Agencies and media companies hope new programs will boost diversity in advertising

One such program, BLAC, helped 23 interns land jobs last year.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: BLAC

· 5 min read

Not-so-breaking news: Advertising has a racial-diversity problem, with around 5.8% of the workforce identifying as Black, according to 2020 data from the 4As. The better news? Agencies and organizations are trying to do something about it by making it easier for them to pursue marketing careers.

After the protests of 2020 that followed the murder of George Floyd, programs like the BLAC internship program and Breaking Media were created to help bring more diversity into advertising. Both in their second year, they’re offering the chance for people at various levels to learn about the industry and, hopefully, get jobs.

But Nicolet Gatewood, executive director of BLAC, told us this is just the beginning. Of the 5.8% of Black employees in the advertising industry, 68% are entry level or administrative according to the 4As. “This is not okay. And so, we maintain that an internship program is a great opportunity for interns. It is not the diversity solve for our agencies–they need to address adequate representation at all levels, inclusive of leadership.”

Creating a doorway

Gatewood said she was 35 before she broke into advertising, thanks to the help of a personal connection.

“The advertising industry fuels itself on referrals, right? And sometimes nepotism. So if you’re in an industry that is predominantly white, who have you had professional experiences with? Other white people,” she said. “It’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy and problem here, and we’re aiming to break that up.”

When creating the application requirements, Gatewood said it was important that the BLAC program remove as many barriers to entry as possible. “Our application criteria is no résumé. No one cares if you’ve gone to college, nobody cares if you’re 40 and you’re trying to enter this industry, or if you’re 21 and have only ever worked not in the industry,” she said.

Applicants submit a two-minute video showcasing their creativity. From there, they go through interviews and, if selected, go on to work with one of 20 participating agencies, like Barker or Upshot. The interns convene throughout the 12-week program to work together on projects, hear from speakers, and, at the end, attend a job fair.

“We think we have an obligation to both our interns, which is to provide opportunity where opportunity is needed, to open a door. And the other commitment that we’re making is to the industry. And that’s by way of our agencies,” Gatewood said.

She and program co-founder Toni Lee expect agencies to commit to nonprofit 600 & Rising's 12-step plan and pay interns a minimum of $15 per hour.

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“When you’re looking at life choices, if one is choosing to leave their current career path and follow their passions in advertising, or if one is on summer break from college, but they can make minimally $15 an hour working as seasonal staff [for] Amazon, we can’t ask them to give away their labor and expertise for free,” she said.

Interns work on projects with their respective agencies (like this one, which interns Tashanee Williams and Seth Jones contributed to), as well as with the larger BLAC group. They gather for workshops and training on topics like creating presentations and negotiating salaries, before capping off their internships with a two-week brief assignment that they pitch to executives at companies like Procter & Gamble.

Last year, Lee said that 23 of the 32 BLAC interns landed full-time jobs at the end of the program, though she clarified that some of the nine who didn’t still needed to finish school. This year, the goal is to match or exceed those numbers.

Be the ad partner you wish to see in the world

Vox Media is working with agency UM for the second year on its Breaking Media program, in which students from diverse backgrounds can take online courses on topics ranging from media planning to personal branding, taught by Vox and UM marketing professionals.

This year, Vox and UM are working with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) to encourage students to sign up via email promotion.

Chris Clermont, head of DE&I at Vox Media, called 2020 a “racial reckoning” that made Vox assess its sustained efforts to improve diversity in media to make sure actions weren’t just “performative.” He said it was clear that “we need to go to schools with direct ties to audiences that we’re trying to serve. And we need to have people that have the same lived experiences being able to bring those into the workplace and into the meetings and into decision-making and into the storytelling and narratives that we put together.”

Last year, Clermont said, the program had 250 students. This year, he said, they’ve enrolled close to 300. One of Clermont’s hopes for the virtual program is to continue building hiring opportunities. While Vox has not hired anyone from Breaking Media to date, UM hired eight people full-time following last year’s program, according to Vox.

Overall, Clermont said it makes sense for publishers to play a role in boosting advertising diversity because of how intertwined the two are. “It’s just part of the ecosystem,” he said.

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