In June 1996, mere days after completing his MBA at the FORE School of Management in New Delhi, Pawan Mehra, founder of the San Francisco-based agency Améredia, came to the U.S. after winning a Times of India competition to devise a new marketing concept for Coca-Cola. The prize was a chance to root on India’s teams at the Atlanta Olympics. The athletes returned to India with just one bronze metal. Mehra decided to stay in the U.S.
After a second masters degree and a handful of internships, Mehra made it to Silicon Valley to work with two media companies at the tail end of the dot-com boom. It was during that time that the young businessman first witnessed how large companies and ad agencies were disregarding entire ethnic communities. Confident that he could do better, he and his wife Samridhi started Améredia.
Its first big client was Comcast. Améredia began on a local level with the Philadelphia-based cable provider before growing to become its multicultural agency of record, overseeing initiatives aimed at Comcast customers from 17 different ethnicities nationwide in print, radio, television, outdoor, social media and more. “What we do is unmatched in this country,” he says. “No agency does for one client what we do for Comcast.”
Others, including Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile and the U.S. Department of Defense, took note and joined Améredia’s client roster. “There are Hispanic agencies, African-American agencies and even Asian-American agencies, but outside of these, there’s relatively little representation from ethnic communities in the mainstream advertising industry right now,” says Mehra. “At Améredia, we have people from at least 15 ethnic backgrounds and our team speaks 25 languages—from Russian to Vietnamese. Diversity is inherent in our business and at the core of what we do every day.
“We live, breathe, operate and experience diversity in our everyday work environment. It’s our passion and the very nature of our business, and we are so into it that we don’t even realize that we are living it so refreshingly every day.”
When he was starting his support group for African-American men in advertising, Lincoln Stephens had to find an accessible figure that could spark the interest of the target group. That’s why the group is named the Marcus Graham Project, after the adman Eddie Murphy played in the movie Boomerang, a character that inspired Stephens himself.
“It all comes back to ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” says Stephens. Today, the Marcus Graham Project is trying to remedy that by providing support, mentorship and experience for African Americans and other minorities that want be part of the ad business.
Early in his career, Stephens was keenly aware of the dearth of African-American men in the industry. “I remember seeing that there were very few of us—and when I say ‘us,’ I’m talking about African-American males,” says Stephens. “There was only one other black man my age working in the business in Dallas.”
Stephens believed that the lack of African Americans in advertising meant that agencies couldn’t possibly serve their clients in a fully inclusive way. “It’s a business imperative,” says Stephens of diversity. “Your agency needs to be capable of creating messaging that will reach audiences of all different shapes and sizes. The general market is not just white soccer moms.”
In 2008, realizing that cultivating and recruiting qualified young candidates to the field of advertising was necessary to correct the industry’s representational imbalance, Stephens, with the support of 18 founding members of the Marcus Graham Project, made the organization more proactive in correcting inequity.
In the three years since, he and his team have overseen initiatives such as Marcus Graham’s mentorship program and its iCr8 Summer Boot Camp, which works with students and professionals ages 16 through 34 to form a pop-up agency that develops case studies as well as actual campaigns. Although the program’s alumni are primarily young black men, it is open to both sexes and all minority groups. He says the greatest gift he has gotten after a jam-packed summer is gratitude in the form of comments such as “Thank you for changing my life.”
Echoing the mantra of Donny Deutsch, her company’s chairman, Felicia Geiger, director of diversity and inclusion at Deutsch, believes that a great idea can come from anywhere. As the executive responsible for attracting and retaining a diverse and socially engaged workforce, she sees potential in everyone, no matter what their background. And by extension, she knows her actions will help shape the messaging that Deutsch creates for its clients. “It’s like the stone soup,” she explains, referring to the folk tale about a bland broth that begins with water and a rock but becomes delicious when members of the community add their own special spices and ingredients.
Under Geiger’s watch, surefire recipes that have made Deutsch a place of inclusion include the Deutsch Diversity & Inclusion Council; Hoot, which does community outreach; D.I.C.E., a group designed to empower Deutsch employees; DeutschAbilities, which aims to change perceptions of disabled persons in the workplace; and the relaunched GoD+S, which pursues equality and understanding for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
These initiatives, along with Geiger’s extensive participation in similarly focused industry associations and panels, have helped contribute to an environment at Deutsch where all feel welcome. “I am honored to be able to give people a tour; not embarrassed. They see faces that are smiling right back at them,” she says.
Geiger says that she “nearly fell over” when she heard she was being honored as an AdColor Change Agent.“ To borrow a word from a good friend of mine from Ireland, I’m gobsmacked. It’s one of the most generous, tremendous awards I will receive in my lifetime.”