Minnesota's New Mad Men
The Twin Cities are mad men incarnate—advertising drives our creative economy. But can we keep up with a diversifying America?
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Mike Lescarbeau, the CEO of Carmichael Lynch ad agency and a board member of BrandLab, remembers when Madison Avenue began to diversify, in the 1960s—and never quite finished. “It went from WASPy frat boys to, okay, let’s hire this Jewish kid and this Italian kid and this Irish kid,” he says. “Obviously it didn’t integrate as far as African Americans and Hispanics.”
Advertising is an unusual discipline, with its own codes and barriers to entry. It can feel like a club, Lescarbeau acknowledges, sometimes an exclusive one. “Everyone gets the runaround when they’re trying to get into advertising—everyone,” he says. “When you’re a person of color, that can feel like a different message.”
Brandi Brown, a 31-year-old former account planner, recently left advertising for consulting, not that she ever felt she was in. As an African American, she says, “you have to get used to being the only black face at the party.”
She’s not sold on BrandLab. “If agencies want to diversify, they need to recruit minorities the same way they recruit white people,” she says. “Show that you respect them and are attentive to issues of cultural sensitivity. Recruit for mid-level positions, senior management. Create an environment where black people want to move here and work here.”
Until that happens, the business directed at diverse audiences will continue to go elsewhere, like New York. Derek Jackson, head of the Glu Agency there, was recently tapped by Mountain Dew to coordinate a multimillion-dollar urban youth program centered around hip-hop artist Lil Wayne. Last year, Jackson brokered an agreement for singer Nicki Minaj to become the new face of Pepsi. In an interview with Vibe, he called the industry unwell: “Advertising needs new life, new breath, and new ideas.” He offered his own agency as the cure.
If Minneapolis agencies want to compete, they may well need the next Derek Jackson. How close are they? BrandLab is now in its sixth year. At the end of this school year, 1,099 students will have gone through the program. How many alums are now in the industry? No one knows.
Walthour acknowledges there’s been a missing element to the BrandLab strategy, a piece that’s now being addressed in a new program called Connect, which offers resources for networking and career development. It also allows students a chance to serve a second internship. “What we’re learning,” she says, “is that given a second go, kids become stars.” Of the 32 interns this summer, 10 spots will be reserved for program alumni.
If BrandLab can start to deliver people into real jobs, it will become less of a lab and more of a brand, one that represents real social progress. Lescarbeau remembers what it was like when new faces started appearing in agencies a half-century ago. “The business just exploded because you had these different points of view clashing in a conference room,” he says. “Suddenly you were challenging the status quo.”
Olson expects that BrandLab will become a model for the industry. In fact, he thinks it already is. “Minneapolis has always been an innovator,” he says. “With BrandLab, we now have something that other communities can franchise and apply to their own markets. I feel good that it’s in Minnesota where we’re solving the problem.”
The facts about race and advertising
■ Approximately 78,000 Americans work as advertising and promotion managers, according to a 2011 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
■ 9.6 percent are Hispanic, 2.3 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are African American.
■ In fall 2011, as part of Advertising Week in New York, there was a panel discussion entitled Where Are All the Black People?
■ #INTHEBLACK, a consortium of advocacy groups, has formed to promote investment in the African American consumer marketplace.
■ Last year, the Advertising Club of New York created I’mpart, a program similar to BrandLab that stands for Promote, Attract, Retain, and Train. Funds go to diversity programs in high schools and colleges.
■ BrandLab is still the only locally funded high-school outreach of its kind.
Adam Wahlberg is a Minneapolis writer and the founder of Think Piece Publishing.