After a few classes, Mr. Hopson was hooked, and he realized
advertising was a better fit for his personality. "The BrandLab
actually made me want to change my occupation," said the affable
Mr. Hopson. "Working at an ad agency would be a lot more fun for me
because I like to design and network."
Although his neighborhood might get one less cop, the ad
industry will gain what it sorely needs -- an African-American job
candidate who will help bring more racial and socioeconomic balance
to the overwhelmingly white field. And that's what BrandLab is all
about: introducing minority and low-income students to a career
that many don't know much, if anything, about, in hopes of
influencing them to make it a career.
"These kids don't know about this field, that you can actually
get paid to do what we do," said John Olson, founder and chairman
of Olson, a local indie agency he says has donated roughly $1
million in time and money to the effort. "And simply introducing
them to the concept of getting paid to be in marketing, in this
glamorous world, is a very simple concept."
Mr. Olson came up with the idea a few years ago, and in the
2007-08 school year dispatched agency employees to Minneapolis's
South High School, where they taught marketing to a group of Native
American students. He slowly got other executives involved, and
BrandLab is now growing like a hot start-up. The program -- which
has a budget of $300,000 -- expects to reach nearly 300 students
this year at 10 Twin Cities schools, with plans to reach even more
students next year.
Corporate funders include area stalwarts Target , General Mills,
3M, Best Buy, Land O' Lakes, Schwan Food Co., Imation and
Medtronic, while agencies such as Olson, Fallon, Carmichael Lynch,
Larsen and Colle &
McVoy provide guest lecturers and host field trips. Some shops
host interns. And work is under way to take the program national,
with the goal of reaching 50 cities in five years. Interest is
coming from New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.
In Minneapolis, BrandLab targets schools with at least 40% of
students on government-sponsored free and reduced lunch programs
that also have a minority population of at least 40%. Four
part-time administrators oversee three part-time instructors who
teach classes on branding, campaign strategy and print, radio and
TV production, which are open to all students at the school.
Volunteers from agencies routinely visit classrooms to conduct
On a recent day at the FAIR school -- a K-12 fine arts magnet
school -- two Olson creatives guided students through a mock
scenario of a granola brand that wants to shift strategy and appeal
to younger consumers.
"Get into their mind-set," Tom Lord, an associate creative
director, told the class. "That's what makes great ads."
Minutes later, students used an Olson worksheet to scribble out
personality profiles for their target customer base -- young
consumers who are ready to try something a little healthier. Mr.
Hopson, who was sitting in the back row, caught on quickly,
throwing out the hypothetical "Amanda Appleton," a journalist and
part-time yoga instructor who hates smoking and watches "Glee."
Next up was Lou Flores, an Olson creative director, who told the
students that if they are competing with Doritos "you gotta make
"What if Kanye West was pushing granola?" he asked.
"I'd eat it," blurted Mr. Hopson.
The class erupted in laughter.
By the end of the semester, the class will have created a
full-fledged campaign for the brand. It's too early to gauge the
success rate of the program because the alumni are still in
college, officials say. But BrandLab plans to watch its former
students closely, recently setting up a database to track how many
end up in advertising or marketing.
For Minneapolis marketers and agencies, the program is more than
a feel-good effort -- they hope to fill a business need by creating
a local pool of diverse talent.
Nationally, the industry is woefully short of minority-hiring
benchmarks. African-Americans, 13% of the population nationally,
should make up at least 9.6% of advertising managers and
professionals, but composed just 5.3% in 2008, meaning 7,200
African-Americans were "missing" from agency ranks, according to a
study last year by the Madison Avenue Project, a partnership of the
NAACP and civil-rights law firm Mehri & Skalet. The study found
that 16% of large ad firms employed no African-American managers or
professionals, a rate that's 60% higher than the general labor
market. Cyrus Mehri, a partner at the firm, has suggested the
industry has engaged in "purposeful discrimination."
Ad executives say they want to hire more minorities, they just
can't find them. "There are not that many candidates with diverse
backgrounds getting into advertising," said Christine Fruechte,
president and CEO of Colle & McVoy and a BrandLab board member.
"And how do you change that? You reach them at a younger age."