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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?

Minnesota's New Mad Men
Photo by TJ Turner/SIDECAR

(page 1 of 2)

In 2007, John Olson, of the Minneapolis advertising firm that bears his name, noticed something about himself: he’s white. So were the vast majority of his employees and, for that matter, his colleagues at the other advertising firms in town as well as the in-house advertising, marketing, and branding divisions at major corporations. White as Christmas. White as, well, Minnesota.

It was a troubling revelation, and not just because Olson would like to be seen as an equal-opportunity employer. Advertising and marketing have long been a significant part of the Twin Cities economy, with Olson’s agency—reporting $165 million in earnings last year—at the top.

But America is quickly diversifying, and minorities now comprise nearly 37 percent of the population. Non-whites accounted for more than 80 percent of the growth in Minnesota between 2000 and 2010. Yet the state remains one of the least diverse places in the country—about 87 percent white. And as advertisers aim to reach increasingly non-white consumers, where does that leave Twin Cities ad firms? In 2013, would you hire über-Caucasian adman Don Draper to sell soda? Frozen food? Anything but hockey skates and St. Patrick’s Day?

Apparently not. African Americans, to cite one growing demographic, currently make up about 13.7 percent of the nation’s population and spent nearly a trillion dollars last year on consumer products. Studies also show that African Americans are particularly loyal to brands. And right now, Minneapolis shops aren’t being asked to pitch their business.

Olson, whose company was nonetheless growing by 30 to 50 percent six years ago, saw this coming. So he did what any advertising professional would do: he advertised.

Olson didn’t recruit minority college students or aggressively advertise for diverse job applicants. He went back to high school. He devised a kind of intro to advertising class, called BrandLab, and found a willing host at South High School in Minneapolis. “The principal gave us an all-Native American class,” Olson recalls with a smile one day in his office at the historic Ford Center, near Target Field. “I personally was a mentor to a kid named Jesse who was completely suspicious of our motives, but the greatest kid. I think we had a real impact on him.”

Olson soon expanded to internships—meet the kids in their environment; invite them into his. Word got out. Soon, the heads of other agencies and in-house divisions were calling: Fallon, Carmichael Lynch, General Mills, Target. Some three-dozen advertising entities now support BrandLab, which has surfed a wave of corporate money into 23 classrooms and offers 40 internships a year. There are six part-time BrandLab teachers and four part-time staff members. This year, the BrandLab headquarters, which has rotated annually from one company to another, is at Fallon, arguably the most vaunted agency in town.

Ellen Walthour, an effusive educator whom you would expect to be wearing a lanyard or three, was hired in 2009 to lead BrandLab. She has placed the program in schools where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch and at least 50 percent are minorities—not too difficult in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, where minorities make up 68 and 75 percent, respectively, of the student body, and 66 and 73 percent qualify for school-provided lunches. Many of these kids see advertising everywhere but have no idea how it’s created or by whom—save that, by and large, it isn’t anyone they know.

The nuances of revealing this world inhabited largely by whites are underscored in Walthour’s everyday encounters. “I’ll always remember this one kid,” she says. “I went into his classroom and said, ‘You have an opportunity to apply for an internship at Target.’ And he shouts, ‘My brother works at Target!’”—meaning he works at a store. “But I was thinking, Not where we want him! We want him behind the scenes.”

The implication is that he’d be better off behind the scenes, and he would: better paid, more challenged. But it’s a fine line to pitch one culture to another, a line the advertising world has historically overstepped, from reductive campaign ads to the 2007 Intel ad showing black athletes bowing before a white manager. In this context, the fact that Olson’s first mentee was skeptical of the agency’s intentions only seems natural, suggesting that the ad world will need to do more than sell minorities on a career path.

One wintry day at Harding High School, in St. Paul, Alex West, an African American account planner from Fallon, gives a class of marketing students a BrandLab exercise with parallels to real life: The Beacon, the school newspaper, is in trouble. They need to boost circulation. The payoff is real: the top two idea generators are eligible for internships, a third student gets a $1,000 scholarship.

One team comes up with a cheeky rap—“Do You Feel the Beacon”—to be played during morning announcements. Another team devises a social-media campaign driven by Instagram photos. The scholarship ends up going to Sumeya Said, a pensive 17-year-old African American senior who happens to be the Beacon’s opinion-page editor. And now she’s considering a career in marketing. Maybe.

“I never really thought about it before,” she says. And why should she have? Marketers never really thought about her.

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