Mekanism brings together a roster of agencies for diversity moonshot

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Adama Sall and Tommy Means
Adama Sall and Tommy Means Credit: courtesy

In the last century, the Apollo program directed the resources of disparate, sometimes competing government agencies toward a common goal none of them could have envisioned achieving on their own: walking on the moon. As namesakes go, it's a lofty one.

So it's fitting that Apollo 51, a new initiative spearheaded by Mekanism, involves more than a dozen other ad agencies, all working to improve diversity and representation in their ranks. Each agency committed to the program pledges that at least 51 percent of the creative interns they hire over the next two years will be from communities that are underrepresented in the industry.

"The perception among young, diverse creatives is that they have to go to ad school to have an avenue into a creative department, and I think the industry definitely perpetuates that," says Apollo 51 co-creator Tommy Means, founder and chief creative officer at Mekanism. Coming out of college with an average of $100,000 in student loan debt makes taking on another $50,000 to $100,000 for portfolio school a daunting proposition, especially for creatives who may not have family finances to fall back on. "They say, 'I guess the creative industry is not for me. I'm going to go somewhere else.'"

Even students willing to foot the bill may not have considered advertising as a career path if they haven't been exposed to it before. "I didn't start out as a strategist. I started as an executive assistant at Goodby [Silverstein & Partners], coming into advertising nontraditionally," says the other co-creator of Apollo 51, Adama Sall, head of strategy, east at Mekanism. "Jeff Goodby saw something in me and he nurtured it. Within a year of being there, I was promoted to junior planner. If he hadn't seen that potential, I don't know what I'd be doing, because I didn't know planning even existed."

Apollo 51 defines diversity with a broader brush than most initiatives. "It's less about demographics and more about mindset," Sall says. That includes communities of color, LGBTQ people and women, but there's also an emphasis on varied socioeconomic statuses, people from outside creative fields, people who have little previous exposure to the industry and people without a family history of educational opportunity.

Planning for the program began back in October, when Means and Sall started talking with creatives, recent grads and current students about their experiences. Outreach about the new nonprofit was easier. "I literally picked up the phone and told folks I'm friends with," Means says.

That included Margaret Johnson, Chief Creative Officer and partner at Goodby, who signed on before he could finish explaining, followed by PJ Pereira, founder and creative chairman at Pereira O'Dell and Grey's Worldwide Chief Creative Officer John Patroulis. Many of the agencies Means connected with have already been working on expanding the pipeline of diverse talent. Grey started an in-house portfolio school this year and BBDO has a long-running creative residency.

In addition to Mekanism, shops signing on include: Anomaly; Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners; Goodby Silverstein & Partners; Epic Signal; Mother New York; BBDO; Ogilvy; Droga5; Grey Global Group; Pereira & O'Dell; BBH; R/GA; Venables Bell & Partnersand MAL/FORGOOD. Next, Means and Sall are hoping to expand beyond the agency world, into tech and other creative fields.

In addition to hiring interns for at least a three-month position, partner agencies must pay them and help them develop portfolios of their own. Since not every agency will have a full-time position available for every intern it hires, the agencies will be sharing portfolios with one other. Interns that don't find a job at one agency will have a better shot at another.

"It's not about just bringing them in but asking how we help them continue on that career," Sall says. "It's great at the ground level, but if we can't retain them in the industry, then a lot of the work we just invested goes with them."

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