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Perspective: Turning Hope Into Action

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At different times in the past, identifiers like black quarterback, black golfer, black agency CEO and black president were met with cynicism and incredulity. But a little-known hope dealer from the South Side of Chicago made the latter a reality. Hope helped him ace the most public job interview in the world. President Obama showed that hope could move mountains or at least get you the possibility of being chiseled in one. What mountains have hope moved in the race to finally diversify the advertising industry?

A speaker at a recent American Association of Advertising Agencies Leadership Conference stated that mobile has been the "next revolution for the last eight years." I believe that diversifying the advertising industry has been the next revolution for the last 60 years.

A recent survey of the 2010 class of the American Advertising Federation's Most Promising Minority Students (MPMS) and students who attended the 2010 National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC) highlights key reasons to be hopeful. But it also uncovers reasons why it may continue to be an uphill battle for the advertising industry to diversify its professional ranks.

The numbers from the survey, conducted by AAF National Academic Committee members Jami Fullerton and Alice Kendrick, offer a reality check. Of the 145 students surveyed at this year's NSAC, 79 percent indicated that they were white, with 8 percent Hispanic, 5.6 percent Asian American and only one African American. Almost 3 percent indicated that they were of mixed race while 2.1 percent reported "other" race and 1.4 percent reported Pacific Islander. Seventy of the respondents were women; 84 percent of the overall respondents intend to work in the field of advertising after graduation.

Of the 52 MPMS students surveyed, 33 percent of them indicated they were Asian American, with 25 percent African American, 25 percent Hispanic and one Native American. Over 70 percent of the MPMS students plan to pursue a career in advertising. Both groups had multiple job offers from all segments of the industry, but pursuing account management positions at a general-market agency in New York was a top priority while considering roles in the creative department was not.

When most industry programs are geared toward attracting the cream of the crop from top colleges in the U.S., most of the students surveyed decided to pursue advertising in high school, not college. As of today, a little under 70 percent of AAF Most Promising Minority Alumni, including myself, are still employed in the advertising industry.

What does this all mean? What can the industry do to support the success of its latest entrants and retain the interest of its current employees of color within its professional ranks? In the recent Diversity Best Practices' Diversity Primer, several strategies that Fortune 500 companies and their CEOs currently use to promote retention, combat turnover and support the success of professionals of color at all levels were provided. For agency CEOs, they can have a direct impact in making your agency more diverse and inclusive.

1. Check yourself: Since lasting change starts with support from the top, examine any biases or behaviors you may have before you ask your agency to look within to find theirs.

2. Audit the agency culture: If you have to ask if your agency is diverse, it probably is not. Develop a survey, use employee focus groups, or employ an outside consultancy to review and provide the critical feedback your agency needs to launch a diversity and inclusion initiative.

3. Establish criteria for advancement: Because of the creative nature of our industry, we have a lot of subjective criteria for advancement. Providing clear guidelines and reasons for advancement will continue to help equalize the playing field.

4. Communicate and demonstrate your agency's commitment to diversity: A newsletter or Hispanic Heritage Day in the cafeteria does not a diversity initiative make. Your efforts should have an internal, external and industry component to it. Provide staff and resources to build the infrastructure needed for your initiatives to succeed.

5. Support high school and college programs: The 4A's Multicultural Advertising Intern Program, Torch, The Lagrant Foundation and The Marcus Graham Project all provide opportunities for high school and college students to pursue a career in advertising. Although they have plenty of financial support from the marketing community, they need more support and resources from the agency community. If you have taken one intern in the past, take two or three next summer. If you have funded one scholarship, fund one more.

The strategies above are part of the core values of many of our industry's biggest clients and it should be a part of yours as well. One can only hope that one day this mountain our industry has been climbing to be more diverse can finally be overcome.

Tiffany R. Warren is chief diversity officer for Omnicom Group. She can be reached at Tiffany.Warren@omnicomgroup.com.