Ad agency Interpublic Group acts as mentor to build diversity

While ad veterans from around the globe gather in France this week for the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, U.S. companies still have an issue to deal with at home: diversity.

Despite a push by industry organizations for agencies to boost their recruitment of women, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, the industry continues to be a poster child for a dearth of diversity. It is an industry that speaks every day to multicultural audiences with $2 trillion in spending power, and the marketing messages created for those audiences need to reflect an understanding of their cultures.

Advertising company The Interpublic Group ipg is trying to raise the industry standards with its InterAct program, which includes the InterAct Associates training program as the cornerstone of its diversity efforts. The program recruits college graduates for IPG's network of 60 agencies and trains them over two years with six-month stints in specific areas of advertising.

Next week 10 associates will finish up the program, bringing the number of associates who finished the program to 25 since it began in 2004. Another dozen will finish next June.

While the total is small, IPG says the program has elevated diversity as a priority for its employees and managers. IPG, which has a workforce of 40,000 and 2007 revenue of $6.5 billion, says that increasing diversity in its workforce is essential for today's ad industry.

"It's perfectly clear that the marketplace, our customers and various regulatory agencies are demanding diversity," says Michael Roth, 62, who became IPG's chairman in 2004 and CEO in 2005.

His predecessor, David Bell, hired Heide Gardner in 2003 as IPG's diversity head, the first corporate-level diversity chief among the major companies. She developed the InterAct program. "Diversity is perceived as this insurmountable problem that has to be resolved," says Gardner, 50. "This is a way to capture talent."

N.Y.: Big change in the Big Apple

Minority hiring has been a particularly sore point in New York, one of the most diverse U.S. cities and the center of the U.S. ad industry.

In 2007 women represented 42% of jobs, but blacks represented just 9.4% while Asians represented 6.1% and Hispanics 3.8%.

Such numbers prompted an investigation of 16 agencies based here — including three of IPG's — by the New York City Commission on Human Rights in fall 2006. The agencies settled, making a three-year commitment to hire more minority ad professionals.

The first annual review, out in April, showed agencies beat their deal to make minorities an average 18% of professionals and managers hired with an actual share of 25%.

"We knew this was going to take awhile, but we're optimistic we're on the right track," says Cliff Mulqueen, the commission's deputy commissioner.

Since InterAct began, IPG's minority hiring in the junior ranks is up 40%, and minorities are now 20% of junior staff. Minority officials and managers doubled to 13%, including Gardner, who last year was promoted to become IPG's first black female corporate officer. Jocelyn Miller-Carter, who owns a technology company in Florida, last year became the first black woman on the board.

In addition to the trainee effort, Gardner's InterAct program includes task forces, training and hiring goals, bonuses linked to the goals, and an annual review of success. More than 500 managers have gone through InterAct training.

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