Advertising Schools Increase Diversity Recruiting Efforts

Scholarships and Other Programs Seek to Boost Minority Enrollment

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NEW YORK ( -- If it seems like common sense that the ad industry can only be as diverse as its pipeline, it's only sensible to ask how that pipeline -- namely the portfolio schools -- is doing with its own diversity struggles. The answer: better.
Photo: Jeff Hutchens

Posed near the campus of the AdCenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond are (from left to right) Jay Kamath, Margert Sledge, Jennifer Palacios, Priyanka Guha and Tomoko Izumoto. The number of minority students enrolled in the school has almost doubled in the last two years. Click to see larger photo.

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Miami Ad School
The Miami Ad School, for example, has a student body comprised of 23% minority and 28% international students. Since the hiring of former Ogilvy creative officer Rick Boyko as managing director, the Adcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University has seen its minority numbers nearly double in the past two years to 38% for the class of 2007.

But everyone involved concedes there's still plenty of room for improvement.

And top administrators are grappling with their own theories -- what detractors would call excuses -- regarding recruiting difficulties.

Other disciplines?
"I've talked to agencies, and the things I hear back from them is that parents often encourage their kids to go into other disciplines where they think they can succeed with more opportunities," said Pippa Seichrist, president of the Miami Ad School.

"For many people, advertising is a very different kind of decision," said Deanne McLean, senior VP-director of creative recruitment at DDB. "It's almost like going into the entertainment world, and I'm sure those parents had a difficult time seeing it as something lucrative."

Financial setbacks are another reason some minority students have trouble sticking with advertising. However, more scholarship programs are being implemented by top schools to retain and attract those students.

DDB scholarship
Most notably, the Bill Bernbach Scholarship from DDB, Chicago, every year gives five minority students $5,000 for each year of their studies. When it started in 1998, the program drew more interest and financial support from participating agencies than from student applicants.

"The first year we offered the scholarship, we had less than 10 contenders," Ms. McLean said. The program has made it a point to stress quality over quantity: At a recent job fair with VCU, for example, 75 recruiters came out to meet with 45 students.

Beyond family and financial pressures, schools and agencies alike are discovering that many students don't even consider advertising as a career when conducting their college searches.

According to Tony Pearman, third-district diversity chair of the American Advertising Federation, a big problem is that "students of ethnic backgrounds are not looking at advertising from an early age. The challenge is they're coming into it late."

New AAF programs
Mr. Pearman and the AAF started an internship and scholarship program this year targeting minority high-school and even junior-high students in an effort to introduce them to a career they might not have considered otherwise.

Making the portfolio schools more open and welcoming has also been key in the growth of minority enrollment at schools such as VCU. Mr. Boyko increased his school's numbers by revamping the application process for the two-year graduate program.

"We wanted to get a little more insight into who this person was so we weren't just looking at their book but at the person behind the book," Mr. Boyko said. "The problem I saw when I came here was students who had better degrees from better undergraduate programs like Texas or Colorado had a better shot at getting in." He added it was a matter of searching outside the traditional ad-school applicant pool. But while ad schools are making incremental improvements in diversity, the industry itself has plenty of catching up to do.

'Racism of inertia'
"I would attribute the lack of minorities to racism of inertia," said Mark Robinson, managing partner for multicultural-consulting firm S/R Communications. "It's no conspiracy, no overt act, no malice toward minorities. It's simply, 'I'm going to do what I did yesterday again and again and again.'" Mr. Robinson, who believes networking is the best way for anyone to get into the industry, never attended a traditional ad school. Instead, he earned a bachelor's degree in fiction writing from Amherst College. "Fiction writing and working in advertising are pretty much the same," he joked.

"The industry does need to step up and do a better job of recruiting," Mr. Boyko said. "There could be more of a long-term plan to build programs. We have limited funds. All schools are underfunded, and the opportunity to grow the leaders of tomorrow that are diverse both in gender and color is something that could still use investment from the industry."
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