands,” Brucker said. “We form relationships with people and brands by changing the way people think, feel, see, relate and connect.”

That is done through by traditional and new platforms, Brucker said.

“It depends on who we are working with,” Brucker said. “I still think there is room for traditional space for certain brands to get their message across. But the most used platforms are Facebook, Instagram, video, and Google. That is where consumers spend the majority of their time.

“We see our company as the next generation as opposed to the last generation. If you aren’t able to adapt and have the willingness to learn and watch consumers, you are going to get passed by. That is kind of what makes us unique. We have a team of energetic individuals who are willing to learn and push the standard. Five years is an eternity with the way technology is advancing.”

The fact that team has a Clarion bent to it is no accident.

“You know what you get with Clarion graduates,” Brucker said. “We have a confidence with us. We know we may not be the smartest person in the room, and that is fine. I think the smartest people in the room may have an Ivy League degree or accolades. However, there is a grittiness coming from a state school. They are also trying to prove something, and that is appealing.”

Both Roth and Nellis say working at Sparq and Brucker is a tremendous experience.

“Working for Nick is a dream,” Roth said. “He is tireless and so active in what we are doing and so passionate. He has been really good at building a team that feels the same way. We are all excited to be here on a Monday, which you don’t see everywhere. He impresses me daily.”

Nellis calls working for Sparq a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It not just the company but the people who work here,” Nellis said. “I love coming into work, making friends, even with the heavy workload. I enjoy everyone who works here. It makes it 100 times better.”

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Brucker said his leadership style is to hire people who know things he doesn’t know and let them be who they are.

“As a leader, the way I want to scale this business, it’s not going to be about me,” Brucker said. “It’s going to be more of me giving the team around me the ability to learn and grow and be successful in their own way. You have to hire people better, smarter and more creative than you. You can have your insight rub off on them, but they have to have the ability to be successful in their own way.

“One of the things I’m very proud of is we have done a good job in an era where millennials are supposed to have a lot of job turnovers at having a retention that is as close to 100 percent as it can be. The culture and being able to paint a picture of where we want to go is exciting for all of us.”

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