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Diversity and the advertising profession

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By Linsey Isaacs, editorial intern at SmartBrief and a student at Howard University.

Breaking into the advertising business can be tough, particularly for young professionals of color, but the marketing industry benefits from diversity and it’s important for people from all backgrounds to contribute to the profession. That was the message at a 4A’s forum “Embracing Diversity in Advertising,” held Tuesday on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. The event offered students a chance to meet and network with established professionals, and featured the screening of the documentary “The Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising.”

About 40 students attended the forum. A panel of advertising professionals, including three account managers and a graphic designer, shared their challenges in the workplace related to diversity. Some panelists admitted to being the only African-American or the only female at their firm, and had to counter discrimination by clients who avoided media that targets specific minority communities.

“You have to overachieve just to achieve,” says Cary Hatch, leader of the 4A’s Mid-Atlantic Council.

“Advertising got better because of diversity,” Rob Schwartz, chief creative officer at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY, said in the film. “There was this vanilla period of advertising [in the 1960s]. And all of a sudden it got exciting, conversational, charming and funny. And that was the first moment where diversity injected this incredible artfulness and humanity into the work.”

For a long time, the industry catered to white males. Though it has a long way to go, panelists said, the creative revolution in advertising and new media gives firms opportunity and motive to pursue diversity as a goal.

But some of the key points the film made were not only about diversity from a cultural angle, but a work background as well.

Many of the ad-industry professionals in the film, along with some of the panelists, were en route to becoming lawyers, journalists or computer engineers until they got into advertising. It allowed them to feed their creativity and, most importantly, gave them a way to tell powerful stories.

“What I’m seeing in the industry is that, what we’re really looking for in terms of talent and vision are people who don’t come from the traditional places where we would find advertising talent,” Peter Kang, executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, said in the film. Kang emphasized the importance of diversity when looking for a fresh vision, a vision that “comes from somewhere else.”

Hosting a diverse firm in the advertising industry will also help better connect with the public, as Faris Yakob, chief innovation officer at MDC Partners, described on film.

“What we’re trying to do is communicate with people, persuade them,” Yakob said. “Ultimately, the best ideas come from a diversity of thinking, which hopefully is brought about from a diversity in points of view, a diversity in population. I don’t mean that just in terms of race or creed or gender, but in terms of disciplines and interest, which is equally important.”