How Publicis, BBDO and Others Are Trying to Diversify Their Ranks

In an Industry Dominated by White Males, Agencies Work to Foster Change

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BBDO's Creative Residency program debuted last year. (From l.) New employee Bennett Bennett; Diversity Associate Casey Adams; new employee Kayla Robinson; Exec VP-Director of DiversityJD Michaels; new employees Sheue Fang Lee, Christopher Vega and Shayne Alexander; Exec VP-Director of Diversity Karla Mayers
BBDO's Creative Residency program debuted last year. (From l.) New employee Bennett Bennett; Diversity Associate Casey Adams; new employee Kayla Robinson; Exec VP-Director of DiversityJD Michaels; new employees Sheue Fang Lee, Christopher Vega and Shayne Alexander; Exec VP-Director of Diversity Karla Mayers Credit: Courtesy BBDO
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Twenty-one-year-old Niyokei Whyte was a different person seven months ago. With no career prospects and no direction, she was worried that she should have done something different with her hair during an employment interview. "When I went into the interview, I had dreads and they were cornrowed, and I forgot to take my hair out and it was dyed green."

Niyokei Whyte now works at Publicis.
Niyokei Whyte now works at Publicis.

Ms. Whyte had taken a break from college. Little did she know that today she'd be working on Manhattan's west side at Publicis, where she has leaped headfirst into an IT position following an intense six months of career training involving troubleshooting computer problems, as well as coursework in CSS, HTML and Photoshop. There's also training in navigating corporate culture.

Ms. Whyte, an American of Trinidadian descent who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, is among the latest crop of minority recruits to the agency world, a real-life symbol of the industry's ongoing mission to build staff from outside its typical pool of well-networked white people.

Farther uptown, BBDO is nurturing its own group of nonwhite creatives through its nascent Creative Residency program. Industry initiatives such as BBDO's program and a Publicis partnership with Year Up, the organization that trained and placed Ms. Whyte with the agency's Re:Sources IT division, are among efforts too numerous to name from the industry intended to diversify talent.

Though incremental, the programs are at least in part aimed at satisfying calls from New York City government and other entities for the ad industry to be more inclusive. Agencies have hired diversity recruiters and put people in charge of choosing vendors and suppliers that are minority owned and operated.

"The perception is that [the ad industry] is really difficult to get into," said Kayla Robinson, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. "You become the token person in the room," added Ms. Robinson, who is African-American. She was recently hired by BBDO after participating in its inaugural Creative Residency in 2015. She was also an intern with the 4A's Multicultural Advertising Intern Program and co-founded Minorities in Advertising, a group designed to advance connections between the ad industry and minority advertising students.

Being the only person of your race on a team carries its own issues. "The industry is visually dominated by white males. There is an unspoken pressure that you must be twice as good and work twice as hard to prove that you belong in a situation that, on the surface, doesn't seem to be the most welcoming," said Ms. Robinson.

"If you do get hired, you are likely one of a kind, making you stand out and not necessarily for your hard work. There's added pressure when you may be asked to speak for your entire race or gender. There is even more pressure when you're not asked for an opinion, but must speak up on behalf of your race or gender because you're the only member present."

The Creative Residency, which is conducted in partnership with the One Club, "is actually part of a broader initiative that we have across the agency," said BBDO President and CEO John Osborn. The company also has a diversity council and ensures that a portion of partner firms are minority owned. "We handle diversity as if it is a client," said JD Michaels, director of creative engineering and director of diversity at BBDO New York, and himself African-American.

When Ms. Robinson joined the residency, she and the four others chosen for the internship last year worked as junior art directors contributing to several different accounts including AT&T, Visa and Johnson & Johnson. They worked on digital, scripting, print, video and other disciplines. "They made alliances in the creative department by proving they could get things done," said Mr. Michaels.

"Paradoxically, what they bring is the same thing everybody we hire here brings: pure, raw, great talent," said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO. "This isn't anything about a quota, this is about talent."

While diversity goals often originate in a desire to ensure that advertising and its creators more accurately reflect consumers, agencies have all sorts of positions to fill. Corzail Nicholson, an African-American, graduated from the Year Up program in Chicago in 2012 and has been an operations analyst with Re:Sources at Publicis ever since. Tom Caffrey, CEO of Publicis Groupe's Re:Sources division and a Year Up board member, helped bring the career development program for underprivileged 18-to-24-year-olds to Publicis. (The Year Up program also assists with placing candidates who apply to other industries beyond advertising.)

As it did for Mr. Nicholson, Ms. Whyte hopes her current paid internship leads to employment at Publicis. "Aside from the whole race thing, Year Up advocates for youth and they advocate for urban youth and they advocate for women," she said. "I think Year Up actually might make a huge difference."

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