, an innovative nonprofit supported by MSP’s biggest creative agencies, is actively broadening creative-industry networks to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds to the dynamic world of advertising and marketing. With more than 600 students enrolled in The BrandLab's classes this semester and with ambitious plans for growth, the organization is wrapping up a curriculum revamp that will make its lessons even more engaging to MSP’s brightest young minds.
The BrandLab has a simple yet ambitious goal: To boost diversity and inclusion in the creative industries through education and network building. According to Ellen Walthour, The BrandLab’s executive director, MSP’s advertising and marketing agencies — from big players like Olson and Carmichael Lynch to smaller, independently run outfits — should be every bit as diverse as the clients they represent and the consumers to whom they market.
“The ad industry is trying to break out of traditional modes of hiring, which tend to be network-based and thus less diverse than the talent pool as a whole,” says Walthour. “The BrandLab’s goal is not to eliminate personal networks from the equation, but rather to broaden and reframe them to include a more representative range of perspectives.”
According to Walthour, the industry’s long-term success could turn on its ability to attract and retain diverse talent. “Our region’s demographics are rapidly shifting,” she says. In Hennepin County, children of color account for about one in two births, and nearly 20 percent of the county’s college grads are people of color.
The industry recognizes the need to adapt to this new demographic reality. On April 22, more than 200 advertising professionals, Fortune 500 executives and media types packed into Brand New Workshop for “Moving Beyond Representation to Full Inclusion,” the latest panel discussion in The Brandlab’s Fearless Conversation Series. Panelists from General Mills, Cargill and Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch offered frank, occasionally uncomfortable answers to MPR host Tom Weber’s questions about racial and ethnic diversity in MSP’s creative industries.
Judging by the probing queries and nuanced answers, diversity and multiculturalism clearly weigh on the minds of MSP’s advertisers, marketers and commercial artists. The consensus: Though creative workplaces are slowly becoming more diverse, full inclusion is more elusive than would appear from the increasingly multicultural TV, print and digital ads produced by many local agencies.
The BrandLab may have the solution. Founded in 2008 by John Olson, the late principal at the legendary agency Olson, the organization hires professional instructors to teach elective marketing and advertising classes at local high schools, including St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High. Volunteer helpers, who are often creative-industry professionals, share real-world experiences and techniques to add context and perspective.
These classes cover industry history, ethics, culture and theory. One highlight: An engaging, if uncomfortable, lesson on “extraordinarily racist and sexist ads from the early 20th
century,” says jabber logic
principal Amee Tomlinson McDonald. Along with Emily Ronning, The BrandLab’s curriculum design director, she’s spearheading the organization’s curriculum redesign. By confronting advertising’s ugly past, The BrandLab’s multicultural students gain a visceral understanding of what they’re up against — and why they need to lend their voices and talents to the conversation.
These awkward ads are just one example of Tomlinson McDonald and Ronning’s revamp, which shifts the focus from traditional pedagogy (think half-hour lessons) to a more interactive, engaging model.
“It sounds cliched, but kids really do have short attention spans,” explains Tomlinson McDonald. “We’re using 30 to 60 second videos, real-world case studies, digital images” and other varied media “to keep kids engaged.” J. Crew’s YouTube page proved a particularly effective teaching tool, she mentions.
Students also dive deep into key agency roles: copywriting, graphic design, video production, project management, and even positions like accounting. By the end of the semester, they’re knowledgeable enough to put together mock projects for actual clients, whose employees hear pitches, critique work, and sometimes adopt aspects of a draft campaign.
The new curriculum is “in beta” in all of The BrandLab’s classrooms this semester. After some tweaks and improvements, a more finalized version will roll out for the next school year, though Walthour notes that The BrandLab’s curriculum is “always looking for ways to improve and adapt.”
The BrandLab doesn’t rely solely on classroom instruction. Throughout the semester, heavily programmed field trips to MSP-area agencies give students the chance to interact with creatives in their natural environments — and, possibly, get a sneak peek at their future workplaces.
On an April 21 trip, for example, Carmichael Lynch, Colle+McVoy and Olson each hosted 20+ Johnson Senior High students for two hours of tours, informational videos, Q&A time and — of course — a Pizza Luce-catered lunch. At Carmichael Lynch, students engaged fearlessly with agency staff and appeared genuinely surprised at the creativity that pervaded the building. (After passing by a midday yoga class in the agency’s lobby, one bright-eyed young lady remarked, “I had no idea people would be having fun at the office.”)
The BrandLab cultivates and focuses such sentiments in hopes of transforming curious students into the next generation of passionate creative professionals. Each year, the organization places dozens of classroom alums in paid summer internships at local agencies. Whereas other organizations focus on supporting older college students who have already self-selected into creative majors, The BrandLab deals exclusively with high school students and college freshmen. “The goal is to captivate kids early, before they’ve really considered [and potentially dismissed, due to lack of professional support] marketing or advertising as a career,” explains Walthour.
After an intense “boot camp” that prepares them for a “real world” workplace, interns work 12 to 20 hours per week during the summer. Every Monday, they pair up with a “coach” — someone with academic or professional experience in marketing and advertising — for debriefing sessions, all held on the University of Minnesota campus. These sessions help the interns process their often intense summer experiences while providing additional instruction in advanced concepts like brand strategy and personal branding.
The BrandLab’s model is clearly successful. Many first-time interns return the following summer. The BrandLab alums often major in creative or marketing-related disciplines after heading off to college. As the organization’s first alums graduate from college, they’ll disperse into the creative workforce to build the broad, inclusive networks the industry needs.