Historically Black Colleges and Universities are in high demand in the ad industry as brands and agencies continue to navigate how to create more diverse and inclusive cultures. But those looking to strike deals with HBCUs have to do their part—by proving they are truly committed to the cause.
“Over the last couple of years, there’s been so much interest it’s hard to keep up,” said Sheryl Johnson, an associate professor for the department of strategic, legal and management communication at Howard University in Washington, D.C, one of the country’s leading HBCUs.
Johnson said since there have been so many advertisers and marketers wanting to partner with Howard recently, the university has had to be more selective over which to engage. She said the school will only work with partners that show a clear commitment to supporting diverse employees once they’re hired.
Brand interest in HBCUs began surging in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd spurred momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement, putting pressure on marketers and agencies to diversify their staff and marketing, while making more ad buys with Black-owned media.
HBCUs, in turn, are outperforming other colleges and universities in recruitment. Since the pandemic, undergraduate numbers have fallen 10% across the country, but applications for HBCUs are up 30% as top high school students are making these colleges their No. 1 choice.
This has spurred a flurry of deals with HBCUs: ad agencies and holding companies are working with these schools in recruitment efforts; brands such as Ralph Lauren and Nike are creating products alongside HBCUs and their alumni; and a slew of companies are tapping HBCU student-athlete to serve as brand ambassadors.
Part of the ad industry’s diversity problem was pinned on the fact that many marketers and advertisers had focused most of their recruiting and sponsorship efforts on traditional ad portfolio schools, where students are predominantly white.
Johnson said she’s seen an influx of partnership requests from ad agencies directly, which have extended internship and entry-level job opportunities to students and graduates, as well as had executives come speak in classes and participate in career fairs.
For example, Omnicom partnered with Howard University's Cathy Hughes School of Communications last fall to provide learning and recruiting opportunities. The holding company sponsored the university’s CapComm Lab, a 12-week course that gives students practical experience working at an ad and PR agency, and had more than 15 of its executives guest lecture in classrooms and provide real examples of how to service clients.
Omnicom said it would continue its partnership with Howard University in 2023.