In the wave of social unrest that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, a Twin Cities advertising agency’s idea to increase diversity in the industry has now rippled its way to a historically Black university in Baltimore.
Morgan State University has redesigned a course this fall in hopes of encouraging students of color to explore careers in advertising, both for their own advancement and to bring their perspectives to the field. The initiative includes guest lectures by professionals from the Minneapolis firm.
The genesis for the initiative began just a few miles from where Floyd died in May, at an advertising agency named Solve where employees felt compelled in the aftermath of protests to do some soul-searching.
In an open letter, more than 500 advertising professionals called out agencies and colleagues for making little progress to ensure that Black voices were part of the creative process. The letter asked all advertising agencies to address systemic racism within the industry.
At Solve, about 16% of the roughly 50 employees were people of color and none held positions of leadership.
“We needed to step things up,” Solve CEO John Colasanti said. “We tried to dissect the problem of why aren’t there students of color entering the advertising world. I could see people of color weren’t even represented in applications.”
Holmes Hall is a liberal arts study center at Morgan State University. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)
Solve staffers brainstormed advertising-style solutions — a campaign for the NAACP or anti-racist messaging in a social media blitz — but concluded that those ideas ultimately would not help bring in more diverse talent, Colasanti said.
“We were trying to use the tools we knew,” he said. “It’s the knee-jerk reaction that a lot of agencies were turning to.”
In the end, Solve officials reached out to about 30 historically Black colleges and universities across the country with an offer to provide guest lectures. Morgan State University administrators were the first to call back — and with a few ideas of their own.
“I’m not looking to date, I want to get married,” Morgan department chair David Marshall told Colasanti.
Marshall said he wants to forge long-term relationships with entities like Solve that are looking to promote diversity by boosting educational opportunities. In order to build better representation, industries must actively tell Black students that their voices, perspectives and talents are needed, he said.
“All these promises were made across all of these industries after the Freddie Gray uprising, but we really haven’t done that much work,” Marshall said. “On the heels of George Floyd … we’re seeing this movement again.”
Around the same time Solve approached Morgan administrators, the American Advertising Federation kicked off an initiative to build out chapters at historically Black colleges and universities like Morgan.
Marshall and other Morgan officials decided to embed six lectures given by Solve employees into an existing strategic communications course held online this fall. Student members of the new American Advertising Federation were invited to audit the lectures and to represent the university on the board of the federation’s Baltimore chapter.
The goal of the partnerships is to attract students to careers in advertising and, eventually, to build a pipeline for graduates from historically Black colleges and universities, like Morgan, to enter the field. Students who enroll in the course are being courted by advertising executives in hopes of bolstering the number of Black professionals joining their industry.
Morgan State University professor Joonwoo Moon teaches a course virtually in his White Marsh home on Nov. 17, 2020. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)
Morgan professor Joonwoo Moon, who facilitates the course, said Solve’s lectures have given students practical examples of real advertising campaigns in different markets. What works for one audience may not work for another, he said.
For example, the students spent some time discussing their varied preferences for gas stations. Moon said he tends to prefer stations that allow him to use an app, which he attributes to his cultural upbringing in South Korea.
Visit Baltimore recently conducted a similar exercise. The tourism group revamped its campaign this year after digesting input from more than 800 local people in focus groups.
The result was the creation of an $800,000 campaign featuring local Black creatives to help attract more tourists to the city, where the population is more than 60% Black. Previous campaigns had focused mainly on places and things to do instead of the people who live in Baltimore.
Candyce Burte spent part of her senior year at Morgan State University studying botched racist advertising campaigns in preparation for a career in crisis communications.
She analyzed what was wrong with the infamous Pepsi ad campaign from 2017, which depicted supermodel Kendall Jenner approaching the front line of a protest reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement and offering a police officer a can of soda. The crowd cheers when the officer takes a sip of the Pepsi. Some drew critical comparisons to images that were taken during Baltimore’s unrest after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.
Just recently, Burte realized she could probably design stronger, more sensitive campaigns herself.
The 22-year-old is now considering a career in advertising after enrolling in Morgan’s pilot course on the topic this fall. For Burte, the course lectures and the opportunity to join Morgan’s American Advertising Federation chapter were persuasive.
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These days, she’s job hunting for positions at local advertising agencies and emailing Solve’s speakers for advice.
“After this class, I really was considering advertising,” Burte said. “If you would have asked me what people do at an agency, I would have thought it was make commercials all day. But there’s a lot more that goes into it.”
Morgan administrators and their advertising partners are hopeful the curriculum tweaks could one day create in students an appetite to explore the field. The coalition is cooking up more ideas for creating internships and short-term employment opportunities.
Marshall wants to see more industries adopting this kind of problem-solving attitude. While donating money to historically Black institutions is helpful, it’s just the first step, he said.
“Five years from now, are we still talking about how this movement has grown?” he said. “Or does it fizzle out and putter like some of these other diversity initiatives?”
Baltimore Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.