Shattering Stereotypes with Marketing: A Conversation with The BrandLab


Why should it matter to a chief marketing officer that her advertising and public relations agency teams are all white, blonde and marinated in the same suburban, upper middle class culture? Should we care that barely 4.5 percent of ad, PR and marketing managers are African-American?

And why should your marketing department strive to be open to talent that’s from Mali as well as Minnetonka, from Ecuador as well as Edina? Is it really all that important that your brand teams go beyond hiring staff with the surnames Anderson, Peterson, Gustafson and Carlson, and make an extra effort to welcome agency interns with names like Pham, Castillo, Sabah or Xiong?

To paraphrase WWE wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, “Hell, yeah!” That’s where Minneapolis-based The BrandLab comes in. Their mission is singular: Our marketing industry will thrive only if it absorbs the creativity of people with diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, so that marketers are more representative of the country’s multicultural, multiracial audiences. 

But our advertising and PR community in the Twin Cities is a long way off from that goal:

  • Only 6.3 percent of men and women in the Twin Cities ad industry are people of color, according to a 2015 survey,
  • Yet 22 percent of Minneapolis/St. Paul residents are minorities.


Nationally, the picture is uglier: the Madison Avenue Project found that “racial discrimination is 38 percent worse in the advertising industry than in the overall US labor market.” The group found that African-Americans in advertising were paid “29 percent less on average than their white counterparts with comparable experience and education.” (Ground Zero for the Madison Avenue Project’s advocacy for diversity was Super Bowl TV spots - of 52 ads that aired during one Super Bowl, 100% of the creative directors were white - and barely 6 percent were women.)

Supporting The BrandLab’s efforts to shake up the makeup of our marketing community are partner agencies including Carmichael Lynch, Fallon, Olson, BBDO, Zeus Jones, Preston Kelly, Wingnut, Mithun, Yamamoto (and, yes, Maccabee PR), along with such client-side marketers as 3M, C.H. Robinson, Caribou Coffee, General Mills, Dairy Queen, Target, Land O’ Lakes, Medtronic and Best Buy.

BrandLab1.jpgThe BrandLab's Ellen Walthour and Brian Gioielli with Gwen Chynoweth and Paul Maccabee

During a recent presentation from The BrandLab to our Maccabee staff we learned how The BrandLab now serves 600 minority students in 30 classrooms across the Twin Cities, introducing them to careers in advertising and PR they did not know existed.

After, we cornered The BrandLab executive director Ellen Walthour (lower right) for this MaccaPR interview: 

Ellen, give us an example of creative work that would benefit from a DSC_29523.jpgmore racially and culturally diverse agency team?

“A client-side marketer told me they were running a focus group for a juice snack brand, something like SunnyD. The agency previewed its 30-second TV spot, which depicted a group of kids running into a house after-school, laughing and all happy as they grabbed containers of SunnyD juice out of the refrigerator. White women in the focus group thought the ad was great. But when the agency showed the same TV spot to black women, they felt the kids’ behavior in the spot was rude and obnoxious. ‘That would never happen in my house,’ one woman said. ‘I would never let my kids do that.” There was nothing blatantly insensitive or racist about the advertising, it’s just that the ad team missed cultural references of an entire marketplace. Without a more diverse agency creative group that understands nuances of varied consumer audiences, it’s easy to make those mistakes.’” 

We know that the late John Olson, founder and CEO of the Olson agency (now the largest creative agency in the Twin Cities), created The BrandLab. Tell us what inspired John’s interest? 

“As the Olson agency was taking off and John was hiring new staff, he walked around his agency offices and thought to himself: ‘None of the people here look like the people that our agency is trying to talk to!’ John decided he wanted to change his talent pipeline to be more diverse, so in 2008, he went to Minneapolis South High School and asked the principal if Olson could teach an ad class for Native American students. John realized the opportunity to introduce students to our world was much bigger than any one agency, and he launched The BrandLab with more than $1,000,000 in Olson-donated time and services.”

In a recent interview, you talked about how the ad industry must break out of traditional modes of hiring, which tend to be network-based. That means that agency executives often hire talent that looks and sounds precisely like us. How do you break that insular cycle?

“You reach out. Instead of these students coming to us, The BrandLab goes to them first. Our benchmark is offering The BrandLab curriculum to classrooms that are at least 50 percent students of color, and 50 percent students on reduced-cost lunch programs.

As many as 85 percent of our students are non-white, and at first, these kids don’t recognize the role that branding plays in their lives. We point out the brands they’re loyal to, the brands they’re wearing, and the brand of snack food they’re eating… they’re surprised that there’s an entire industry that’s behind the creation of that brand loyalty!”

It’s fascinating to me that careers in advertising and PR - depicted on TV shows and in Hollywood films - are still so elusive to lower-income communities of color.

I remember when the New York Times interviewed John five years ago about The BrandLab, he told the reporter: ‘We need to attack the challenge at its root cause, lack of knowledge (of careers in advertising), rather than responding with the usual bag of tricks, like ‘let’s have a (multicultural) award show.’ ‘Young people don’t know about advertising,' said Olson, 'and they don’t think people get paid to do this kind of work.’”

A BrandLab networking event

What’s the biggest obstacle in making agencies and marketing departments welcoming to minority talent?

“Good question. We have to make sure that when agencies hire The BrandLab kids as interns, they will thrive. So we coach agency supervisors and company CEOs about how to build diverse teams and make employees from different economic or cultural backgrounds feel included in a company that’s still primarily white. We talk about avoiding ‘micro-aggression’ - small slights that might not be noticed by someone in the dominant group, but which make racially diverse interns or employees feel excluded.

Say your agency hires a woman with a Muslim background, who was born and raised in the Twin Cities. Wanting to be friendly, your co-workers ask her: ‘Where are you from?’ But she may hear that as question as being a bit hostile, like ‘You’re not from here, are you?’” 

How do you prove the value of a diverse workforce to Twin Cities ad agency leaders?

“To be candid, research shows that diverse teams may have more challenges initially - but that the outcomes of those teams are better, as the brainstorming benefits from a range of perspectives. Especially within our creative landscape, when marketing teams are trying to break through with a campaign that’s different and meaningful, the best marketing ideas may not come from 10 people with identical backgrounds. What’s more, you can’t assume all of your customers will be white. In fact, you will have customers that you miss, or even offend, if your messaging is not culturally responsive.

I’ve learned from having Alfredo Martel formerly from Caribou Coffee on The BrandLab board that if you make a Spanish-speaking ad, there are so many nuances you can miss - because in fact your audience may be Mexican, Chilean or even Hispanic with a European background. Your audience isn’t only white vs. black vs. brown; we’re now in a multicultural society, and one marketer that has captured that brilliantly is General Mills, with their interracial Cheerios’ “Gracie” TV spot.” (Editor’s Note: See our “Cheerios, Oreo and Social Change: Move over Bob Dylan, the Marketers are Coming!” post)

I attended one of your BrandLab events at Dairy Queen earlier this year, where your interns did speed networking. It was thrilling to watch them master business techniques that were new to them.

“It’s all about giving students the tools to succeed in a marketing department or agency. The BrandLab coaches them about the work ethic that expected of them, showing up at the office early, following up when you receive an email or voicemail message and more. For instance, one of our interns got an email from his boss’ boss, inviting him out for coffee. The intern didn’t respond right away. We explained to him later, when that kind of invitation happens from a CMO, you need to email back right away with a ‘thank you, yes, let me know what time!’”

Can you share a story about one of your The BrandLab successes?

Karis1.jpg“Well, consider Karis Pryor (left), a winner of one of our John Olson Memorial Scholarships who I first met as a senior in an art class at Washburn High School. When we showed her how creativity in art could be applied to a career in advertising, we learned that she’d never before considered advertising or PR as a viable option. She got a BrandLab internship with Colle+McVoy and was immediately drawn to PR, working with its PR division Exponent. Karis wrote her first press release, created media lists, pitched news media - and felt the power that she could influence things! She loved the rush and pace and fun of it all. Since then, she’s interned at Olson Engage, became a PR coordinator for a beauty salon, and is about to graduate from St. Cloud State University with a degree in mass communications and media studies to pursue a career in marketing. She is a superstar.”

Your BrandLab presentation to our staff noted that the combined buying power of Hispanic, African-American, Native American and Asian consumers has topped $3.3 trillion. So is it just good business to have a culturally diverse agency staff?

“It’s way more than just good business. We work in a very powerful industry. The injustices in our society - racism, poverty - are so profound. We, as marketers, have a responsibility to play a role in remedying those problems. Advertising, PR, marketing - these are impactful careers. But to shape a better world, the marketing industry must have access to the insights of everyone, from every cultural, economic and ethnic background. Imagine the power of our marketing messages if all of our agencies and marketing departments embraced the inclusion at the heart of John Olson’s dream?”

Are you a marketer interested in participating in The BrandLab? Check out The BrandLab or contact Ellen herself at: 612-483-0167 and

Image Sources: Maccabee PR , The Brand Lab

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  PR Perspectives

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